Armenia: Pro-Opposition TV Station Tries for Comeback
A favorable European court ruling has prompted popular pro-opposition broadcaster A1+ to announce it is ready to return to the airwaves in Armenia. The question is how President Serzh Sargsyan's administration -- already on the international defensive after the March 1 crackdown against opposition protestors -- will respond to the planned comeback.
In a June 17 ruling, the Strasbourg-based European Court for Human Rights found that the Armenian government violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights on freedom of speech by denying a license to A1+, which is owned by the private Meltex Company. The court indicated that a lack of transparency on the part of the presidentially appointed National Television and Radio Commission (NTRC) played a major role in its ruling on behalf of A1+. The case revolved around actions in 2002, when the NTRC arbitrarily took A1+'s broadcasting frequency away, and gave it to another broadcaster, according to the court. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Meltex, and the general public therefore, had no way of knowing on what basis the NTRC had exercised its discretion to refuse a license," the ruling stated. The court ordered the Armenian government to pay 20,000 Euros (roughly $31,000) in damages to the station and its owners.
At a June 18 press conference in Strasbourg, Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis qualified the decision as "a victory for freedom of expression" that "should also serve as a lesson to all governments inclined to arbitrary interpretations of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees this essential freedom."
In a draft report about Armenia's attempts to reduce political tensions following the March 1 clash, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asserted that "[t]he authorities should now grant [A1+] a broadcasting license without further delay, in line also with a long-standing demand of the Assembly." The item was later removed from the final report.
The Council of Europe's Ministerial Committee will monitor Armenia's implementation of the court decision. "Experience shows that the Ministerial Committee is usually very much committed to assuring the fulfillment of the [Court's] decisions -- the restoration of violated rights, in this case granting a broadcast license and making legislative amendments," commented Meltex lawyer Ara Ghazarian. Earlier resolutions by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe had cited legislative "ambiguity" as a contributing factor in the NTRC's decision to "act arbitrarily" and revoke A1+'s license. Since its closure, the station's presence has been restricted to the operation of a website. [For additional information click here].
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international advocacy group based in New York, welcomed the court ruling and called on the Armenian government to allow the station to resume broadcasting. "By granting a license to A1+, newly elected President Serzh Sargsyan will demonstrate his commitment to press freedom in the country," commented CPJ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Nina Ognianova in a June 19 statement.
But do the government and NTRC agree? For now, it seems the answer is no. "The verdict can't influence our future decisions, because the commission makes them based only on legislation in force," NTRC Chairman Grigor Amalian, who is believed to have led the charge for revoking A+1's license, told EurasiaNet. The president of Armenia is charged with appointing all nine of the Commission's members. To date, the government has provided no indication on how it will respond to the court decision.
While journalists and passers-by celebrated the ruling with champagne on Yerevan's Northern Avenue, Deputy Justice Minister Gevorg Kostanian, who represented the Armenian government before the European Court, maintained that A1+ did not win the case. "The Republic of Armenia has won five-sixths of this case, while the founder of A1+, Meltex Ltd., has won only one-sixth of it," claimed Kostanian. The court did not find that the 2002 tender lost by A1+ was illegal, and did not uphold Meltex's claim for $1.5 million in financial damages.
Meltex Chairman Mesrop Movsesian said the court decision does not directly imply that the TV channel will reopen. He added that, in his view, the ruling merely provides grounds for the station to bid on available broadcast frequencies. A new tender is planned for the autumn, when the five-year license term for a number of TV companies expires. "We will participate in the upcoming competitions with quite a different status having this verdict, and the commission can't ignore it," Movsesian told EurasiaNet. The company lost 12 bids for a new broadcast license after the Commission's 2002 revocation decision.
The fact that the court did not grant A1+ a full $1.5 million in damages is not a defeat, Movsesian said, responding to Kostanian's assertion. "This is, first of all, a moral victory for us and not a fulfillment of financial expectations. The important thing was that it was recognized as a limitation of the freedom of expression," Movsesian said. He originally brought the suit against the government in 2004.
The verdict's characterization of the decision to revoke A+1's license as "arbitrary" means that the company has the grounds to re-appeal to the Armenian courts about previous decisions to deny the station its broadcast license, noted lawyer Davit Sandukhchian, who handles civil law cases related to media.
But attorney Aram Karakhanian, who also specializes in media law, cautions that the decision should not be seen as a direct order to the government. "The court could not say directly:
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the online ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.
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