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Government Official Downplays Legal Defeat in Strasbourg

By Anna Saghabalian

An Armenian government official on Wednesday put a brave face on a recent judgment by a European court in favor of a local television station in the latter’s protracted dispute with the State, saying that Armenia was hardly on the receiving end of the overall process.

Deputy Justice Minister Gevorg Kostanian countered the media reports about a clear victory of A1 Plus TV at the European Court of Human Rights in its case against the Republic of Armenia earlier this week.

“With these verdicts the Republic of Armenia has rather won than lost,” Kostanian said, explaining that only one of several claims filed by Meltex, A1 Plus’s parent company, had been sustained by the court in Strasbourg.

“The European Court had made only the violation of freedom of expression as the subject of discussion. And the violation was found only considering that the regulatory body did not clearly mention the reasons for its decision to refuse to grant a broadcasting license,” Kostanian explained.

The European Court of Human Rights on Monday held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the Armenian authorities’ refusal to grant A1 Plus’s requests for broadcasting licenses on seven separate occasions.

A1 Plus, arguably the only national channel not controlled by the Armenian authorities, was taken off the air in April 2002 after losing its broadcasting frequency in a tender that was administered by a president-appointed regulatory body. The National Television and Radio Commission (NTRC) did not provide clear reasons for its decision then and has blocked all of the company’s subsequent attempts to win another frequency.

“The procedure which did not require a licensing body to justify its decisions did not provide adequate protection against arbitrary interference by a public authority with the fundamental right to freedom of expression,” the Court said.

“The Republic of Armenia does not consider that it is a decision against the Republic of Armenia. Rather, from now on this decision will guide the NTRC to state in detail the reasons for both granting and refusing to grant a broadcasting license,” Kostanian said.

The Court also awarded Meltex 20,000 euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage and 10,000 euros for costs and expenses, which is a fraction of a $1.35 million claim in damages originally pursued by the media company.

Meltex founding chairman Mesrop Movsesian, however, says the company is satisfied with the moral aspect of the verdict.

“They [authorities] typically want to turn this verdict into a money matter, which is their style. Here we are more interested in the moral aspect of the verdict, which absolutely satisfies us,” Movsesian told RFE/RL.

The European Court’s judgment was also welcomed by the Council of Europe secretary general, who called it “a victory for freedom of expression.”

In a statement disseminated by the Council of Europe Information Office in Armenia, Terry Davis, in particular, said: “The decision of the Court is a victory for freedom of expression. It 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.”

Meanwhile, a journalist club based in Armenia’s second largest city, Gyumri, issued a statement on Wednesday welcoming the development but expressing its doubts that the regulatory body and its head would either resign or return A1 Plus on the air.

“Despite this signal moral victory won by A1 Plus television and the whole progressive community, we dare think that the NTRC and its chairman Grigor Amalian do not have enough independence and will to clean their disgraceful defeat with resignation or bring A1 Plus back on the air,” the statement of Asparez said.