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(New York) - Armenia has denied a broadcast license to an independent television station, A1+, despite a European Court of Human Rights judgment that previous denials violated freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

"Today's decision is another setback for freedom of expression and information in Armenia," said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It's clear that keeping a critic off the air is more important to this government than its international legal obligations."

A1+, an independent station well-known for its criticism of government policy, was taken off the air in 2002 after its license was rescinded, but continued to operate a popular news website and online television station. Since then it had made 12 unsuccessful applications for a new broadcast license.

On December 16, 2010, the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR), the body in charge of issuing broadcasting licenses in Armenia, denied A1+ station's application for the 13th time. The commission is staffed entirely with presidential appointees.

In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights issued a judgment holding Armenia in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights for the repeated rejection of the station's license applications. The court held that Armenia's laws regulating the granting of broadcast licenses do not protect against arbitrary decisions by the licensing authority, and that the denial of a license to A1+ was unlawful.

The December 16 meeting of the commission was its first since a moratorium on new licenses was announced in 2008. Soon after the European Court judgment, the Armenian authorities suspended all licensing until television and radio switched from analog to digital broadcasting, scheduled for 2010. The moratorium on granting licenses was seen by many local and international observers as the government's further efforts to keep A1+ off the air.

In anticipation of Armenia's transition to mandatory digital broadcasting, in June the government rushed to adopt a new Law on Television and Radio. The new law does not fully address concerns expressed by civil society and Armenia's international partners.

In a June letter to the president of Armenia, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the new law would reduce the number of media outlets as well as public access to a variety of information and opinion. The new media law reduced the number of television stations able to broadcast in Armenia from 22 to 18, and failed to address longstanding concerns that the law did not ensure pluralism in the selection and appointment of members of the licensing regulatory body.

"The transition to digital broadcasting was supposed to provide opportunities for greater media pluralism in Armenia," Gogia said. "The government has a long way to go to prove that its deeds match its commitments."

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