By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Over a dozen Armenian television and radio stations, including the closed A1+ channel, submitted on Friday bids for air frequencies put on a tender by a controversial presidentially appointed commission on broadcasting.
The bidding is a crucial test for the Armenian authorities’ reported pledges to reopen A1+ which was often critical of President Robert Kocharian.
Up for grabs are nine TV and one FM radio frequencies in Yerevan and other parts of the country. A1+ is simultaneously bidding for four of them, which is allowed by the Armenian law on broadcasting. The independent channel, known for its objective and unbiased news reporting, was forced off the air after losing the first such contest last April.
Its outcome was condemned as unfair and politically motivated by local and international media associations. The United States and the Council of Europe also criticized it, expressing concerns about the future of press freedom in Armenia.
Kocharian has denied any involvement in the frequency tender. However, he has reportedly assured the Council of Europe and some of its member governments that A1+ will be well placed to win another frequency this time around.
With the overwhelming majority of Armenian television channels rarely airing criticism of Kocharian, it is not clear whether A1+ could return to the air before February 19 presidential elections if one of its applications succeeds. Its director, Mesrop Movsesian, told RFE/RL that the channel would by no means be able to cover the vote. “It might be technically impossible to do that,” he said.
In addition, the cash-strapped company, which has been unable to earn income from advertising for the past six months, would need to raise at least $60,000 to buy a new TV transmitter.
In a statement last April, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan indicated that the resumption of A1+ broadcasts is essential for the freedom and fairness of the upcoming elections. “One of the major criteria of whether elections are free and fair is the extent to which parties and candidates have effective ways to present their views to the electorate, particularly through television,” the statement said. “A1+ performed a valuable public service in offering substantial media access to a broad spectrum of opinion makers, political leaders, and those holding differing views.”
The bids submitted on Friday will be publicly disclosed on November 19. The National Commission on Television and Radio, headed by a former deputy chief of Kocharian’s staff, is expected to choose the winners by November 25.
The commission refused to accept proposals from another independent television station that lost its broadcasting license last April, Noyan Tapan, on the grounds that it did not specify the frequency it is bidding for. The Noyan Tapan director, Tigran Harutiunian, said the law has no such requirement. He branded the decision “illegal” and promised to challenge it in the court.