By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s main pro-opposition television station faces a battle for a broadcasting license and the possibility of going off the air next month. The A1 Plus channel, known for its hard-hitting coverage of the government, is fighting two hostile bids for an airwave frequency on which it has broadcast ever since its creation in 1996.
The outcome of the contest will be decided by a regulatory commission appointed by President Robert Kocharian last year. The body was created in accordance with a controversial law on TV and radio passed in January 2001 despite strong protests from the media. The law mandates competitive tenders for all broadcasting frequencies. Their winners will be granted seven-year operational licenses.
A1 Plus is the first major channel to face a contest for its airwave. Its challengers are the recently created Dofin TV, reportedly owned by an obscure local businessman, and the Sharm company, which has mainly been involved in advertising and show business until now. Sharm has also produced entertainment programs for some TV companies in the past.
The broadcasting commission will open the bids on March 28 and announce its decision on April 2. It is making final preparations for the bidding amid press speculation that the authorities are intent on closing down A1 Plus ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Some opposition leaders, for whom A1 Plus is the most accessible broadcasting outlet, have already accused Kocharian of planning to force it off the air. The outspoken leader of the National Unity party, Artashes Geghamian, repeated the charge at a meeting with party activists on Friday. “Mr. Kocharian, this is not going to work. Don’t even try,” Geghamian said.
The commission chairman, Grigor Amalian, rejected the allegations. “We have not received any orders [from Kocharian],” he told RFE/RL. Amalian, who previously worked in the presidential administration, said preference will be given to “the best and most convincing bid.”
He added that A1 Plus’s reputation as a media outlet critical of the authorities must not warrant it against business competition. “One should not demand that political considerations determine the winner,” he said.
Under the law in question, the license should be granted to companies that can air more of their own production, are better equipped, have sufficient financial resources and professional staffs. Critics say the criteria are subjective and discretionary.
Amalian said more than 50 TV channels currently operating in the country will have a certain advantage over other bidders because of their broadcasting experience.
A1-Plus attracts viewers mainly with its news reporting. However, the company is poorly equipped and is accessible only in Yerevan and surrounding areas. Its financially stronger private competitors have been quite successful with talk shows and entertainment programs. But the their news programs, which rarely voice harsh criticism of Kocharian, are less popular.