By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s main independent television station was on the brink of closure on Tuesday after being stripped of its broadcasting license -- a politically charged decision that prompted widespread fury and condemnation.
A regulatory commission appointed by President Robert Kocharian ruled to grant the air frequency used by the A1 Plus channel to an entertainment company with reported links to the government.
Photo: Grigor Amalian, chairman of the National Commission on TV and Radio, voting to end A1 Plus broadcasts
“A1 Plus’s non-existence is now a fact,” Grigor Amalian, the commission’s chairman and a former member of the presidential staff, declared after announcing the results of a tender for the frequency.
The holding of the tender was required by a controversial Armenian law on TV and radio which took effect last year.
The A1 Plus staff, backed by many local journalists and politicians, condemned the commission’s decision as politically motivated. They said the commission acted on Kocharian’s orders. “I think it’s obvious to everyone that they had clear instructions from the presidential administration,” said the A1 Plus director, Mesrop Movsisian.
The 9-member body has strongly denied the charge. Only one of its members voted to keep the station on air. “The decision was legal, not political,” Amalian insisted. “When making decisions I am not concerned with whether the president or somebody else will approve them.”
Earlier in the day, shortly before the announcement of the tender results, Kocharian again denied any involvement in the contest. However, he appeared to know what the outcome of the frequency tender will be. He said his political opponents should raise funds to buy a new frequency for A1 Plus instead of blaming the authorities.
“I hope that A1 Plus will stay on air,” Kocharian told reporters at the Yerevan airport before flying to Tajikistan for an official visit. “I am ready to meet with the A1 staff. Let’s meet and think together what solutions could be found.”
The commission decided to transfer the broadcasting license to the Sharm company despite an unprecedented show of support given to the embattled television channel by virtually all major Armenian parties. Dozens of politicians and public figures representing the country’s entire political spectrum went on the A1 Plus air late on Monday to warn the commission against closing the channel.
Tuesday’s commission vote drew strong criticism from leaders of the main opposition parties and some of the pro-government ones. “This is disgraceful,” Vazgen Manukian of the opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM) told RFE/RL. “This means that there was an explicit order from Robert Kocharian to shut down A1 Plus.”
Artashes Geghamian, the outspoken leader of the opposition National Unity party, also blamed the Armenian leader for the latest development. “Mr. Kocharian, one should rule the country with intellect, not force,” he declared in a speech in the parliament.
Another lawmaker, Alvard Petrosian of the pro-Kocharian Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), said the outcome of the tender resulted from “the incompetent work of the commission.” But she said the head of state has nothing to do with that.
Kocharian, for his part, brushed aside the uproar over the channel’s closure as “hysterical manifestations.” In a remark that exposed his unhappiness with the TV channel’s news reporting, he indicated that the TV journalists are being manipulated by former president Levon Ter-Petrosian’s allies who are at loggerheads with the current regime. “I wish the A1 Plus did not become a tool in the hands of those forces that have been consistently trying to destabilize the situation in the country for the past two years,” he said.
It was not clear when A1 Plus will be forced off the air. A member of the commission on broadcasting, Mushegh Hovsepian, said it will likely be allowed to use the frequency “for two more days or even a week.”
Meanwhile, Movsisian’s Meltex firm which owns A1 Plus asked a Yerevan court later on Tuesday to suspend the enforcement of the controversial decision pending a ruling on its lawsuit filed the previous night. Meltex believes that under the TV law the commission must have held tenders for all air frequencies simultaneously. “The National Commission is not empowered to separate the channels and call separate tenders for each of them,” it said in a statement.
According to Movsisian, the outcome of the contest looked predetermined on Monday evening when the deputy chairman of the regulatory body, Shamiram Aghabekian, told state television that A1 Plus’s bid for the frequency is “weak.” Still, Movsisian sought to put a brave face on the developments, saying that it is still possible to salvage one of Armenia’s most popular channels.
“The struggle is not over. This doesn’t yet mean that we have been defeated,” he told reporters.
Top executives from Sharm, the declared winner of the tender, looked triumphant. “We are proud because we believe that the best bidder has won today,” said the company’s chairman, Ruben Jaghinian.
The commission members said Sharm has won mainly because it pledged to broadcast more of its own programs, one of the conditions set by the law. The other criteria for the selection of frequency users are the availability of modern broadcasting equipment, sufficient financial resources and competent personnel. Critics say the criteria are subjective and discretionary.
The commission’s fateful meeting took place in an overcrowded conference room packed with scores of journalists, cameramen, tender participants and international observers. Its votes were open.
About two hundred A1 Plus supporters gathered in the meantime outside the building as a token of solidarity with the popular television. They then marched to the parliament building in Yerevan to demand an emergency session of the National Assembly. Several opposition parties announced afterwards that they will hold a demonstration on Friday to protest A1 Plus’s closure.
There are dozens of private television companies operating in Armenia. But most of them avoid voicing strong criticism of Kocharian. A1 Plus’s news programs are seen as the most objective and impartial in the country. The station, founded in 1996, has earned popularity with its hard-hitting coverage of the government.
“It was the only channel that allowed itself to criticize the head of state,” Hayk Babukhanian, an opposition parliamentarian and former newspaper editor, told RFE/RL.
“The purpose of all of this is to concentrate new levers in the hands of the president so that he can command full control of television and radio,” Babukhanian claimed.
The Armenian opposition has accused Kocharian of seeking to muzzle independent media to ensure his victory in next year’s presidential elections.