By Anush Dashtents, Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielyan
A1 Plus, Armenia's main independent television station, was forced to end its broadcasts from midnight on Wednesday only hours after being stripped of its frequency in a politically charged tender. The rentransmission of its programs through a private cable network owned by a U.S.-Armenian joint venture was also halted.
The TV channel, anticipating its impending closure, told viewers that Armenia’s state-run retransmitting center received the order from the National Commission on Television and Radio appointed by President Robert Kocharian. The commission awarded the frequency on Tuesday to an entertainment company with reported links to the presidential administration, saying that it submitted a stronger bid.
A1 Plus, whose news reporting has often been critical of the authorities, argued that
under Armenian law it is allowed to continue its broadcasts at least until the court hears its appeal against the decision. It said the commission’s decision to send it off the air immediately was therefore “illegal.”
One of the commission members had told RFE/RL that the TV channel can stay on the air until a court verdict.
A1 Plus asked a Yerevan court to suspend the commission’s decision pending a verdict on its separate lawsuit challenging the tender’s results. The court will consider the request on Thursday.
The A1 Plus staff and local media watchdogs have condemned the regulatory body’s decision, accusing Kocharian of seeking to muzzle independent media. The Yerevan Press Club and the Internews media organization said in a joint statement that the commission’s decision “may have created a precedent for silencing or reining in undesirable media” in Armenia.
Newspapers sympathetic to the popular television laid the blame on Kocharian in their Wednesday editorials. “Kocharian has shut down A1 Plus,” read a front-page headline in “Aravot.” “The fact is that Armenia has taken yet another step on the path towards becoming a dictatorship,” screamed “Haykakan Zhamanak.”
Kocharian has denied any interference in the frequency bidding. But speaking to reporters shortly before the announcement of the tender’s results, he appeared aware of its outcome and indicated his unhappiness with A1 Plus’s coverage of his activities.
Kocharian’s most influential ally, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, also denied any state interference in the affair. “I don’t think that A1 Plus was left off the air,” he told RFE/RL on Wednesday. “It will probably have an opportunity to continue its work.”
Armenia’s leading opposition parties plan to hold a demonstration on Friday to protest against the channel’s closure. On Wednesday several opposition deputies tried to force an emergency debate in the parliament on the issue. The debate was effectively blocked by the pro-government majority.
The A1 Plus staff, meanwhile, said they will continue to operate despite the loss of the frequency. “We are continuing our work. Thank God, we don’t need a license to produce programs,” said Mesrop Movsisian, the company’s director.
The chief of its popular news service, Anzhela Shekunts, said A1 Plus will now broadcast its news reports through the Hamaspyur network of some two dozen regional TV stations. Their text versions will continue to be posted on the company’s web site (www.a1plus.am).
“The main thing is that we will continue to be consistent and, in particular, will keep covering the [the parliament shootings] trial in various ways,” said Diana Markosian, an A1 Plus reporter.
The station, however, will be unable to continue to be broadcast through a private cable TV network. Its owner, the U.S.-Armenian joint venture AATV, excluded A1 Plus from its package shortly after midnight.
According to Movsisian, AATV was pressurized by the authorities into pulling the plug on his channel and thereby breached its contractual obligations to A1 Plus. “The broadcasting commission’s decision does not extend to the cable networks,” argued Shekunts.
However, the AATV manager, Hasmik Dabaghian, claimed that the cable firm’s retransmission contract with A1 Plus had expired in December 2001.