By Emil Danielyan
More than ten thousand people rallied Friday in Yerevan to condemn the closure of Armenia’s main independent television station. Fourteen opposition parties that organized the demonstration warned that President Robert Kocharian should ensure the A1 Plus channel’s return to the air within a week or face a nationwide campaign of “civil disobedience.”
“The regime of Robert Kocharian has unleashed an all-out assault on freedom of speech in order to silence its opponents,” said a joint opposition statement read out to the protesters.
“We are giving him one week to reopen A1 Plus,” Aram Sarkisian, the former prime minister and a leader of the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic), told the angry crowd. “If he doesn’t reopen it we will take other steps.”
The opposition statement warned that failure to allow A1 Plus to resume its broadcasts by next Friday will set off a wave of street protests across the country. Its signatories -- which also include the People’s Party (HZhK), the National Democratic Union (AZhM) and the Socialist Armenia alliance -- accused the Kocharian administration of seeking to establish “a monopoly on influencing public opinion.”
They again claimed that a state commission on broadcasting which stripped A1 Plus of its frequency on Tuesday acted on Kocharian’s orders.
The commission granted a tender for the frequency to an entertainment company with reported government links on the grounds that it submitted a stronger bid. It says it faced no pressure to do so from Kocharian. The Armenian leader, in turn, has denied any involvement in the bidding, while indicating that he was unhappy with A1 Plus’s often critical coverage of his administration.
However, opposition leaders addressing the rally dismissed the assurances, accusing Kocharian of stifling dissent ahead of presidential elections due next year. HZhK leader Stepan Demirchian accused the president of “total disdain for public opinion.”
“This is how Kocharian wants to prop up his regime and secure his victory in next year’s presidential elections. But it will not work,” said Albert Bazeyan, the Hanrapetutyun chairman.
Representatives of two civic groups, the National Press Club and the Armenian Helsinki Committee, also spoke at the demonstration. “They want us to stop talking about vote rigging,” said Press Club chairwoman Narine Mkrtchian.
Kocharian, who returned from a five-day Central Asian tour earlier in the day, is scheduled to meet on Saturday with a group of A1 Plus reporters and the channel’s owner, Mesrop Movsesian, to discuss the fate of the popular television. Some officials close to the president have suggested that A1 Plus bid for another frequency. Movsesian told RFE/RL that he will insist on the scrapping of Tuesday’s tender which he believes took place in violation of the Armenian law on TV and radio.
Movesisian and other A1 Plus executives distanced themselves from the opposition rally, anxious to avoid any involvement in the unfolding political battle. Some of the opposition leaders, including ex-premier Sarkisian, used the TV scandal on Friday as an opportunity to demand Kocharian’s resignation. Levon Galstian of Socialist Armenia called for the criminal prosecution of “those who rape democracy.”
The United States has criticized the authorities for pulling the plug on A1 Plus. The U.S. embassy in Yerevan said in a extraordinary statement that the channel’s closure “raises serious questions about the future of free and independent media in Armenia.”