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By Hrach Melkumian

President Robert Kocharian on Tuesday dismissed U.S. criticism of authorities’ decision last week to strip Armenia’s main independent television station of its broadcasting license. Kocharian, who is widely blamed for the A1 Plus’s channel’s effective closure, said the U.S. embassy in Yerevan was wrong to draw an alarming conclusion about press freedom in the country.

He also rejected an opposition ultimatum to ensure the TV station’s return to the air.

“The embassy may say many things,” Kocharian told reporters. “But I’m asking you, journalists: Has any of you felt any pressure in the past three or four years? If you did, then please tell me.”

“I don’t think that it is correct to generalize a particular issue and link it to freedom of speech in Armenia,” Kocharian added.

The U.S. embassy said in a statement on April 3 that the decision by a state commission on television and radio to strip A1 Plus of its frequency and give it to another private company put press freedom in Armenia at risk.

“The decision on April 2 to award TV frequency 37…to the Sharm group raises serious questions about the future of free and independent media in Armenia,” the statement said. “If the broad spectrum of political opinion loses its access to the media, this will only undercut Armenia's efforts to attain its place in the community of democratic nations, integrated in all appropriate international structures.”

But Kocharian stressed the fact that the U.S. did not question the legality of a tender for A1 Plus’s frequency required by an Armenian law on broadcasting. Kocharian again said that he did not pressurize the commission, appointed by himself, into giving the tender to Sharm.

He further disagreed with U.S. concerns that failure to enable A1 Plus to resume its broadcasts could call into question freedom and fairness of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. He said Armenian law guarantees all political parties access to state television during election campaigns.

However, the state-run Armenian Public Television has been widely accused of being biased against opposition parties.

Last week the opposition rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan to defend A1 Plus. An opposition statement said he should reinstate the channel, revise the tender’s results and dissolve the broadcasting commission or face a campaign of “civil disobedience.”

But Kocharian rejected the ultimatum, saying that he is not empowered to meet any of the three demands. “You appealed to the court,” he told an A1 Plus correspondent. “So let’s wait for the court’s decision.”

The Armenian Court of Economic Arbitration is scheduled to start hearings on the A1 Plus lawyers’ appeal against the commission’s decision on April 16.
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