By Emil Danielyan
Thousands of opposition supporters marched Friday through the streets of Yerevan to renew their calls for the reopening of Armenia’s main independent television station.
Waving red cards symbolizing their distrust of the authorities, the protesters also demanded the resignation of President Robert Kocharian who they believe was behind the effective closure of the A1+ channel.
Fourteen opposition parties that organized the demonstration said they will hold more street protests to keep up pressure on the authorities.
“We are prepared for prolonged and resolute actions,” the chairman of the Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party, Albert Bazeyan told the crowd outside the presidential palace in the Armenian capital. “Today we reject a president who violates laws and the constitution and deprives his people of the right to receive objective information.”
A1+, which was often critical of Kocharian, was forced off the air last week after a state commission on broadcasting gave a tender for its frequency to an entertainment company with reported government links. The channel’s staff, backed by many journalists and the opposition, insist that the decision was engineered by Kocharian who they say thus wants to ensure his victory in next year’s presidential elections.
A speaker at the rally read out an appeal by the A1+ staff which urges Armenians to continue to take to the streets. “We will not succeed unless you fight for freedom of speech together with us,” it says. Another statement singed by A1+ and several other media outlets says the decision to revoke the TV station’s license was the result of a “political order” issued by Kocharian.
However, Kocharian has denied any involvement in the TV bidding, saying that it was fair and legal. He has also shrugged off an opposition warning to ensure A1+’s return to the air or face a campaign of “civil disobedience.”
The Armenian leader was on Friday touring the country’s northern regions while the demonstrators marched to his official residence.
The main entrance to the presidential compound was guarded by three rows of police officers in full anti-riot gear. There were no violent incidents during the protest which disrupted traffic in much of central Yerevan.
“Reckoning with public demands is a sign of prudence, not weakness,” Stepan Demirchian, the leader of the opposition People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), said in his speech to the protesters. “Unfortunately, I must conclude that these authorities are not prudent.”
Another Hanrapetutyun leader, former prime minister Aram Sarkisian, said Kocharian will face consequences of his refusal to meet the opposition demands.
The opposition leaders said they will try to have the Armenian parliament amend the controversial law on broadcasting so as to allow for the dissolution of the National Commission on Television and Radio appointed by Kocharian. They said they will put a formal motion to that effect on Monday and urged supporters to gather outside the parliament to put pressure on its pro-presidential majority.
Shavarsh Kocharian of the small National Democratic Party (AZhK) said the opposition will also rally supporters on April 16 when the Armenian Economic Court will consider an A1+ appeal against the results of the frequency tender. Hanrapetutyun’s Bazeyan charged that Kocharian is pressurizing the court into handing down an “illegal verdict.”
The commission’s chairman, Grigor Amalian, on Thursday again defended its decision, saying that A1+’s main rival, the Sharm company, submitted a stronger bid.
The decision to strip A1+ of its frequency has been criticized by the United States and international media watchdogs. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists accused Kocharian on Monday of “blatantly abusing the frequency licensing system in an attempt to silence a critical media voice."