By Armen Zakarian
An economic court in Yerevan on Tuesday convened and immediately adjourned proceedings on a lawsuit filed by Armenia's main independent television against a state body that forced it off the air earlier this month. The pro-government majority in the Armenian parliament, meanwhile, thwarted an opposition attempt to reinstate the A1+ channel.
The television station believes that the April 2 tender for its broadcasting frequency, held by the National Commission on Television and Radio, violated the law. The A1+ staff, backed by local and international media watchdogs, say the commission acted at the behest of President Robert Kocharian.
The Court of Economic Arbitration delayed the hearings until April 23 on the grounds that A1+ lawyers need time to study the commission's objections. The regulatory body appointed by Kocharian insists that it gave the frequency to the entertainment company Sharm because it submitted a stronger bid. It has also denied any pressure from Kocharian who was often criticized by the closed channel.
"A1+ TV company was never deprived by anyone of its right to broadcast; it simply failed to win the tender announced for a new license due to the fact that another company submitted a better proposal," the commission's attorney, Edith Khachatourian, said in a statement.
Khachatourian, who is a U.S. citizen and a former senior official at the Armenian Assembly of America, said Sharm's bid "most closely corresponded to the basic standards" set by the Armenian law on broadcasting.
However, a team of lawyers representing A1+ argues that, under that law, the commission should have held simultaneous biddings for all available frequencies. One of the authors of the law, opposition lawmaker Shavarsh Kocharian, has backed the argument. He also claims that the law does not require the selection of frequency winners merely on the basis of their written bids.
Western media groups believe that the outcome of the tender was decided by Kocharian. The French non-governmental Reporters Without Borders organization described A1+'s effective closure as the "most serious violation of pluralism in Armenia in the past few years." And the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists accused Kocharian of "blatantly abusing the frequency licensing system in an attempt to silence a critical media voice."
The presiding judge, Nakhshun Tavaratsian, was jeered by A1+ supporters that packed into the court room as she announced the postponement of the court sessions. A1+ lawyers also appeared unhappy with the delay. One of them, Levon Baghdasarian, said they intended to seek a court order allowing the popular channel to resume its broadcasts at least until a court verdict.
A1+ was sent off the air at midnight on April 2, only hours after the loss of its frequency. Shortly after its shutdown, opposition groups represented in the parliament proposed amendments in the law on TV and radio which would dissolve the broadcasting commission and allow the legislature to name a new one. They on Monday succeeded in collecting the minimum number of deputies’ signatures required to force an emergency debate on the issue. But the attempt failed late on Tuesday when the 131-member assembly failed to make a quorum.
Only 60 deputies showed up for the extraordinary session. The parliament majority, including the Miasnutyun faction and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), chose to boycott it.