By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Shakeh Avoyan and Emil Danielyan
In a widely anticipated move, a court in Yerevan upheld Thursday a controversial decision to strip Armenia's main independent television station of its broadcasting license. The Armenian Economic Court rejected the A1+ channel's lawsuit against a presidentially appointed commission that gave its airwave frequency to an entertainment company with reported government links.
The decision, which raised domestic and international concerns about press freedom in Armenia, was the result of a competitive tender mandated by the law on broadcasting. The popular channel, known for its critical coverage of the government, was sent off the air on April 2 several hours after the decision on the tender announcement.
The National Commission on Television and Radio appointed by President Robert Kocharian said the winner of the frequency used by A1+ since 1997, the Sharm company, submitted a stronger bid that met legal requirements.
A1+ insists that the bidding took place with serious violations of the law and its outcome was politically motivated. Its lawyers made the case during two court sessions held this week. They claimed on Thursday that Sharm's proposals were incomplete and lacked, in particular, detailed information about sources of money for its $1.8 million investment commitments.
However the presiding judge, Nakhshun Tavaratsian, rejected their arguments, ruling that the commission acted in line with the law. Again jeered by A1+ supporters that packed into the small courtroom, Tavaratsian promised to publicize a detailed explanation for her verdict.
The A1+ staff have said that Kocharian's earlier statements strongly defending the broadcasting commission left their team of lawyers with little chance of success.
The president has denied involvement in the controversial bidding and said the regulatory body did not violate the law. He also signalled his unhappiness with A1+'s reporting, saying that the channel furthered the agenda of his political opponents. He suggested that they raise money to help A1+ bid for another frequency.
Local and international media watchdogs have, directly or indirectly, blamed Kocharian for the de facto closure of A1+. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has accused Kocharian of "blatantly abusing the frequency licensing system in an attempt to silence a critical media voice."
The shutdown has also sparked off a series of street protests in Yerevan organized by the country's leading opposition parties. They will hold another demonstration on Friday.
One of the leaders of the multi-party opposition coalition, Shavarsh Kocharian, condemned the court verdict and said it makes further rallies "all the more important." "The court has only proved that the closure of A1+ was illegal," he told RFE/RL.
The commission's defense attorneys led by Edith Khachatourian, a U.S. citizen of Armenian descent, left the courtroom before the announcement of the verdict. Khachatourian runs an Armenian-registered private law firm, ILC.
The fact that ILC represented the commission in the court has raised questions about whether the state-funded could afford expensive legal counselling. Both the commission chairman, Grigor Amalian, and Khachatourian told RFE/RL that ILC provided its services free of charge.
Khachatourian said that the so-called "pro bono" legal advice and representation in deserving cases is commonplace among lawyers in the United States and that she wants to extend the practice into Armenia. She said she decided to take up the case because she is convinced that the commission "acted within the boundaries of the law."
"For me this is a purely legal issue and not a matter of press freedom or democracy," Khachatourian said.
Khachatourian, who used to head the Yerevan office of the Armenian Assembly of America, also shrugged off as "yellow journalism" Armenian press reports claiming that she has close ties with Kocharian and senior members of the presidential administration. She said she knows the president personally but is not one of his "confidantes" as was claimed by the pro-opposition daily "Haykakan Zhamanak."