By Shakeh Avoyan and Emil Danielyan
Armenia’s main independent television station lost on Friday its final court battle to resume its broadcasts halted by the authorities more than two months ago. The Armenian Court of Appeals upheld an earlier court ruling which found the popular A1+ channel’s effective closure legal.
The verdict read out by a panel of five judges after a one-hour session did not come as a surprise. It essentially repeated the arguments of the Armenian Economic Court which threw out on April 25 A1+’s appeal against a presidentially appointed commission that gave its air frequency to an entertainment company with reported government links.
The channel, which was often critical of the Armenian authorities, was sent off the air on April 2, just hours after losing a controversial tender for the frequency.
The bidding was mandated by an Armenian law on broadcasting which took effect this year.
The A1+ staff, backed by the country’s leading opposition parties, say that its outcome was politically motivated and accuse Kocharian of stifling dissent ahead of presidential elections due next March. Kocharian denies the charges.
The Commission on Television and Radio, which is headed by the former deputy chief of Kocharian’s staff, insists that it gave the tender to the Sharm entertainment and advertising company because the latter had submitted a stronger bid.
However, local and international media watchdogs believe that the decision to pull the plug on A1+ dealt a blow to press freedom in Armenia. One of them, 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 United States and the Council of Europe, which admitted Armenia into its ranks last year, have also added their voice to those concerns. An Italian diplomat who leads a Council of Europe group monitoring Armenia’s compliance with its membership obligations raised the matter with Kocharian when he visited Yerevan last month.
Ambassador Pietro Ago told reporters on May 16 that Kocharian pledged to help A1+ win another frequency later this year. “We reached an understanding [with Kocharian] that the Council of Europe experts will work with Armenian experts to ensure that when new frequencies are allotted, A1+ can successfully participate in those tenders. So this problem will be solved in the near future,” Ago said.
A1+ owners, however, reiterated on Friday that they will continue to fight for their lost frequency and will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The court’s decisions are binding for all Council of Europe member states.
Some A1+ employees said Friday’s verdict is a good news for them because it clears the way for an A1+ appeal to the Strasbourg court. If the Court of Appeals had overruled the Economic Court verdict, the channel would have had to restart the entire judicial process from scratch with little chances of success. Armenian courts rarely challenge the country’s president and government.
The channel’s closure triggered a series of street protests in Yerevan attended by thousands of opposition supporters. It led to the consolidation of 13 opposition parties that have renewed their long-standing calls for Kocharian’s impeachment. Their campaign culminated this week in a three-day turmoil in the Armenian parliament where the opposition minority disrupted proceedings by seizing its main rostrum.