By Karine Kalantarian
A controversial state commission regulating broadcasting formally launched on Tuesday a competition for five frequencies which will give Armenia’s leading independent television a chance to return to the air. The popular A1+ station, effectively shut down by the authorities after losing the first such contest last April, said it will take part in the new bidding despite having serious doubts about its fairness.
Its owner and chief executive, Mesrop Movsesian, told RFE/RL that A1+ will this time submit more detailed proposals that will nonetheless reaffirm the channel’s editorial policy and business strategy. “In effect, we are going to present the same proposals. We remain convinced that they were drawn up in a professional manner,” he said.
The National Commission on Television and Radio, appointed by President Robert Kocharian, awarded the frequency used by A1+ for the previous five years to an entertainment company with reported government links, saying that the latter had submitted a stronger bid.
The decision, which A1+ believes was politically motivated caused an uproar, raising domestic and international concerns about press freedom in Armenia. It was condemned by many local journalists, the Armenian opposition and Western media watchdogs. One of them, 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.”
Kocharian has denied any involvement in the frequency competition. However, he appears to have assured the Council of Europe and some of its member governments that A1+ will stand a good chance of resuming broadcasts if it bids for another frequency this fall.
At stake are now frequencies used by three private Armenian channels as well as the CNN global news network and a Russian music channel broadcast in Armenia. The commission has decided that “general interest” companies like A1+ can bid for only one of the first three frequencies, reserving the two other frequencies for foreign-based news and music channels respectively.
Movsesian criticized the commission for not distributing four other vacant frequencies, and said that A1+ would be very embarrassed to cause the closure of other television stations. “In case of our victory, one of them will find itself in a situation which we have faced for months,” he said.
The outcome of the biddings is expected to be announced in late November or early December. According to Movsesian, A1+ will be able to resume its broadcasts before the February presidential election in the even of its victory.
A1+ was the only major Armenian channel that often aired criticism of Kocharian and the government. Other national private networks such as Prometevs and Armenia TV are owned by wealthy businessmen supporting the current authorities. Their news coverage is very similar to that of the state-run Armenian Public Television, the main mouthpiece of government propaganda.
The U.S. embassy in Yerevan warned in a statement in April that failure to reinstate A1+ could therefore call into question the freedom and fairness of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.