By Emil Danielyan
The Yerevan headquarters of A1+, Armenia’s leading independent television, is a quiet place these days, with no reporters and technical personnel hurrying to get the latest news to viewers. Visitors would hardly notice any signs of activity in the popular channel that was widely respected for its objective and impartial news reporting.
Eight months after being forced off the air, its 70 or so staff are losing hope that they will be allowed to resume work any time soon. Their frustration has turned into despair after an Armenian court suspended on November 18 a crucial bidding for several television frequencies -- the only real possibility of re-opening A1+. This means that most Armenians may not get a balanced coverage of the upcoming presidential elections
The official motive for the injunction was a lawsuit filed by another private television station, Noyan Tapan, against the state commission that regulates broadcasting. But with Armenian courts rarely ruling against the government, there is a widespread suspicion that the authorities are keen to bar A1+ from covering next February’s presidential elections in which President Robert Kocharian will be a top contender.
According to Mesrop Movsesian, the owner and director of A1+, at stake is the very survival of his company. “For A1+, the main thing now is to preserve its team [of journalists], whereas the commission wants to make sure that if A1+ is to resume its work, it does so after the elections,” he told RFE/RL.
Noyan Tapan, which is owned by the eponymous news agency, is protesting the “illegal” refusal by the National Commission on Television and Radio to consider its bid. The regulatory body, whose members were appointed by Kocharian, refused to accept it on the grounds that the broadcaster did not specify which of the available frequencies it is bidding for. Court hearings of the dispute will open on Monday and may take weeks, if not months.
“I hope that the judicial process will not drag on,” said Grigor Amalian, chairman of the broadcasting commission. “I am doing everything so that our representatives in the court have all necessary documents to prevent excessive delays.”
However, Movsesian and some local observers suspect Noyan Tapan and the authorities of striking a secret deal to further delay A1+ broadcasts. Amalian dismissed the allegations as “absurd.”
Whatever the real story, the indefinite postponement of the frequency tender appears to have dealt a final blow to A1+ chances of covering the presidential race and even parliamentary elections due in May 2003. The cash-strapped channel, which has been unable to earn advertising revenues since April, hoped to cover part of its huge financial losses by campaign ads.
More importantly, A1+ was the only major TV station that often aired criticism of Kocharian and the government, while seeking to present a broad range of opinions. There are dozens of channels broadcasting across Armenia. However, virtually all big private networks are owned by businessmen loyal to Kocharian and save no effort to openly promote his bid to win a second term in office.
Kocharian also firmly controls the state-run Armenian National Television, the most accessible media outlet in the country. All this gives him a huge edge over his election challengers. Armenia’s far more diverse print media have small circulation and therefore make little difference.
Hence the dominant belief that A1+’s closure as a result of its highly controversial defeat in a similar frequency bidding last April was politically motivated. It was denounced by local and international media watchdogs, with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists accusing Kocharian of “blatantly abusing the frequency licensing system in an attempt to silence a critical media voice.”
“Taking A1+ off the air is a step backwards. It is not a step forward [in protecting press freedom],” said Vicken Cheterian, director of the Swiss-funded Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan.
The decision to pull the plug on A1+ triggered a series of opposition rallies in the Armenian capital last spring. It was also criticized by the United States and the Council of Europe. In an April statement, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan indicated that A1+’s continued existence is essential for the freedom and fairness of the 2003 elections.
Senior Council of Europe officials have said all along that they received assurances from Kocharian that A1+ will stand a very good chance of being reinstated if it bids for another frequency this autumn. In July, for example, the secretary general of the Strasbourg-based human rights organization, Walter Schwimmer, told RFE/RL that he is “confident that a positive solution will soon be found” to the issue.
However, the broadcasting commission’s Amalian insists that official Yerevan could not have explicitly promised to reopen the channel. “It would have been ludicrous to say in advance who will win the [delayed] contest,” he said, arguing that the authorities can only guarantee the fairness of the process.
Kocharian and other top officials claim that A1+ was not shut down because of the content of its news reports. They have at the same time rebuked its staff for their perceived sympathy towards the country’s former authorities.
Ironically, it was the Council of Europe that prompted the Armenian authorities to reform their opaque regulatory framework for the electronic media. Two laws adopted in 2000 were meant to render state television more independent and put in place equal competitive rules for private channels. The consequences, as the A1+ saga demonstrates, have been quite different.
As Cheterian, himself a journalist writing for Swiss and other European publications, puts it: “If the authorities in charge of these matters really wanted to ensure the diversity of the mass media, they would have taken other decisions.”