By Hrach Melkumian
Armenia’s leading independent television, A1+, will mark on Wednesday the first anniversary of its effective closure by the authorities with uncertain prospects for resuming its broadcasts any time soon.
Meanwhile, President Robert Kocharian, widely blamed for the shutdown, was accused by a respected global media watchdog of restricting press freedom in Armenia in the course of last year.
“In the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for 2003, President Robert Kocharian muzzled dissenting voices in the press and called for more compliant media coverage of government policies,” the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said in a report released late Monday. “As a result, journalists continued to face criminal prosecution, attacks, and censorship.”
The report was part of the CPJ’s annual survey of press freedom around the world titled “Attacks on the Press in 2002.” The closure of A1+ in April 2002 features large in the survey’s Armenia chapter which contains a references to RFE/RL.
The independent channel was forced off the air after losing its frequency in a controversial tender administered by the National Commission on Television and Radio, a regulatory body appointed by Kocharian. A1+ was the only major TV station that regularly aired criticism of the Armenian authorities. The A1+ staff, backed by domestic and international media associations, insist that the outcome of the bidding was politically motivated.
“It is now clear that the presidential election campaign kicked off on April 2, 2002,” said Mesrop Movsesian, the channel’s owner and chief manager. “The authorities simply ‘cleared up’ the media field.”
Movsesian said he still does not know when A1+ will be given a chance to resume its broadcasts.
“We are patiently awaiting a new [frequency] tender,” he told RFE/RL. “It should take place sooner or later.”
The Armenian authorities had reportedly promised the Council of Europe and other European organizations that A1+ will have a chance to get a new frequency before the February 2003 presidential election. However, the promised bidding, originally slated for October, has been repeatedly cancelled in dubious circumstances.
The most recent delay occurred in late January after five other private TV stations unexpectedly filed a lawsuit against the broadcasting commission, protesting some of its bidding rules. The court action is still going on and will not be over until May. This means that A1+ will be unable to cover the May 25 parliamentary elections as well.
Movsesian claimed that the authorities are deliberately dragging out the proceedings -- a charge denied by the commission’s chairman, Grigor Amalian. Amalian said his commission is interested in holding the tender as soon as possible but can not speed up the litigation.
However, other media experts insisted that political factors are at play. According to the chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, Boris Navasardian, A1+ is unlikely to go back on the air until the authorities see no “danger” emanating from its news coverage. “Winning or losing a TV tender in Armenia continues to depend on the political situation,” he said.
Navasardian endorsed U.S. and European observers’ conclusion that the authorities’ decision to pull the plug on A1+ prevented many Armenians from receiving balanced and objective information before and during the recent elections. “The elections showed that the absence of A1+ marked movement backwards,” he said.
But Amalian disagreed, arguing that there are dozens of other privately owned television companies active in Armenia. “I personally don’t feel any void [created by the A1+ closure], but of course am convinced that a segment of our population needed their perspective,” he said.
Having been left without advertising revenues, A1+ is struggling to remain afloat by selling information products to some regional TV stations and publishing its own daily newspaper, “Ayb-Fe,” where most of its remaining reporters currently work. One of them, Lena Badeyan, said: “We will return to the air. We are very patient.”