By Hrach Melkumian
The entertainment company Sharm that forced Armenia’s leading independent television station off the air last year has sold its broadcasting unit to a government-connected businessman despite its earlier promise to make substantial long-term investments in the media business.
Sharm’s Kentron TV, which obtained the broadcasting frequency of the popular A1+ channel a year ago, will now be 90 percent owned by Gurgen Arsenian, a parliament deputy and the owner of the Arsoil firm specializing in imports of fuel and cigarettes. Arsenian, along with many other wealthy individuals, actively campaigned for President Robert Kocharian’s reelection in the recent presidential poll.
Both parties refuse to disclose Kentron’s takeover price and deny any political motives behind the deal. “For us, this is a lucrative business move,” said Grigor Nazarian, a top Sharm executive.
Arsenian also portrayed Kentron’s sale as an ordinary company takeover, saying that Arsoil wants to diversify its business operations. But he also revealed that the private channel, which started its broadcasts last fall, is experiencing serious financial difficulties. “We are trying to be the key to their solution,” Arsenian told RFE/RL in an interview.
Sharm committed itself to investing $1.8 million in Kentron in the next four years during a politically charged tender in April 2002 for A1+’s frequency. The National Commission on Television and Radio, which regulates broadcasting in Armenia, said that was a key reason why it decided to pull the plug on the only major TV station that often aired criticism of Kocharian.
Local and international media watchdogs denounced the move as politically motivated, a charge denied by Kocharian and the commission.
The A1+ director, Mesrop Movsesian, said that by selling its TV arm Sharm has born out speculation that it served as a smokescreen for the Armenian authorities’ drive to prevent A1+ from covering the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003. He claimed that Arsenian has always been part of the “secret plan.”
“This business deal is a bit peculiar one,” Movsesian told RFE/RL. “It is about ideology and propaganda.”
A senior official from the broadcasting commission appointed by Kocharian said that under Armenia’s law on television and radio a TV station does not lose its broadcasting license in case of a change of ownership. Ishkhan Vartanian said Kentron’s new owner should only stick to Sharm’s program and commitments. Arsoil will honor them, according to Arsenian.
Arsenian also said that although he will not seek sweeping changes in Kentron’s editorial policy, he does plan some changes which should expand its audience. Kentron’s information chief, Nikolay Grigorian, and several reporters and cameramen have already quit the channel. Unlike A1+, it has been largely supportive of the authorities, a line followed by virtually all other private networks in Armenia. Most of them are owned by government-linked businessmen like Arsenian.
The Kentron takeover comes amid Arsenian’s growing involvement in politics. He is now running for parliament both on an individual basis and at the head of the electoral list of his recently created United Workers Party.
A1+, meanwhile, remains off the air even though the Armenian government promised the Council of Europe last to give it a new frequency it in time for the presidential election. However, a new frequency tender has been repeatedly delayed since October and is unlikely to take place before the May 25 parliamentary elections.