By Armen Zakarian and Emil Danielyan
A1+, Armenia’s leading independent television controversially forced off the air last year, lost on Wednesday an opportunity to resume its broadcasts, failing to win the air frequency used by another private channel supporting the authorities.
The broadcasting license of the Armenia TV station was put on a tender by the National Commission on Television and Radio, a regulatory body appointed by President Robert Kocharian. The overwhelming majority of its members found that the channel should retain the frequency because it submitted a better bid.
The A1+ owner and director, Mesrop Movsesian, pledged to invest $5 million in his channel within the next seven years. Armenia TV, which is reportedly owned and financed by U.S.-Armenian businessman Gerard Cafesjian, promised to raise at least $7 million.
“The proposals submitted by A1+, which envisage $5 million in investments, were baseless,” said the commission chairman, Grigor Amalian. “They offered no guarantees for such investments.”
The claims were brushed aside by Movsesian. “That means Mr. Amalian and his team didn’t read at all our proposals,” he said.
The A1+ boss blamed his defeat on Kocharian’s “personal hostility” towards Armenia’s only major television that had often aired criticism of his policies. “I therefore don’t give a damn about the decision made by the commission,” he said.
Armenia TV, for its part, declined a comment. It has a larger staff and is better equipped than A1+ which has struggled to remain afloat since being stripped of its own frequency by Amalian’s commission in April 2002. The A1+ shutdown was widely denounced by domestic and international media watchdogs. One of them, the New York-based group Freedom House, subsequently downgraded the Armenian media’s status from “partly free” to “not free.”
The Cafesjian-sponsored channel, underscoring its loyal attitude to the authorities, strongly supported Kocharian in this year’s presidential elections along with virtually all other private networks.
Their election coverage was criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe which concluded in a report last February that Armenia’s functioning private broadcasters were “even more biased in favor of the incumbent” than the Kocharian-controlled state television.
The Western observers also pointed to an “unusual” price-fixing agreement reached by state television, Armenia TV and four other private stations in the run-up to the elections. The six channels set the same price for campaign advertisements: $120 per minute. The practice is not banned by Armenian law.
A1+ was expected to have better chances of success in a separate tender for several other frequencies called by the broadcasting commission last October. However, the bidding has since been repeatedly postponed in dubious circumstances. It is still not clear when it will take place.
The Armenian authorities had assured the Council of Europe and European governments that A1+ will be given a chance to go back on air before this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Interviewed by RFE/RL in July 2002, Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer said that the Yerevan government is “looking for a solution to the A1+ case” and that he is confident that “a positive solution will soon be found.”