By Karine Kalantarian and Emil Danielyan
Armenia’s leading independent television station, controversially forced off the air last year, lost Friday what may have been its last chance to resume work when a regulatory body controlled by President Robert Kocharian again refused to grant it a new broadcasting license.
In a move described as “very disappointing” by a senior Western diplomat, the National Commission on Television and Radio rejected the A1+ channel’s bid for one of three air frequencies put on a competitive tender. The commission said the current holders of the frequencies, which support the Kocharian administration, submitted financially stronger bids.
The explanation was shrugged off by A1+. Its director and owner, Mesrop Movsesian, said the commission decided to keep the TV station off the air because it was instructed to do so by Kocharian. “This is the result of the president’s personal attitude toward our staff,” Movsesian told RFE/RL. “That doesn’t testify to the president’s strength. It is A1+, not the president, who won.”
A major media association, the Yerevan Press Club (YPC) also denounced the commission’s decision as politically motivated. “Apparently, the National Commission is still guided by political considerations and other motives unknown to us,” the YPC said in a statement.
Ambassador Roy Reeve, the British head of the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, shared the concerns. “Obviously, I’m very disappointed with the result,” Reeve told reporters. “We will be referring this to Vienna this afternoon, and I hope that there will be a statement from our chairman-in-office over the course of the next day.”
“But on the personal level I find it a very sad and disappointing decision,” Reeve added.
The current OSCE chairman-in-office is Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer whose country holds the rotating presidency of Europe’s largest security organization. A critical statement by Scheffer would deal a serious blow to the credibility of Armenia’s frequency distribution procedures.
The OSCE and other European organizations already criticized the Armenian authorities after they pulled the plug in April 2002 on A1+ -- the only major TV channel that often aired criticism of Kocharian. The resulting Western pressure led official Yerevan to implicitly promise to ensure A1+’s reopening before this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
But not only was A1+ unable to cover the votes but now appears to have exhausted all real possibilities of going back on air any time soon. Still, Movsesian said the once popular channel will continue to fight for a new license by taking part in further frequency contests. It is not clear when the next tender will take place.
In its last frequency bid, A1+ pledged to invest more than $2 million in upgrading its broadcasting facilities in the next five years. This is approximately as much as was promised by its three main competitors. But the broadcasting commission’s chairman, Grigor Amalian, claimed that A1+ failed to present “guarantees” for meeting its investment commitments.
Amalian, who had previously worked as deputy chief of Kocharian’s staff, also brushed aside Western criticism of A1+’s de facto closure, suggesting that international organizations provide financial and technical assistance to the TV station, instead of criticizing the Armenian authorities.
“If those international organizations are so concerned, they may assist A1+ in a more practical manner by helping it take part in the tenders on an acceptable financial and technical level,” he said.