By Karine Kalantarian
Armenia’s leading independent television station, A1+, marked on Friday the second anniversary of its scandalous closure with a rally in Yerevan attended by several hundred sympathizers, among them journalists and opposition politicians.
The organizers of the rally denounced the closure of the once popular channel as a political decision aimed at ensuring President Robert Kocharian’s full control of television air ahead of the February-March presidential elections. One of them, “Aravot” newspaper editor Aram Abrahamian, said the de facto ban has failed to boost Kocharian’s popularity and to hold off challenges to his rule, citing renewed political tensions in the country.
“The situation remains tense,” Abrahamian said. “I am convinced that free media can only defuse and not escalate a tense situation.”
A1+ was pulled off the air in a controversial tender for its broadcasting frequency administered by a regulatory body appointed by Kocharian. The National Commission on Television and Radio awarded the license to a new government-linked TV company, saying that it submitted a stronger bid.
The move was strongly criticized by domestic and international media watchdogs, the United States as well as international organizations like the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They argued that A1+ was the only TV station in Armenia that regularly aired critical reports about Kocharian and his government.
A1+ has since taken part in seven other biddings and lost all of them despite the Armenian authorities’ reported pledge to the Council of Europe to lift the ban. The most recent tender, held in December, effectively ended the channel’s hopes for returning to the air in the foreseeable future. With a broadcasting license valid for seven years, no frequencies are due to be up for grabs in the next five years.
However, A1+ and its supporters demanded a new bidding the outcome of which should be decided not only by the commission but representatives of local civic groups. The authorities will almost certainly reject the demand as going against the law.
There was unusually strong police presence at the rally, with the deputy head of the national Police Service, General Hovannes Varian, personally watching it from a distance. Several police cars escorted the protesters as they marched from the A1+ offices to a hillside square in the city center, repeatedly warning them not to walk off the sidewalks.
The demonstrators were later joined by Aram Sarkisian and several other leaders of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) bloc that plans to launch a campaign of much bigger anti-government protests later this month. “A1+ was closed before elections and has still not been reopened because these authorities expect elections every day,” Sarkisian said in his speech.