By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s leading independent television station that was controversially pulled off the air three years ago faced a complete halt of its activities on Wednesday as it was forced to begin vacating its government-owned premises in Yerevan.
The once popular A1+ channel removed its equipment from two rooms in a building belonging to the National Academy of Sciences and has until Saturday to vacate the rest of the editorial offices which it has leased for over 10 years.
The eviction followed A1+’s defeat in a court battle with the Academy which wants its property back, citing the need to accommodate the staff of two research institutes that were relocated from another building in the city center last year.
A1+ has tried unsuccessfully to get a financial compensation for $32,000 which it claims to have invested in the premises. Its owner and chief executive, Mesrop Movsesian, believes that the eviction was initiated by the authorities with the aim of finally closing his company.
According to Movsesian, the president of the Academy, Fadey Sargsian, earlier pledged to allow A1+ to continue to occupy some of the premises until it finds new office space. “I was told at the Academy that the government is now forcing them to have the building vacated this week,” he told RFE/RL. “Today I sent a letter to the prime minister asking for his intervention.”
“What surprises me is that there are also other organizations based in this building and none of them has been told to immediately leave the offices,” he said.
Movsesian also claimed that it is extremely difficult to find new office space for his staff that still produce programs for regional TV stations in addition to publishing a popular news website and a weekly newspaper. “Few people want to deal with us today, fearing A1+’s name,” he said. “Those who want charge too much. We just can’t afford their rent.”
A1+ was the only TV channel that regularly aired criticism of President Robert Kocharian and his government. It lost its broadcasting license in April 2002 after a disputed tender that was granted to a newly created pro-government company. The move was condemned by local and international media groups as a serious blow to press freedom in Armenia.
The Council of Europe has repeatedly urged the authorities in Yerevan to lift the de facto ban on A1+. But the authorities have only promised to change the mechanism for the formation of a regulatory body, currently appointed by Kocharian, that hand outs broadcasting frequencies.
Their relevant draft amendments to the Armenian constitution were criticized as cosmetic by the country’s leading media associations last week. They said in a joint statement that the National Commission on Television and Radio would not become independent and unbiased as a result.