By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a leading global media watchdog, has added its voice to international support for Armenia's troubled A1+ television station which was forced off the air last week. The New York-based group charged that the decision by a state commission on broadcasting to strip the popular channel of its frequency was engineered by President Robert Kocharian.
"The Kocharian government is blatantly abusing the frequency licensing system in an attempt to silence a critical media voice," CPJ executive director Ann Cooper said in a statement issued on Monday. "We trust that the Economic Court will reverse this unjust decision."
"CPJ is alarmed that the independent television channel A1+ has lost its broadcast frequency and been forced off the air," the statement reads.
The statement, which mentions RFE/RL's coverage of the politically charged affair, points to A1+'s "critical stance" towards Kocharian and notes that the authorities have denied any pressure on the commission.
CPJ is the second Western media organization to condemn the effective closure of Armenia's main television station. The French non-governmental Reporters Without Borders organization described it as the "most serious violation of pluralism in Armenia in the past few years."
The United States has also deplored the outcome of the April 2 tender for A1+'s frequency, saying that it "raises serious questions about the future of free and independent media in Armenia."
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on Wednesday rejected the criticism from abroad. He accused Western governments and non-governmental organizations of "neglecting" the Armenian law on television and radio which requires frequency tenders. He insisted that the broadcasting commission did not breach the law.
"Freedom of speech is being respected in Armenia," Oskanian told reporters.
Kocharian, for his part, has argued that the statement by the U.S. in Yerevan criticizing the A1+ closure did not question the validity of the tender.
Kocharian's stance was on Tuesday endorsed by 17 local TV and radio stations, newspapers and news agencies, most of which are either controlled by the president or support him. "Freedom of speech is not in danger in Armenia, and there are necessary conditions for activities of the mass media," they said in a joint statement.
The signatories -- among them the state-run Armenian Public Television, the Armenpress and Arminfo news agencies and the daily "Azg" -- also accused Kocharian's opponents of exploiting the issue for their political aims.
Reports said the "Yerkir" weekly, which is controlled by the pro-Kocharian Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), refused to join the statement.
A1+ on Wednesday claimed that the statement came as part of government efforts to "split the media." "A1+ is convinced that press freedom is in danger, and that necessary conditions for activities of mass media are absent in Armenia," said a commentary posted on the channel's web site (www.a1plus.am).
The channel also said that it continues to produce news programs and, starting from Wednesday, will screen them on the video inside a Yerevan jazz club owned by its parent company, Meltex.