By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Armen Zakarian
Government assurances that last week's controversial tender for a key broadcasting frequency conformed to the Armenian law on television and radio came under attack on Thursday from one of its main authors.
Shavarsh Kocharian, chairman of the parliament committee on science, education and media, accused the National Commission on Television and Radio, which stripped the independent A1+ channel of its frequency, of violating key provisions of the law. Kocharian, who also leads the opposition National Democratic Party (AZhK), effectively endorsed A1+ lawsuits pending against the regulatory body.
The 9-member commission appointed by President Robert Kocharian (no relation to the AZhK leader) insists that its decision to give the A1+'s frequency to another company was taken on a competitive basis. It has denied widespread allegations that it was ordered to silence the country's main independent TV station which has often been critical of the authorities.
The commission members argue that the bidding took place in accordance with the law on broadcasting.
However, Shavarsh Kocharian, who helped enact and amend the law in 2001, claimed that frequency winners must be selected not merely on the basis of their written bids. "There isn't even a hint in the law that there should be a contest of bids," he told a news conference. "Therefore, the tender must be declared void".
The broadcasting commission says it awarded A1+'s frequency to the Sharm entertainment company because the latter submitted a stronger bid. But its members have so far refused to elaborate on the advantages of the Sharm bid.
The AZhK's Kocharian also backed the A1+ argument that, under the law in question, the commission should have held simultaneous biddings for all available frequencies.
An Armenian economic court is scheduled to start hearings on the TV channel's appeal on April 16. The commission's chairman, Grigor Amalian, said on Thursday that he hopes the court will not invalidate the results of the tender announced on April 2. "The commission has not taken any illegal steps and has not gone beyond the legal framework," he told reporters.
Amalian also claimed that the decision to force A1+ off the air at midnight on April 2 was taken by the Armenian ministry of transport and communications, and not his commission. He said the ministry, which runs the country's main TV tower, could have kept the popular channel on the air if it had wished so.
A1+ lawyers say the channel should have been allowed to continue its broadcasts at least until a court verdict.
The AZhK and other opposition parties say its prompt closure was part of President Kocharian's drive to ensure his victory in presidential elections due in early 2003. They will stage another demonstration on Friday in support of A1+.