By Hrach Melkumian
The Armenian economic court refused Tuesday to issue an order allowing the troubled A1+ television to return to the air pending a verdict on its appeal against its effective closure by a presidentially appointed regulatory body.
The popular channel was forced to end its broadcasts several hours after losing a controversial bidding for its air frequency. The National Commission on Television and Radio appointed by President Robert Kocharian gave the tender to an entertainment company with reported government links, raising concerns about press freedom in Armenia.
A1+, which appealed the decision, insists that it should have been allowed to continue its broadcasts at least until the end of the court proceedings. But a petition filed by lawyers representing its parent company, Meltex, was rejected by the presiding judge, Nakhshun Tavaratsian. She ruled that the authorities acted legally.
It is still not clear precisely who pulled the plug on Armenia’s main independent TV station which often aired criticism of Kocharian and other top officials. The commission on broadcasting claims that the order to force the channel off the air immediately after the tender was issued by the ministry of transport and communications which controls the country’s main broadcasting tower. However, Minister of Transport and Communications has said that his agency did not take such decisions.
Judge Tavaratsian, opening the first hearing of the case, also turned down another A1+ petition that would require the commission to submit “criteria and mechanisms for evaluating [frequency] bids” to the court. One of the commission lawyers, Suren Petrosian, said the nine members of the body were guided by their “internal conviction.”
The commission members have stated repeatedly that they gave the tender to the company Sharm because it submitted a stronger bid. They have argued that Sharm pledged to broadcast more of its own programs, one of the conditions set by the Armenian law on broadcasting. The other criteria for the selection of frequency users are the availability of modern broadcasting equipment, sufficient financial resources and competent personnel. Critics say the criteria are subjective and discretionary.
Underlying the A1+ case is the claim that, in accordance with the law, the broadcasting commission should have held simultaneous contests for all available frequencies.
But the commission’s attorneys on Tuesday again brushed aside the argument, saying that the law has no such requirements. The three-member defense team is led by Edith Khachatourian, a U.S. citizen and the former head of the Yerevan office of the Armenian Assembly of America. She currently runs an Armenian-registered private law firm, ILC.
Some local observers and newspapers have wondered who is paying ILC for its counseling, arguing that the state-funded commission on broadcasting can hardly afford hiring expensive private attorneys.
Its chairman, Grigor Amalian, told RFE/RL that he will provide relevant information only after the end of the proceedings. Khachatourian also refused to disclose the source of funding.