By Karine Kalantarian
A1+, Armenia’s leading independent television station closed by the authorities in April, could be denied a chance to resume its broadcasts before the end of this year despite assurances given by official Yerevan to the Council of Europe, it emerged on Tuesday.
The head of the National Commission on Television and Radio, Grigor Amalian, told RFE/RL that the regulatory body which stripped A1+ of its broadcasting license may scrap plans to hold tenders for more air frequencies in October.
It was expected that A1+ will bid for one of those frequencies. Senior officials from the Council of Europe have said previously that they were told by President Robert Kocharian that the popular channel will stand a good chance of winning the contest.
Kocharian’s assurances were seen as a response to international concerns over the future of press freedom in Armenia following A1+’s controversial shutdown. European officials have apparently told the Armenian government that the channel’s reinstatement is vital for freedom and fairness of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
But according to Amalian, there may be no more frequency contests this year. “I wouldn’t like to speak about this issue in detail,” he said. “I can only say that there are concerns that this does not seem to be the right time for putting these four frequencies on a tender.” He said the commission, whose nine members were appointed by Kocharian, will soon make a final decision.
Reacting to this statement, A1+ director Mesrop Movsesian said that the decision on whether or not to hold the planned tenders will be politically motivated and “dictated” by the presidential administration. “It will depend on how the presidential election campaign unfolds and who else joins the race,” Movsesian told RFE/RL, indicating that the emergence of a strong opposition candidate could render Kocharian even more reluctant to reopen a channel that was often critical of him.
The closure of A1+, criticized by the United States and international media watchdogs, has meant that most Armenians can watch only those channels that support President Robert Kocharian. The most accessible of them, the state-run Armenian Public Television, is staunchly pro-Kocharian and extremely hostile toward the opposition. The major private TV networks follow a similar line, rarely voicing criticism of Kocharian and the government.
This factor gives Kocharian a crucial advantage over his rivals ahead of the presidential elections due next February. Hence, the Council of Europe’s insistence on the need to enable A1+ to resume its broadcasts before the vote.
An Italian diplomat representing the organization’s main decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, announced after talks with Kocharian in May that Council of Europe experts will soon arrive in Armenia to ensure A1+’s “successful participation” in frequency tenders. The council’s secretary general, Walter Schwimmer, similarly told RFE/RL last month that “the Armenian authorities are looking for a solution to the A1+ case and I am confident that a positive solution will soon be found.”
However, Amalian’s comments suggest that the Strasbourg officials’ optimism might be premature.