By Shakeh Avoyan and Emil Danielyan
A top aide to President Robert Kocharian was appointed on Wednesday as the new head of Armenia’s state television and radio, replacing journalist Tigran Naghdalian who was murdered under uncertain circumstances two weeks ago.
The official, Aleksan Harutiunian, was unanimously elected by the five-member governing board of the state-run Armenian Public Television and Radio (APTR). The decision was apparently predetermined by Kocharian who appointed Harutiunian, 37, and another member of his staff to the board the previous night.
“I guess there could not have been another choice of the new chairman,” one of the board members, Henrik Hovannisian, told RFE/RL. He argued that Harutiunian was a close friend of Naghdalian and is quite familiar with television.
Harutiunian, for his part, declined a comment.
The new state TV chief has long held senior posts in the presidential administration, heading it from 1998-99. Harutiunian advised the president on foreign policy and local government issues before the latest appointment. He also has reportedly overseen the work of state television in recent years.
Despite undergoing a major reorganization in 2001, Armenia’s biggest and most accessible television channel has remained under a tight presidential control. APTR strongly supports Kocharian’s plans to win a second term in office in next month’s presidential elections and is highly critical of his political opponents.
All five members of the APTR board are named by the president. One of them, Ashot Manukian, resigned on Tuesday to give way to another Kocharian appointee, the 30-year-old Vartan Kopian. Kopian was elected deputy chairman of the oversight body the next day.
Naghdalian was shot and fatally wounded as he left his parents’ home in the capital Yerevan on December 28. The killing was widely condemned by Armenian politicians and journalists.
Kocharian vowed to “do everything” to bring its perpetrators to justice. However, state prosecutors investigating the shooting have not yet identified any suspects despite brief arrests of several dozen opposition activists on New Year’s eve. Some Kocharian supporters have accused unnamed opposition forces of masterminding the killing, linking it to the approaching presidential elections.
The allegations were on Wednesday rebutted by a coalition of 16 opposition parties which said Naghdalian’s death resulted from “the atmosphere of impunity” reigning in Armenia. “The unfolding hysteria already involves threats of a witch hunt and repression of political opponents [of the regime],” they said in a joint statement.
The opposition again urged law-enforcement bodies to explore a possible link between the latest high-profile shooting and the October 1999 massacre in the Armenian parliament. Some opposition leaders have argued that Naghdalian was a major witness in the latter case and was due to testify at the ongoing trial of five parliament gunmen.
Harutiunian’s appointment as new TV boss may lead to more such calls. Harutiunian was arrested in December 1999 on suspicion of complicity in the parliament shootings. He strongly denied the charges and was released for lack of evidence four months later.
Some friends and relatives of the attack victims who are in opposition to Kocharian still suspect him of involvement in the bloodbath that left eight senior officials dead.
In a related development, the Council of Europe on Wednesday added its voice to international condemnation of Naghdalian’s killing. “The killing of a leading media personality is not only a crime against that person, but an attack on freedom of the media,” the council’s secretary general, Walter Schwimmer, said in a statement from Strasbourg. “I call on the competent Armenian authorities to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation in order to bring those responsible to justice.”