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Authorities Uphold Ban On Independent Armenian TV

By Emil Danielyan and Armen Zakarian
The Armenian authorities again ignored domestic and international criticism on Monday to keep in force their controversial ban on the country’s sole private television station that regularly broadcast reports critical of President Robert Kocharian.

The Kocharian-controlled National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR) threw out the once popular A1+ television’s bid for a new broadcasting license for the third consecutive time this year on the dubious grounds that the channel wrongly presented its intellectual property and other assets.

The justification was brushed aside by A1+ which said the move was ordered by Kocharian. Armenian opposition leaders also denounced it as a further blow to media freedom.

The decision to keep the TV station off the air was the result of a tender for two broadcasting frequencies used by pro-presidential channels, Ar and Armnews. Both stations, owned by businessmen loyal to Kocharian, were allowed to continue their broadcasts.

Although A1+ bid for both frequencies, it clearly aimed to get the one used by the recently established Armnews. The latter has only a handful of reporters and mostly fills its airtime with Russian-language broadcasts of the France-based Euronews network. Its owners, among them millionaire businessman Harutiun Pambukian, pledged to spend $2.5 million on expanding Armnews’s modest programming in the coming years.

A1+, by contrast, promised $2.8 million in investments and submitted a detailed breakdown of their sources. However, only two of the commission’s nine members voted to end its 18-month shutdown.

Unlike in the previous tenders, NCTR chairman Grigor Amalian did not challenge the credibility of the investment commitments. Instead, he accused A1+ of submitting other “false data.”

In a complicated explanation that will hardly convince critics, Amalian claimed that A1+ executives incorrectly presented the amount of money and energy spent on their editorial staff as the channel’s “intellectual property.” He said that is what they said in their verbal testimony to his commission last week. “According to our legislation, intellectual property is a totally different thing,” Amalian told a news conference.

However, A1+’s written frequency application does not carry any reference to intellectual property, saying only that its parent company, Meltex, has made $400,000 worth of “intellectual” expenditures such as education and training of its journalists and technical personnel since 1996. The station’s team of relatively young reporters is one of the most experienced in Armenia.

Staff professionalism is one of the main requirements spelled out by an Armenian law on television and radio that mandates frequency contests. Bidders are also to be judged by the number of Armenian-language programs produced by them as well as their technical and financial resources. Armnews is no match for A1+ on most of those criteria.

Another argument cited by Amalian was that A1+ allegedly overstated the number of movies to which it holds exclusive broadcasting rights. The channel listed 10,000 such films, estimating their total cost at $300,000.

The Meltex owner, Mesrop Movsesian, denied any wrongdoing, arguing that A1+ was among the few Armenian TV stations that broadcast only licensed foreign production. Most of them continue to routinely air pirated movies.

Movsesian again claimed that the decision to keep his company off the air stemmed from a “political order” issued by Kocharian who he believes harbors “personal animosity” towards the A1+ staff. He said a decision to lift the ban would have encouraged the operating private networks to broadcast information not desired by the Armenian president. “This was a political decision, and Mr. Amalian simply executed it,” he added.

Opposition deputies in the Armenian parliament agreed with this assertion. “The ruling junta has demonstrated that it is not interested in the freedom of expression and the independence of mass media,” Victor Dallakian of the Artarutyun (Justice) alliance told RFE/RL.

Amalian, meanwhile flatly denied the charges as he was grilled by reporters shortly after the announcement of the tender results. He made similar assurances following A1+’s defeat in the previous bidding last July. Its outcome prompted a chorus of protests from Armenian media rights groups and international organizations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe.

Even two members of Armenia’s governing coalition, the Republican Party (HHK) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), criticized the NCTR at the time, pledging to amend the existing law on broadcasting widely seen as flawed.

But Tigran Torosian, an HHK leader and parliament speaker who strongly attacked Amalian this summer, was far more cautious in his assessments on Monday, saying that the commission faced a more difficult choice this time. “The tender involved television companies the quality of whose programs was substantially higher than that of those companies that won in the previous tenders,” he told RFE/RL.

Furthermore, Torosian said he and other leaders of the parliament majority will try to convince the Council of Europe that the latest bidding was fair. But he admitted that its outcome may again get Yerevan in trouble with the Strasbourg-based organization. “There will apparently be some consequences,” he said.

In a strongly-worded statement on July 23, Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer implicitly accused the Kocharian administration of not keeping its reported promise to reopen A1+ before this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. He warned that Armenia can not become “further integrated into Europe” unless its leaders “accept the expression of a broader range of opinions.”

Kocharian, however, dismissed the criticism on July 29 and made it clear that he will not lobby the broadcasting body, hand-picked by him in early 2001, to award a new license to A1+.

It is not known whether Schwimmer raised the issue when he met Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian in Strasbourg late last month. The meeting coincided with the decision by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly not to censure the Armenian authorities of over their handling of the 2003 elections tainted with fraud.

(Photolur photo: Amalian, left, and another member of the commission, Karine Khodikian, voting on the A1+ bid. Khodikian gave the channel the highest score.)