By Atom Markarian and Emil Danielyan
A1+, Armenia’s leading independent television forced off the air in 2002, lost Monday its apparently last chance of resuming broadcasts in the near future as authorities rejected its application for a new license for the fourth consecutive time this year.
A regulatory body appointed by President Robert Kocharian ruled instead in favor of a newly created TV company reportedly linked to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a member of the governing three-party coalition.
The predictable decision by the National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH) was the result of a tender for Armenia’s last available broadcasting frequency. All other frequencies have been distributed by the HRAH on a supposedly competitive basis since April 2002.
With a broadcasting license valid for seven years, the move means that A1+ will be unable to bid for a frequency in the next five years. The commission chairman, Grigor Amalian, said an extraordinary tender may take place during that period only if the HRAH decides to pull the plug on one of the operating private TV channels. But as things stand now, that seems very unlikely.
Amalian said that although A1+’s latest bid was stronger than the previous ones, the commission granted the license to the new Yerkir-Media channel because the latter’s proposals better met the requirements of the Armenian law on television and radio. “A1+ took one step forward but two steps back,” he claimed.
A1+ was the only major Armenian TV channel that regularly aired reports critical of Kocharian and his administration, a fact which local and international media rights groups say was instrumental in its controversial closure. The de facto ban has repeatedly been condemned by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as a serious blow to freedom of expression in Armenia. Their repeated calls for the authorities in Yerevan to reopen the once popular channel have gone unheeded, however.
Kocharian made it clear over the weekend that he will not lobby the HRAH to give the tender to A1+. “I don’t understand why there should be any lobbying for a single TV channel,” he told reporters.
Kocharian also disputed the widely held belief that A1+ broadcasts were essential for media pluralism in Armenia. “The opposition is more visible on our TV channels than the government,” he said.
The winner of the Monday tender is reportedly owned by individuals affiliated with the pro-Kocharian Dashnaktsutyun. One of them is Rubina Ghazarian, the wife of a senior member of the governing nationalist party, Vazrik Petrosian. Also among the Yerkir-Media owners, according to some newspaper reports, is Horizon TV, Dashnaktsutyun’s California-based broadcasting network.
The new broadcaster will be headquartered in the former editorial offices of Dashnaktsutyun’s Yerevan-based official newspaper. Incidentally, it is called “Yerkir” (Country).
However, Ghazarian, who will act as Yerkir-Media’s executive director, denied any link between Dashnaktsutyun and the TV station. Leaders of the party represented in the Armenian government have issued similar denials over the past two weeks.
The Armenian law on broadcasting bans political parties from owning or controlling TV and radio stations. Amalian argued that Yerkir-Media technically meets the requirement as it has no “official connection” with Dashnaktsutyun.
(Photolur photo: Commission members voting for the Yerkir-Media bid.)