A1+ office in Yerevan is a quiet place these days,
with no reporters or technical personnel hurrying
to get the latest news to the public. Visitors
would hardly notice any sign of activity at the
station, once widely regarded as the most objective
and impartial in Armenia. Eight months after being
forced off the air, its 70 or so staff are losing
hope that they will be allowed to resume work
The mood turned gloomier a couple weeks ago after
a court suspended a crucial bid (see Waiting
for Air) for several television frequencies,
which was seen as the only realistic possibility
of reopening A1+.
The official motive for the injunction was a
lawsuit filed by another private television station,
Noyan Tapan, against the state commission that
regulates broadcasting. But with Armenian courts
rarely ruling against the government, there is
a widespread suspicion that the authorities are
keen to bar A1+ from covering next February's
presidential elections, in which President Robert
Kocharyan will be a top contender.
Mesrop Movsesyan (pictured above) is the owner
and director of A1+. He says that at stake is
the very survival of his company.
"There are two conflicting goals involved.
For A1+, the main thing is to preserve its team
[of journalists], whereas the broadcasting commission
wants to make sure that if A1+ is to resume its
work, it does so after the elections."
Noyan Tapan, which is owned by the eponymous
news agency, is protesting the "illegal"
refusal by the National Commission on Television
and Radio to consider its bid. The regulatory
body, whose members were appointed by Kocharyan,
refused to accept it on the grounds that the broadcaster
did not specify which of the available frequencies
it is bidding for. Court hearings into the dispute
opened last week and could last for months.
Grigor Amalyan (pictured below), chairman of
the broadcasting commission, says, "I hope
that the judicial process will not drag on. I
am doing everything so that our representatives
in the court have all necessary documents to prevent
However, Movsesyan and some local observers suspect
Noyan Tapan and the authorities of striking a
secret deal to further delay A1+ broadcasts. Amalyan
dismisses the allegations as "absurd."
the real story, the indefinite postponement of
the frequency tender appears to have dealt a final
blow to A1+'s chances of covering the presidential
race or parliamentary elections in May 2003. The
cash-strapped channel, which has been unable to
earn advertising revenues since April, hoped to
cover part of its huge financial losses through
More importantly, A1+ was the only major TV station
that often aired criticism of Kocharyan and the
government while seeking to present a broader
range of opinions. There are dozens of channels
operating across Armenia. However, virtually all
big private networks are owned by businessmen
loyal to Kocharyan. This has prompted concern
that stations are not as objective in their news
reports as they should be.
Kocharyan also firmly controls the state-run
Armenian National Television, the most accessible
media outlet in the country. All this gives him
a huge advantage over his election challengers.
Armenia's far more diverse print media have small
circulations and therefore less influence than
The official reason for closing A1+ was that
it lost a tender for its frequency. But the shutdown
was strongly denounced by local and international
media watchdogs. The New York-based Committee
to Protect Journalists accused Kocharyan of "blatantly
abusing the frequency licensing system in an attempt
to silence a critical media voice."
Vicken Cheterian, director of the Swiss-funded
Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan, shares those
concerns. "Taking A1+ off the air is a step
backwards. It is not a step forward [in protecting
The decision to pull the plug on A1+ triggered
a series of opposition rallies in the Armenian
capital last spring. It was also criticized by
the United States and the Council of Europe. In
an April statement, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan
indicated that A1+'s continued existence is essential
for the freedom and fairness of the 2003 elections.
Senior Council of Europe officials have said
all along that they received assurances from Kocharyan
that A1+ will stand a very good chance of being
reinstated if it bids for another frequency this
autumn. In July, for example, the secretary-general
of the Strasbourg-based human rights organization,
Walter Schwimmer, told RFE/RL that he is "confident
that a positive solution will soon be found"
to the issue.
However, the broadcasting commission's Amalyan
insists that Yerevan officials could not have
explicitly promised to reopen the channel. He
says the authorities can only guarantee the fairness
of the process.
"It would have been ludicrous to say in
advance who will win the [delayed] contest. It's
just not realistic."
Ironically, it was the Council of Europe that
prompted the Armenian authorities to reform the
opaque regulatory framework for the electronic
media. Two laws adopted in 2000 were meant to
render state television more independent and put
in place equal competitive rules for private channels.