A Political and Illegal Decision
Mesrop Movsesyan is the director of the independent television station, A1+, which was deprived of its license to broadcast on 2 April. A1+ has existed as a news agency in Armenia since 1991 but started television broadcasting in 1996. It reaches two million people throughout Armenia.
Known for its objective but hard-hitting coverage of the political and social situation in Armenia, A1+ is considered one of the most independent news services in the country. The decision not to renew the station's license during a tender has fuelled speculation that its closure is an attempt by President Robert Kocharian to control media coverage in the run-up to the 2003 presidential elections.
A1+ halted broadcasting on the evening of 2 April. After six years of broadcasting, its logo, which had pulsed like a heart, stopped. A monotone signal from a life-support machine symbolized the death of the independent media in Armenia. The French media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, called the closure of A1+, the "most serious violation of pluralism in Armenia in the past few years."
This interview was conducted on 3 April 2002 at the offices of A1+ in Yerevan. It was originally published by the Armenian News Network / Groong on 4 April 2002.
Onnik Krikorian: Yesterday, A1+ was taken off the air. How do you feel now that the National Commission on TV and Radio has voted to terminate A1+'s broadcasts?
Mesrop Movsesyan: We are frustrated of course, because the decision is illegal. It was the president's wish to stop us from broadcasting because we provide impartial and unbiased information.
Krikorian: However, regarding the Law on TV and Radio, it could be argued that the decision to terminate A1+'s broadcast was legitimate.
Movsesyan: No, it was not, and we have taken legal action against the commission. The decision to close A1+ was taken in November during a private meeting between the Armenian president, Robert Kocharian, the defense minister, Serzh Sarkisyan, and the National Security Council. Although we have no evidence, only oral testimony, we believe that the idea to close the station came from that meeting.
Krikorian: A1+ is considered the only real source of news in Armenia. It deals with real issues and real people, and many consider that its closure will be sorely felt and lamented by many.
Movsesyan: We were the only television station that provided impartial and unbiased information and news, and that is the only reason why we are now prevented from broadcasting. It was also a very popular station and people are already visiting or ringing our offices to express their sympathy and support. They regard this decision as an official policy to prevent us from broadcasting. As a result, various opposition groups have scheduled a rally to be held in Yerevan on Friday [5 April].
Krikorian: The reasons why the Commission awarded the frequency to Sharm were presumably based on their financial package and plans to create their own entertainment shows?
Movsesyan: No. The decision was not weighted according to those criteria. It was [not a matter] either of the financial package or plans to create entertainment programs. The decision is political. Officially, they argued that our package was bad, and insufficient funding may have been another reason, but it is only a cover for the real reason, which is political.
Krikorian: Regarding the tender, Sharm put forward a package valued at $1.8 million, and Dofin at $3.2 million.
Movsesyan: Over a period of many years, our channel has already invested as much money as they have pledged to. We have already established ourselves and Sharm will have to spend some of that money in order to establish its technical facilities. We have already accomplished this but they will have to start from scratch. What is more important is that they are believed to be very supportive of the government.
Krikorian: It could be argued that the biggest problem facing the media in Armenia is financial. Many newspapers rely on wealthy sponsors such as the government officials or businessmen and this therefore creates significant problems for the development of the independent media.
These problems are even more acute for the broadcast media and there are some very sensitive questions that need to be asked regarding ownership of the media in Armenia. Many media outlets that have the resources to produce their own entertainment programs appear to be owned or financially supported by the political and economic elite.
Movsesyan: Every effort is made to perpetuate this situation among the mass media in order to ensure that news coverage is favorable to the government. The authorities and various officials do their best to support such kinds of media. Our channel is merely out of favor.
Krikorian: The Law on TV and Radio looks very good on paper, with specific requirements for broadcasting locally produced programs in the Armenian language, restrictions on showing pornography until certain hours of the evening etc. However, when I spoke to various journalists and analysts at the time the law was introduced they instead said that they considered the law to be very bad. In order to comply with the law, many media outlets would have little choice but to become financially dependent on sponsors, who could influence content.
Movsesyan: I agree that the mass media depends on funding and this serves as a good tool for the government to restrict and control the media in Armenia. The key issue is not the practical ability of the media but its financial means.
Krikorian: The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) recently raised these concerns, citing the economic dependence of the media in Armenia, self-censorship among journalists unwilling to go against the interests of their sponsors, and weak legal safeguards in place to protect press freedom. Should organizations such as the CPJ and indeed, the Council of Europe be concerned with the closure of A1+?
Movsesyan: International organizations such as the Council of Europe must do everything to protect us and the independent media in general. There is no document that justifies the closure of our channel and we now suspect that pressure has been applied on AATV, an American-Armenian joint venture, to prevent us from broadcasting through their cable network.
Even if we do lose our frequency band to Sharm, we still have a contract with AATV to broadcast through their network. However, AATV violated our contract by stopping our broadcasts shortly after midnight. Maybe they have also been put under political pressure. As a result, we have not only started legal proceedings against the National Commission on TV and Radio but we have also decided to extend legal action to include AATV.
Krikorian: However, there are significant concerns regarding the independence of the legal system in Armenia.
Movsesyan: The legal system really doesn't function in our country and the judiciary is also in the hands of the authorities. We don't have any expectations from our legal system because we know it is under the control of our top officials.
Krikorian: Yesterday, the Armenian President was given significant airtime on Channel Armenia to voice his opinion on the closure of A1+. Speaking at Zvartnots airport before leaving for Tajikistan, the president said that he respected A1+'s news coverage but stressed that he couldn't interfere in the tender. He instead suggested that the station bid for another frequency in the future.
Movsesyan: This was just Asian hypocrisy in action and typically, it's his style. Instead, and assuming that we do prove successful in another competition for a new frequency, it will take time to resume our broadcasts. It might take a year and as we can expect the presidential elections in 2003, it is likely that the authorities will deprive us of the possibility to broadcast at that time also.
Krikorian: The president did however suggest that A1+ was being used by opposition forces close to former President Levon Ter Petrosian to create political instability in Armenia. Despite this however, it was interesting for me to see that individuals as diverse as Vladimir Chadoyev, Chairman of the National Union of Minorities, and Vazgen Manukian of the opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM) appeared on A1+ to voice their support for the station.
There have also been messages of support from Armen Rustamian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun and from members of the Republican Party, although they did not officially represent the government of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian. Are the allegations that A1+ represents the interests of opposition groups in Armenia fair?
Movsesyan: A1+ is just an independent company and none of the political parties has an impact on the content of our programs. We have to provide everyone the opportunity to express their opinions--and we can do this because we are independent.
Krikorian: Therefore, if legal action to resume broadcasting fails, what happens next? What happens to your premises and your staff? Will your journalists continue to work as they have done and will they be able to use other mediums such as the Internet to publish articles and analysis?
Movsesyan: We will do our best to keep our staff with us and if we don't succeed through legal action we will continue to disseminate news through our Ayb-Fe news agency. In fact, we will also return to the way we worked before 1996 through our TV production company and our media training program. We shall also use our website to disseminate news and information.
Krikorian: Everyone I've spoken to today says they consider the closure of A1+ as not only bad for the independent media in Armenia but also for the country. However, given widespread political apathy, it remains to be seen how many people will attend the rally scheduled to be staged in support of A1+ on Friday. What are your expectations?
Movsesyan: If people are apathetic that's one thing, and it has to be said that the opposition might use the closure of A1+ for its own political purposes. There is the danger that the closure of A1+ will become a secondary issue. However, we are already receiving phone calls from every walk of life, including children, expressing their sympathy and support. Some even said that they could forget past misdeeds by the authorities but that they could not forgive this. I do not know what will happen on 5 April but I should point out that the rally is being arranged by political parties and not by A1+.
Krikorian: We've been talking about the media in Armenia, but what about the diaspora? Have Armenians living abroad an important role to play in support of A1+ and the independent media in Armenia?
Movsesyan: I am sure that the diaspora believes that any money invested in this area goes towards the development of the independent media in Armenia. In reality, however, it is allocated to media organizations that are close to the authorities.
Our independence is under threat and the diaspora assumes that they have access to impartial information. However, they are instead receiving information from Channel Armenia and other pro-governmental outlets. The diaspora is being deceived but thinks that what they are receiving is objective and impartial. This is a real threat to our independence. If representatives of the diaspora really want an independent and democratic country, then only the independent media can provide real news about real issues from our country. We're not speaking about financial assistance incidentally, but simply the need for moral support.
Krikorian: There will be a media and information component at the second Armenia Diaspora Conference scheduled for 26-27 May. However, while the Conference is open to anyone in the diaspora, the ministry of foreign affairs appears very selective about who can attend from Armenia. A number of prominent independent journalists and analysts in Armenia for example, have not been informed. Have you been invited and can the case of A1+ be pursued through the conference?
Movsesyan: I have not been informed or invited, and you have to realize that this type of conference is only organized to attract money to Armenia. It merely promotes the existence of the new hotels, shops and restaurants in Yerevan.
I also suspect that representatives of the diaspora have business interests in Armenia, and whether they like it or not, the success of their investment is dependent on remaining in favor with the incumbent president.
Instead, if the diaspora wants to have an independent media in their country they must support us morally. It is very important that Armenians living abroad understand this. Otherwise, today's policies will lead to disaster in the future.