Armenian Government Continues to Muzzle Media Critic
The National Commission on Television and Radio, a presidentially appointed body, rejected on July 18 the A1+ station's bid for a new broadcasting license. An Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) official responsible for media issues, Freimut Duve, condemned A1+'s exclusion. "Freedom of expression continues to be restricted," Duve said in a statement released July 21. The government commission's decision limits "the Armenian public's ability to watch and listen to a broader range of opinion and diverse reporting." The British head of the OSCE office in Yerevan, Roy Reeve, described the tender ruling as "very sad and disappointing."
Even some of Kocharian's political allies have criticized the commission. For example, a representative of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or Dashnaktsutiun, defended A1+, saying "society needs the company as it is much better prepared" than rival broadcasters who were awarded broadcasting licenses, according to a report posted on the A1+ web site July 19.
The decision delivers a fresh blow to the country's image, which has already been tarnished this year by disputed presidential and parliamentary elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The broadcasting license rejection came despite Yerevan's repeated assurances to the West that A1+, which was often critical of Kocharian, would be allowed to resume broadcasts.
A1+ was forced off the air in April 2002 as a result of the first-ever frequency tender mandated by Armenia's controversial law on broadcasting. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The commission, which administers such tenders, gave A1+'s license to a government-connected entertainment company, claiming that the latter submitted a stronger bid. However, the decision was widely seen as politically motivated.
Some local observers believe that the A1+ controversy marked the early start of Kocharian's reelection campaign. With A1+ out of the way, pro-Kocharian media dominated the airwaves. During the campaign last winter, opposition candidates faced highly biased coverage by state television and private networks loyal to the authorities. That coverage was one of the reasons for an extremely negative assessment of the poll given by the OSCE.
According to Western diplomats in Yerevan, Kocharian had assured the Council of Europe last year that A1+ would be able to resume broadcasting in time for the presidential race. Pietro Ago, an Italian diplomat representing the council's main decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, said during a May 2002 visit to the Armenian capital: "We reached an understanding [with Kocharian] that the Council of Europe experts will work with Armenian experts to ensure that when new frequencies are allotted, A1+ can successfully participate in those tenders. So this problem will be solved in the near future."
A1+ was not only unable to cover the 2003 elections, but now appears to have no realistic chance of resuming its broadcasts any time soon. In the recent tender, the channel was bidding for one of the frequencies currently held by three (admittedly second-rate) private stations owned by businessmen supporting Kocharian. The chairman of the regulatory commission, Grigor Amalian, admitted that A1+ had a better core of reporters and technicians than its competitors, but he claimed that the station lacked sufficient financial backing. In particular, Amalian cast doubt on A1+ owner Mesrop Movsesian's pledge to invest more than $2 million in the network. Broader sponsorship, Amalian claimed, would be a more reliable investment guarantee than the advertising revenues projections used by Movsesian. A1+ representatives dismissed the commission's ruling, labeling Amalian's explanation as a smokescreen. They believe Kocharian issued "instructions" to keep the popular channel off the air a view is shared by many local journalists and political analysts.
When it was on the air, A1+ was the only channel that frequently criticized Kocharian administration policy. There are scores of other private channels in Armenia, but they rarely broadcast reports that could upset the president. Virtually all of them are owned by wealthy entrepreneurs with close government connections. The A1+ case is widely seen as a litmus test for press freedom in Armenia. The Armenian print media is far more diverse, with at least three daily newspapers that routinely take a critical view of Kocharian's administration. However, the newspapers have an extremely low circulation. Television is thus the main source of information for most Armenians. Hence, its political significance for authorities.
The decision to maintain the ban on A1+ simultaneously testifies to Kocharian's self-confidence and sense of insecurity. The Armenian leader, who has faced a barrage of criticism over his controversial reelection, appears untroubled by possible international ramifications of the move. He may be counting on the probability that the Council of Europe and the OSCE will confine their actions to verbal condemnations.
Kocharian now looks more concerned about domestic challenges to his authority. Armenian opposition leaders, who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the presidential election results, have pledged to mount a renewed campaign this autumn to force Kocharian's resignation. By keeping the TV air beyond the reach of his opponents, Kocharian showed that he takes their threats seriously.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.