Armenian Presidential TV Commission Shuts Down Two Independent Broadcasters
Many journalists question the independence of the commission, citing the fact that all nine members are appointees of incumbent President Robert Kocharyan.
The decision to strip A-One Plus and Noyan Tapan of their licenses was made by the National Commission on TV and Radio. Many journalists question the independence of the commission, citing the fact that all nine members are appointees of incumbent President Robert Kocharyan.
The commission's decision will "restrict the diversity of information and opportunities to express information," said a statement issued April 2 by the Yerevan Press Club. The journalists' group also expressed concern that the ruling "may become a precedent for silencing and intimidation of unwanted media."
Both A-One Plus and Noyan Tapan had well-established reputations for journalistic independence. The commission awarded the frequency used by A-One Plus to Sharm, an entertainment firm with no news broadcasting experience. Noyan Tapan's frequency was given to a production firm, Shoghakat, which is linked to the Armenia Apostolic Church.
The United States weighed in April 3 with a statement that said the decision "raises serious questions about the future of free and independent media in Armenia."
"A-One Plus performed a valuable service in offering substantial media access to a broad spectrum of opinion makers, political leaders, and those holding differing views," the statement added.
The international donor community has poured millions of dollars into helping to build an independent press in Armenia as a central part of the overall effort to promote civil society in the former Soviet state.
A-One Plus, which has received substantial assistance from the United States, is the most popular TV station for news and has been broadcasting in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, with a few interruptions, since independence in 1991. Noyan Tapan, a multi-media firm, has also received significant assistance from Western-funded media training programs.
Lawyers for the two broadcasters quickly filed suit in an economic court alleging that the commission did not follow its own established procedures.
"I am sure that the commission broke the law, which shows a lack of respect for the law, which they surely knew," said Karen Andreasyan, a lawyer who was involved in drafting statutes establishing the commission and the latest broadcasting law adopted last year.
The most significant transgression he said was restricting competition to a single frequency for each bidding company whereas competition was meant to be pooled so that serious bidders could have a better chance of finding space in the spectrum.
A statement issued April 3 by the Union of Journalists of Armenia agreed that the commission's ruling represented a "violation of existing laws, so therefore cannot be legally binding." The statement called on the president to annul the decision.
A-One Plus faced two strong competitors while there were no serious bidders on a number of other frequencies also up for bid and that are equally desirable from technical point of view.
"The president can't listen to any opinions that are controversial or contrary to his own, and that's why he doesn't like us," said Aram Abrahamyan, editor-in-chief of the opposition-linked Aravot newspaper, who also had a popular nightly news discussion program on A-One Plus.
Before leaving for a brief trip to Central Asia on April 2, Kocharyan answered reporters' questions about the media furor. He indicated that he would speak with A-One Plus executives on his return to explore a way to get the station back on the air.
He denied interfering with the commission's decision, and professed to enjoy A-One Plus programming. He also scoffed at the notion that he was attempting to muzzle the press, saying a putative political crack-down on the media would be more effective just ahead of elections, which are still nearly a year away.
Diplomats and local analysts said his comments might have been intended to take some of the sting out of the unexpected strong reaction against the closure, and that he might be having second thoughts about the move.
"There is a lot of negative in this and I think this will backfire because, by eliminating any dissent, you psychologically undermine whatever credibility the government-affiliated new outlets have and this not the way to win the propaganda war," one Western diplomat said.
The diplomat added that before the commission's decision was announced, A-One Plus and Noyan Tapan representatives had warned foreign embassies that the government would manipulate media laws to force the stations off the air. "And it has happened exactly as they said," the diplomat added.
Critics of existing media legislation say its biggest flaw is a provision allowing the president to appoint all nine commission members. Critics add that strong cultural dispositions make it impossible for nominees to be inured to pressure. The chairman of the commission, Grigor Amalyan, formerly served as deputy chief of staff for Kocharyan, while the vice-chairman, Shamiram Aghabekyan, is a former leader of a party now in parliamentary coalition with the president's backers.
These two are the only commission members who receive a salary. On the vote for Channel 37, previously held by A-One Plus, they both gave one point to A-One Plus, and five (out of five) to Sharm, the winning bidder - the most lopsided assessment compared to their commission colleagues.
Although there was strong pressure to change the arrangement for appointing the commission, the current constitution states that all state regulatory bodies can be appointed by the president.
This provision may be changed in upcoming constitutional amendments aimed at bringing Armenia's basic law into conformity with European standards, as required under a deal that saw Armenia admitted to the Council of Europe in January 2001.
Muddying the waters on the closure controversy is the fact that A-One Plus apparently submitted a package of written documents that was inferior to those presented by Sharm and the other bidder, known as Dofin. In addition, despite - or possibly because of - all the support extended to the station from international donors, A-One Plus has never developed into a strong business, media professionals concede.
Critics of the commission however note that there was no effort by the commission to question the claims of substantial planned investments on the part of the new bidders, although by law the commission should have carried out due diligence to ensure there is no political party support.
Critics also say that the commission appears to have thoroughly discounted A-One Plus' extensive track record, which includes substantial training for the industry and its role as a supporting hub for broadcasting stations in poorly served regions of the country outside of the capital.
The new operators have six months to get their own transmitters up and broadcasting and there is apparently no penalty if for some reason they are unable to do so.
Ken Stier is a freelance journalist, based temporarily in Yerevan, who specializes in Caucasus and Central Asian affairs.