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Edik Baghdasaryan

A+1 is denied a frequency once again

On July 18, 2003 the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR) announced the results of a tender for five TV frequencies. The A1+ TV Company, which had been taken off the air in an April 2, 2002 decision by the same commission, was once again not awarded a channel. “The closure of the A1+ TV Company was from the very outset a political order by the government ofArmenia, and this order has not been canceled yet,” A1+ president Mesrop Movsesyan told us.

Commenting on the results of the tender, Armen Rustamyan, leader of the governing body of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF Dashnaktsutiun) and chairman of the standing committee for foreign affairs of the National Assembly, said, “It was clearly exhibited that that the A1+ Company was better prepared for the tender and was more necessary to the public then some other companies who won the tender.” According to Rustamyan, “It would have been more correct to take into account the numerous recommendations made by the monitoring groups of the Council of Europe on this subject.” The ARF representative believes that “this decision will not contribute to the strengthening ofArmenia’s position in the Council of Europe,” and that the situation surrounding A1+ requires “organizing hearings on this subject in the parliament as well”.

Roy Reeve, the OSCE representative inArmeniafinds the results of the tender “sad and disappointing”.

NCTR chairman Grigor Amalyan had anticipated these reactions: “It is impossible to give somebody a TV frequency just based on the good will of international organizations or even on the good will of the commission within the framework of the existing legislation,” he said to journalists after announcing the results.

When asked by a Public Television reporter, “Aren’t you concerned about the fact that with this vote, you have in a sense hindered freedom of speech, which international organizations say is conditioned on the reopening of A1+?” Amalyan said, “This emphasis - that there is no freedom of speech in Armenia since there is no A1+ -- is just insulting in a situation in which there are more than 40 TV stations. And it is often odd to me that they [international organizations] are so tolerant toward such statements of yours.”

The members of the National Commission on Television and Radio are appointed by the president ofArmenia. The A1+ TV Station, which was taken off the air one-and-a-half years ago, was an independent station - it gave airtime to representatives of the opposition and was considered to be an “open platform”.

According to a survey conducted by Internews (an NGO) and the Yerevan Press Club in 2001 and 2002, A1+’s Aib-Fe news program was the third most popular in the country, behind only news on Armenian Public Television and Russia’s ORT TV Company.

When A1+ was taken off the air, there was a tide of public discontent inArmenia; for several days there were rallies and demonstrations inYerevanprotesting this blow against freedom of speech. Protesters demanded that the results of the tender be declared invalid and A1+ be reopened. “The A1+ independent TV company was closed not because it lost a legal competition, but within the framework of a political order,” said a number of media outlets in a joint statement adopted on April 3, 2002. In contrast, the heads of the 17 pro-government media outlets signed a statement claiming that there was no threat to freedom of speech inArmenia.

A1+ went to the Court of Economic Arbitration requesting that the NCTR decisions on TV frequencies be invalidated because they had been made in violation of the law. The Court turned this request down. Then A1+ challenged the verdict in the Court of Appeals. But A1+ met with no success in the Armenian courts. The courts never acknowledged that the tender had been held with numerous violations of the law. On November 1, 2002 the A1+ case was taken on by theEuropean Courton Human Rights.

In an interview with Hetq Weekly, Toby Mendel, director of legal projects for the international organization Article 19, said that A1+ has a good chance of winning. “I think there are at least three grounds. First, the National Commission on Television and Radio, which was created by law, is not independent. The law doesn’t guarantee the commission’s independence from the government, which runs counter to international standards and the recommendations of the Council of Europe. Second, there was a biased attitude toward A1+ during the competition. The third argument is quite interesting - by depriving A1+ of the license, they in fact denied the people an important voice. The people must have an opportunity to receive diverse information. If these arguments are correctly presented to theEuropean Court, I see a great chance to win the case.”

The closure of A1+ has received wide international response. A number of European and other international organizations have called upon the government ofArmeniato reopen the station. The matter has been a subject of discussion in all meetings with leaders of European structures over the last year-and-a-half. Our officials have always acknowledged the importance of freedom of speech and dissent, but no action has been taken. “I am informed that the Armenian authorities are looking for a solution and I am confident that a positive solution will be found soon,” Walter Schwimmer, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, said a year ago in an interview with Radio Free Europe. The international organizations did their best to see the station reopened before the recent presidential and parliamentary elections, but it never happened. The government did not keep its promise.

The A1+ TV Company has continued its work even after being taken off the air. It still provides the Hamaspyur independent television network - created by A1+ in September 1999 and consisting of 9 regional TV Stations - with 6 hours of programming The Hamaspyur network reaches 70% of theterritoryofArmenia.

Now, strange as it may seem, most of the political spectrum inArmeniais angered by the latest ruling of the commission, although it is no different from the previous ruling. The vice-speaker of the parliament and representative of the ruling Republican Party, Tigran Torosyan, said on this subject, “I believe that at least some of the TV companies that won the tender are inferior to A1+ in experience, potential and usefulness to the public.” The chairman of the opposition People’s Party and former presidential candidate, Stepan Demirchyan, said: “This decision was no surprise to us. It is clear that it was just another political order, which proves that they are afraid of A1+.” Artashes Geghamyan, chairman of the National Unity Party believes, “Nothing will change so long as the illegitimate President Kocharyan is in power.”

Parliament Member Manuk Gasparyan said in an interview with the Haykakan Zhamanak daily, “The authorities understand very well that some kind of internal political unrest is expected inArmeniathis fall. Thus, they couldn’t be so na?ve as to put A1+ on the air. The Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement lies ahead, the presidential election inAzerbaijanlies ahead, and besides, serious problems within the so-called coalition government are to come.” He believes that in this situation the government will not permit the opening of a TV station that provides an open platform for different opinions.

The National Commission on Television and Radio was supposed to base its decision on four criteria outlined in Article 50 of the Law on Television and Radio. These criteria are:

1. Prevalence of company’s own programs;
2. Prevalence of domestically produced programs;
3. Technical and financial capacity;
4. Professionalism of staff.

A1+ clearly outmatched its competitors in at least three out of the four required criteria. NCTR Chairman Grigor Amalyan confirmed this himself in a press conference following the competition. He cited only one area in which A1+ received low marks: “The proposal submitted by A1+ as an investment and development project is based financially and technically only on expected income.”

Interestingly, a week before the tender the government raised the salaries of Amalyan and other members of the commission two times. As of July 2003, Amalyan will be paid $520 a month, while the minimum wage inArmeniais $35.

In his press conference after the competition, Mesrop Movsesyan stated that he would invite “experts from abroad to evaluate the tender proposals submitted by A1+ and the other TV companies. There is no sense in going to court. The judges serve as lackeys, there is no judiciary inArmeniaat all.” He believes that what has happened was not only a “political order”, but also the result of “a personal vendetta”.

“The eleven-month-long inactivity imposed on the A1+ TV Company, and the television scene that became complete with the removal of A1+ give us reason to believe that there is nothing for us to do in this country,” said the employees of A1+ in a February 14, 2003 statement addressed to foreign embassies in Armenia, in which the journalists requested political asylum.

The A1+ journalists have been getting offers from various media outlets. But the staff is not splitting up. Today they produce video reports for the Hamaspyur network and the company’s Website (www.a1plus.am). They also publish the Aib-Fe daily.

“We will keep fighting to get back on the air and we will participate in future tenders,” Mesrop Movsesyan insists. Meanwhile, most of his reporters have lost hope-- they don’t believe the TV station will ever be reopened.

This article was written specially for Transitions Online