"We demand that free frequencies be immediately made public and that a public, transparent, and open tender be declared," read a statement by the organizers of a protest marking the third anniversary of A1+ TV's being taken off the air.
It was on April 2, 2002 that the National Commission of Television and Radio (NCTR) withdrew A1+'s transmission rights.
"The government doesn't understand the value of an independent press. There will come a day when all the TV companies will do a 180-degree turn and, within the space of an hour, start criticizing Robert Kocharyan, just like they did with Levon Ter-Petrosyan," said Edik Baghdasaryan, president of the Association of Investigative Journalists. "Most of the journalists working today were the voice of the former government seven years ago. Now they're the voice of the current government, and tomorrow they'll be the same for another government. The time will come, and I think it'll be sooner rather than later, when today's government will realize the value of A1+, when it will need an objective, neutral source of information, but it won't have one."
Since it was taken off the air, A1+ has participated in eight tenders for TV transmission rights, but in each case it "failed to meet" NCTR requirements. "In each of the eight cases we've gone to court," said A1+ representative Tigran Ter-Yesayan. "But even in court they haven't told us the reasons why A1+ has lost every tender, so that A1+ can understand what it's doing wrong and prepare a better proposal. The members of the committee give grades, but we don't know why we get a 1 and not a 5."
A1+ has appealed to Minister of Transportation and Communication Andranik Manukyan and NCTR President Grigor Amalyan on many occasions, asking them to organize a tender for free TV frequencies. "A year and three months have gone by, and the committee hasn't declared a tender for any free decimeter frequencies. They say that there aren't any. Minister Manukyan says that all the free frequencies were given to the NCTR. NCTR President Amalyan says that he already declared tenders for the frequencies that the minister gave him. We know that there at least nine frequencies available, and that there should be a tender," insisted A1+ producer Susanna Ohanjanyan, showing us the list of frequencies.
"We need an open tender for a frequency. I don't know when, but NCTR will answer for its unlawful actions," A1+ owner Mesrop Movsisyan said at a recent press conference. The TV company's case has been in the European Court of Human Rights for two years now. "The process is still going on, now there are discussions on what kind of hearings the parties will agree to. We've chosen to be present in the courthouse, but I don't know about the Armenian government. The other option is for the trial to proceed via letter," Yesayan explained.
The case is currently in the pre-trial phase. A decision is due in May; Yesayan believes that the court will decide positively and the case will enter its final phase.
"We must make sure that A1+ reopens and that no other TV company can lose its broadcast rights because of an illegal decision," said Avetik Ishkanyan, the Helsinki Committee's representative in Armenia. "We are not disappointed or hopeless. This 10-day action is a sign of protest and will remind the government that the issue of A1+ reopening is currently reflected in the reports presented to Council of Europe."
The television station is facing another problem as well. On April 5 th the Financial Court will hear a case brought against A1+ by the National Science Academy, which seeks to evict the company from its current home, 15 Grigor Lusavorich Street. "The government decided to transfer the building from one subject to another, without taking into consideration the rights and interests of parties that have been operating in the building for years now, that have contracts and investments," Tigran Ter-Yesayan said, adding, "I will definitely lodge a counter-suit."
"We are ready for the workers to come and put our things out on the street," Mesrop Movsisyan said without anger. "There's no shame on A1+. The shame is on our president and our prime minister, because that's their attitude toward the press and the nation."
After three years, the A1+ staff is still together. They work on the A1+ website, and publish the weekly paper Aib Fe .
"I used to work for the TV viewer, now I work for the reader," said Aib Fe journalist Diana Markosyan. "We've kept our principles, our philosophy, in the newspaper. There have been many job offers. Naturally, I turned them all down. We're fighting for our principles, for the right to free speech, not for jobs. We've been off the air for three years now, but to some extent it's a victory for A1+ to not be on the air for three years and not to lose ourselves, because we're still a black sheep for the government. If it were a different TV company, everybody would have left already, so this is our victory too, because each of us has principles as a journalist. I am fighting for my rights and those of my audience, which were infringed. I have a right to express myself and to work, and my audience has a right to listen to me. A1+ did not close, it's only off the air."
" I worked on the news program Aib Fe from the day A1+ was founded," said Ruzanna Amirkhanyan. "In the last three years I've had many job offers. But I understood that I was being offered work job not for my professional qualities, but, firstly, to dissolve A1+. I'm not an active journalist now and don't write frequently for the newsletter, since I'm a TV journalist. I can't work anywhere else, since my face represents A1+. I haven't been on the air in three years, but when people see me on the street they still ask me about our situation. I think it would be better to leave journalism than to go to some other media organization. I have another profession and it would be better to go back to it than to work for another TV station."
"I haven't left A1+ because there aren't any other newspapers or TV stations I'd want to work for," explained A1+ journalist Mher Arshakyan. "In my opinion, the only solution is a change of government. Only in that case can I imagine a solution. But even in our current state of being condemned and rejected, we're still a thorn in their side for the government, and that is a victory."
A1+ , a Symbol of Freedom of Speech
"Not allowing A1+ to broadcast proves that there is no freedom of speech in our country. By participating in events like this, we want to show that we need free speech and we're fighting for freedom of speech in Armenia." - Seda Arzumanyan, New Armenia NGO
"The objective is to defend freedom of speech. There can be no democracy without free speech. The way that A1+ was shut down cannot be considered democratic - it wasn't beaten in a competition; it didn't lose a fair fight. It was just deliberate politics pursuing a larger aim, which, during the 2002 elections, was to suppress free speech and prevent the people from learning too much. There are two options - to resign ourselves to this fate and sit at home, or to speak out at events like this. A1+ won't reopen tomorrow after this demonstration, but by doing this we want to show that there are people out there who continue to value freedom of speech." - Hrayr Tovmasyan
"This is a fight for free speech. Not everyone has access to newspapers, but the broadcast media have a large audience. If there's anything wrong in this country, it's because of the absence of free speech. Everyone should feel responsible as a citizen of this country to do something towards the establishment of free speech here. This event will last 10 days, signatures will be collected from 6-8 pm, there is a 'free speech corner' where people can read the latest news and articles on display." - Isabella Sargsyan,Helsinki Citizens' Assembly
" A1+ was different from other media. The way it delivered news was of a totally different quality. It was stripped of its right to broadcast three years ago through absolutely illegal means. This is a matter of reestablishing freedom of speech and our right to it." -Hovhannes Galajyan, Editor,Iravunk
" A1+ is badly missed, I feel the need for a clash of different opinions. Each step towards the reopening of A1+ is a step towards democracy." - Anahit Bakhshyan, Principal, Secondary School No. 27, Yerevan
"I think this demonstration is aimed at defending free speech and human rights as well as having television that is free from control. Having to fight for free speech is becoming a bad habit in Armenia." - Hrach Bayadyan
"I'm doing my job - I'm working, and I have to make sure there's no disorder. If I weren't on the job, I might have come - do you think we aren't human, that we don't have the same demands?" - a policeman, who wished to remain anonymous
" A1+ has become a symbol of freedom of speech, and we're fighting for our lost freedom." -Nuné Sargsyan, Executive Director, Internews-Armenia
"This trampling of free speech is a link in the chain of lawlessness, fraud, and deceit in the country. We must start the fight at some point - today that point is A1+ " - Ruzan Khachatryan
"There is no free speech in Armenia - all the television channels and most of the newspapers are controlled, nobody can express their opinions freely. We want to have an alternative, like A1+used to be. I need an alternative now; it doesn't matter whether it's A1+ ,Noyan Tapan , or another TV channel - I want uncontrolled speech." - Karen Manukyan
"The closure of A1+ narrowed our margins of free speech, and that happened before our very eyes. A1+ was also a medium of our self-expression, of which we were deprived. We must rebel, and try to reestablish it - we must fight to the end!" - Gayané Markosyan, President, Free Forum for Civil Initiatives NGO