Friday, 21 September

Who Took A1+ Off the Air and Why?

Mher Arshakyan

In November 2001, the weekly newspaper Iravunk carried the following piece of information-"The Office of the President of the Republic of Armenia has decided to shut down the A1+ television company." At 11:59 on April 2, 2002 , the channel could still proclaim over Decimeter Frequency 37, "A1+ is still on the air." But exactly one minute later, the station that had been broadcasting non-stop for five years was shut down. A representative of the Armenian Television Network state closed-stock company entered A1+'s rented offices and removed the channel's cable.

There had been a number of predictions in the opposition press that President Kocharyan was planning to shut A1+ down in the run up to the 2003 presidential elections. On April 2nd, before leaving for Dushanbe , the capital of Tajikistan , the president turned to an A1+ correspondent at the Zvartnots Airport and said, "You had a good TV station." At that moment, the National Commission of Television and Radio (NCRT) had not yet voted to give Frequency 37 to the Sharm Company. He had no reason to use the past tense about a channel that was still on the air. Another company that had its eye on the frequency was Dofin, which was registered at the address of one of its founders, a site that contained none of the necessary broadcasting equipment. The press wrote that this "TV channel" belonged to Hrair Hakobyan, who owned the Yerevan Champagne and Wine Factory and the Voske Dzknik (Goldfish) Restaurant. "He has warm relations with Aleksan Harutyunyan, advisor to the president," said the March 21 st issue of Aravot . Harutyunyan responded, "Hrair Hakobyan is my friend, as are some reporters from A1+, and a number of people working at Sharm." Three years after Sharm was awarded the frequency, director Ruben Jaghinyan said, "They tried to link us to a lot of people - with Aleksan, then with the Armenian National Movement, then with Hrant Vardanyan."

What led up to A1+ being taken off the air?

On March 18, 2002 , it became clear that besides A1+, Sharm and Dofin were vying for Frequency 37. Why did Sharm choose to compete in that particular tender? "We find that that there is a block of news broadcast on Frequency 37 today. We also find that the channel is largely free the rest of the time. That is why we applied to acquire Decimeter Frequency 37," said Sharm producer Grigor Nazaryan on March 28th.

But as Ruben Jaghinyan explained it, "We live in this world, and we realize that there will be a lot more competition for other frequencies - a lot more than for Frequency 37." Three years on, Jaghinyan was to say, "I think, in any case, on that day, it had been decided that A1+ was no longer to be. And this might sound crude, but the decision was like this-let these people use that frequency instead, they'll put it to better use."

The day after the station was taken off the air, National Unity Party leader Artashes Geghamyan declared the following day that the authorities would "naturally want to suppress A1+". Aravot wrote, "In a pre-election year, Kocharyan does not need a news program that differs from Haylur , or opinions that don't coincide with the official position. As to who would be used to achieve that aim, Sharm or Dofin, and how the official propaganda machine was going to act, these were technical matters that were to be tackled by Head Media Coordinator Alik Harutyunyan." Harutyunyan never replied to these allegations. The media went on to describe the Armenian Law on Television and Radio, certain provisions of which made it possible to take A1+ off the air.

Shavarsh Kocharyan, president of the Parliamentary Commission on Science, Education and Youth Issues, was quick to justify this law-lauded by his commission, one provision of which allowed for a non-functional television channel that existed only on paper to compete against a functioning television company. On this subject, he remarked, "The issue is this - there could be a television company whose license has expired, and which, in reality, is a very weak channel. Shouldn't someone else get the opportunity to use that frequency? The current administration of that channel can reapply with everyone else."

Did Shavarsh Kocharyan know that the law was to be used to shut A1+ down? He has said nothing about that to this day. Even the press was silent in this regard in the days when the law was being discussed. The fact of the matter is, when the law on TV and radio was still taking shape, NCRT Vice-President Shamiram Aghabekyan had told A1+ director Mesrop Movsesyan, "You've been working for five years. Now let someone else work for the next five years." At the end of March, immediately before the tender, reporters were openly talking about how Aleksan Harutyunyan, President Kocharyan's advisor on Issues of Local Self-governance, was the man backing Sharm. Robert Kocharyan himself declared that nobody knew what proposals would be presented to the NCRT in the tender for television broadcasting licenses. However, on March 29 th , when the commission's official position on the project packages was as yet unclear, NCRT Vice-President Shamiram Aghabekyan speaking on the National TV Channel H1, assessed the A1+ proposal as "feeble". The same day, A1+ discovered through its sources that the commission had already decided to shut it down and turn Frequency 37 over to Sharm.

Some of the directors of Hamaspyur , a television network that had cooperated with A1+, stated that they had been invited to work with National Television. On March 28 th , Hrant Tokhatyan, Sharm's deputy director announced, "If A1+ wins the tender, then we are ready to present our project proposal to them and to work with that channel. If we win, we will contact A1+ and ask them to use their Aib Fe program and work with us." In April 2005, Sharm director Ruben Jaghinyan said in this regard, "We were suggesting that Mesrop [Movsesyan] come and take charge of our news programming. He said no, but then, I would've done the same thing, it's only natural."

The proposals of the three companies vying for Frequency 37 were opened on March 28 th . What kind of a TV channel did Sharm promise if they won the tender? According to Hrant Tokhatyan, "Television programs should be optimistic in nature and inspire hope in the viewer, through both their content and presentation." Regarding news programs he said, "We will deliver the news in the classic way, without unnecessary analysis or opinions." They also planned to broadcast non-political news, under the heading "Good News Only". Sharm made no secret of the fact that only 15% of their daily 18-hours of programming would be dedicated to the news. 65% of the transmission would include the kind of fun, entertaining programs that are characteristic of their television company. Three days later, Sharm was awarded Frequency 37. Robert Kocharyan asked people not to view the fact that A1+ was now off the air as a tragedy. "This decision shows that the Commission of Television and Radio is independent," said the president, who had personally appointed all nine members of the commission.

What happened within the commission?

On April 2nd, commission member Ara Tadevosyan, who is also the director of the Mediamax News Agency, gave the proposals of Sharm and A1+ four points each. He said of Sharm's package, ''It was compiled intelligently, in a professional manner," and added, "I also told the representatives of A1+ that I was surprised that a team as experienced as theirs could present such a weak proposal. It left the impression that it was prepared in only a day or two, just for the sake of having submitted a project." Director Ruben Jaghinyan remembers the tender with pride: "We beat A1+ fair and square. It's a different matter that A1+ had more broadcasting experience than we did. But we were no worse than A1+ as far as producing our own programs went." Grigor Amalyan and Shamiram Aghabekyan were the only paid members of the commission - the other seven members, as per the regulations, worked on a voluntary basis. That day, they gave Sharm five points each, and A1+ one point each, the lowest possible score.

Reactions and counter-reactions

The reporters covering the commission's work made a declaration that same day, April 2 nd , stating that although they were acquainted with the proposals of all participants in the tender for Frequency 37, they felt it was is nevertheless unclear which of the five requirements of the law (number of programs produced by the channel itself, number of nationally produced programs, technical facilities and equipment, utilization of airtime, and company staff) Sharm met in its proposal. The reporters found that the members of the commission had been subjective in their approach to these requirements. By the end of the day, seventeen journalists had signed the declaration. Members of the commission, meanwhile, were declining to answer reporters' questions regarding the possible closure of A1+. Four Members of Parliament, Artashes Geghamyan, Stepan Zakaryan, Arshak Sadoyan and Hrant Khachatryan, condemned the closure from the podium of the Parliament. "Yesterday, nearly all the political powers represented in the Parliament were singing the praises of that television channel. The commission ignored the opinions of all those political powers. It turns out that this commission appointed by Robert Kocharyan has no regard for public opinion. We consider it wrong to go on in this way because this is a threat to the existence of public conscience, free speech and the mass media," said Stepan Zakaryan of the People's Party of Armenia . But on April 10th, seventeen media outlets- six TV channels and a number of agencies and newspapers- announced, "Free speech is not under threat in Armenia , and all the necessary conditions for the activity of the mass media exist." The day before, President Kocharyan had addressed television reporters, saying, "Has any of you ever had to submit to any kind of pressure? If so, tell me." Nobody answered Robert Kocharyan's question on the spot, and it will never be asked again. On April 5 th at the airport, returning from Dushanbe , Kocharyan had said, "Regarding A1+ I even allowed myself to cross the line a little bit. Before the commission's decision, I said that I would like to see A1+ on the air. That could be considered putting undue pressure on the commission. While saying that, I kept thinking that the other participants in the tender could accuse me of impartiality." The day after the seventeen news outlets made their announcement, nineteen others responded that "Free speech is, nevertheless, under threat."

How was Sharm established?

Sharm had prepared for the frequency tender months beforehand. The people at Sharm had been actively involved in the elections of both the first and second presidents of the Republic of Armenia . Always siding with the ruling government's candidate, they participated in the concerts that were part of their election campaigns. In 1998 and 2003, Sharm's candidate was Robert Kocharyan. Upon receiving a promise from Aleksan Harutyunyan's that Sharm would soon have its own transmission frequency, the company rented space at the Institute of Physics Club and started to build a studio there. Years later, Ruben Jaghinyan laughingly remembered the history of the TV company "We had been trying to set up a television channel for more than fifteen years. We kept being rejected everywhere... It's just that nobody knows our story... The first time we passed, we made our position clear. The next decision was to be within a year or a year and a half, which meant once again we weren't going to be on for long. In all these years that we've been working, naturally, we have contacts everywhere - we have friends in certain places. We invited good technical experts from abroad. They calculated, and concluded that there was an available channel. There was that channel... what's it called... the one that's Hay TV now. They said that there is no point in taking Hay TV . We wanted satellites, we wanted to cover all of Armenia - they said that channel couldn't develop that way; it wasn't possible, purely technically. We had a choice, in fact, of three channels...or down to two... Hrant Vardanyan was participating in one and he had, for some reason submitted a 'children's concept'. And it was written there that that channel was to be for children only. That was something we couldn't understand, we didn't want a children's channel. Shoghakat , we knew, was vying for the second spot. I mean, it was pointless to compete against Shoghakat , because, as I understood it, that case was closed, the Apostolic... And I'm not against it. These Jehovah's Witnesses and others had been getting involved recently. I think that channel should work too. Whether or not they're dealing with that issue is a different matter. That's another problem. And finally, the third channel was the ill-fated Frequency 37."

On March 27 th Jaghinyan tried to convince reporters that their future channel would not be lacking anything compared to A1+ as far as content was concerned and, more importantly, would carry news programs "with bared fangs". "It will be the television channel that we all need," he said. But why did Sharm choose Frequency 37? Here once again is how Ruben Jaghinyan answered that question at the March 28 th session of the National Commission of Radio and Television: "We live in this world, and we realize that there will be a lot more competition for other frequencies - a lot more than for Frequency 37." At that session, Sharm promised to invest $1,850,000 if they were allowed to broadcast on Frequency 37. Dofin TV mentioned receiving $3,200,000 dollars from partners over three years. A1+ needed to add $100,000 to its current investment. Grigor Amalyan, President of the National Commission of Radio and Television, told reporters that money was, nevertheless, not a decisive factor, "What will be decisive is the program which the company plans to present the public. And that program has to be very convincing."

Who was backing Sharm?

To buy the Scientists' House, Sharm had to have had support in high places. In any case, Minister Karen Chshmarityan (who happens to be the first cousin of the Institute of Physics Director H. Asatryan ) dealt with every aspect of the sale. Preliminary negotiations were conducted with Euromotors ltd. and ACBA bank to provide $300,000 of the planned total investment of $1,850,000 dollars to purchase the property. Moreover, the appendix of Sharm's proposal to the commission included a written statement from ACBA bank, in which there was absolutely no mention of specific investments, only that the bank "expresses willingness towards long-term cooperation, which it hopes will be effective and mutually beneficial." In spring 2003, when Member of Parliament Gurgen Arsenyan bought the controlling shares of the television channel Kentron, it was rumored that this was all part of the original plan. Ruben Jaghinyan now says that this was not so, it was just that Sharm and Arsenyan had chosen each other. "That was a more normal continuation for us than the oligarchic way. Let's put it that way. And that is why we kind of chose each other. He chose us, and we chose him. We each chose separately, and when we proposed this to him - and he had business interests - we had a lot to say at the TV channel, but it turned out such that it didn't work out. In my opinion, Arsenyan also had problems later, just like we did," Sharm's director explained.

The Powers That Be Speak Out

"Free speech in our country is not connected only to A1+," Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan told reporters. When Defense Minister Serzh Sargsyan spoke to the press he said that he did not think that A1+ would remain off the air permanently - "I think A1+ will still have a chance to work". About ten days after April 2 nd , Vice-speaker of Parliament Tigran Torosyan asked a Haykakan Zhamanak, "Who says that A1+ was taken off the air?" At that time rumors were already flying about how Serzh Sargsyan himself had solved the problem of Sharm's actually going on the air, for which $100,000 had to be found, by talking to a few businessmen. In the end, Grand Holding President Hrant Vardanyan expressed the desire to provide that sum. In fact, Sargsyan's optimism had double connotations - A1+ could indeed still work, nobody had denied it its right to work - it had simply been denied airtime. On April 18, 2002, an Iravunk reporter reminded Presidential Press Secretary Vahe Gabrielyan, "The Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Helsinki Federation, along with the Council of Europe, Reporters Without Borders of France, and other organizations all expressed concern about the threat under which free speech had been placed in Armenia when A1+ was taken off the air." The president's spokesman answered, "They could be wrong." The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also spoke out at the time, issuing the following declaration - "The decision taken on April 2 by the National Commission of Radio and Television, regarding the closing of the tender announced for Decimeter Frequency 37, has led to various interpretations that do not take the legal aspect of the case into account and smack of politics. In this regard we find it necessary to note that this case, like other announced tenders, was in keeping with the Law on Television and Radio, which was framed with the participation of all television companies, and was accepted by an absolute majority of votes in the Parliament, which represents all the influential political powers in the country, and which was then assessed positively by the corresponding department of the Council of Europe."

Why Was A1+ Taken off the Air?

A1+ reporter Victoria Abrahamyan said, "Kocharyan, within his inner circle, often said 'As long as I'm around, those puppies will not get air-time.' And I believe only Kocharyan." Abrahamyan now works at Aib Fe, aweekly published by Meltex, and at the A1+ Internet news agency. What made Kocharyan say that? The fact of the matter is that A1+ was the first to characterize what had happened on September 25, 2001 at the cafe known as Poplavok as murder. The death of Poghos Poghosyan of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation had been described by the press as an "unfortunate incident". But then, on A1+'s evening news broadcast on A1+, Caucasus Media Institute Director Mark Grigoryan said that murder had been committed. What was interesting about this declaration was that Mark Grigoryan had not been at the scene of the incident, while those who were, including reporters, never did speak out. The incident occurred in September. It was clear from the beginning that Poghos Poghosyan had been killed by the bodyguards of the president of the country. In November, according to reports in Iravunk , the destiny of A1+ was decided in the president's office-it was to be taken off the air. "He wanted to appear a man of principle in at least one case," said A1+ reporter Kariné Asatryan.

Aravot Editor Aram Abrahamyan is convinced that taking A1+ off the air was politically motivated. "The National Commission of Radio and Television was a tool in the hands of Kocharyan, who made the decision to take A1+ off the air," he said. Expressing her personal opinion, Nuné Sargsyan, Director of the NGO Internews, said "A1+ was taken off the air because it could present an alternative choice during the elections." The director of Sharm was more laconic in his reply: "I guess they don't want A1+ to exist."

What Happened to Kentron?

On his return from Dushanbe , Robert Kocharyan promised to reinvent A1+. Thus, Kentron television was born. Some of its programs did indeed sling mud at the authorities, but Kocharyan, in his bid to be reelected president, remained untouchable. "We couldn't go on any longer, because we were under a lot of... how should I say it... We were under a lot of pressure, as many news media have been all around the world," said Ruben Jaghinyan. In spring 2003, Member of Parliament Gurgen Arsenyan purchased the television company, renaming it Kentron . He explained this move by saying that he wished to propagandize the views of his United Labor Party. On April 24 of the following year, Arsenyan sold Kentron to another MP, Murad Guloyan, who is from the same village as Gagik Tsarukyan. Later, a Kentron staff member confessed to us that he reported only to Gagik Tsaroukyan. "There is no Murad Guloyan," he said of the living, breathing man.

When we asked whether they would try to acquire another television channel, Sharm director Ruben Jaghinyan replied, "There are too many television companies today. I think it's time to close a few, not to open new ones. It's better that we work on other projects."

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