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Armenia: Closure Of TV Station Raises Concern Over Media Freedom

Armenia's independent media were dealt a blow this week when authorities effectively closed a popular television channel that has often been critical of the government. A national commission on broadcasting appointed by President Robert Kocharian stripped the A1+ channel of its frequency and then awarded it to a rival commercial station. The commission justified the decision on legal grounds, but the move has provoked widespread condemnation and raised concerns over press freedom.

Yerevan, 4 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian press-freedom groups are ringing alarm bells after an independent television station this week lost its broadcasting license to an entertainment company with reported links to the government.

The private channel, A1+, was forced to end its broadcasts on 2 April, just hours after being stripped of its air frequency.

The decision was made by the National Commission on Television and Radio, which is dominated by individuals appointed by President Robert Kocharian. The A1+ staff believes the decision was politically motivated -- a view shared by many journalists, politicians, and public figures.

Two leading local-media watchdogs, the Yerevan Press Club and Internews, were quick to condemn the commission's decision. In a joint statement, they warned that it "may have created a precedent for silencing undesirable media" in Armenia.

Newspapers sympathetic to the popular television channel laid the blame on Kocharian. One of them, "Haykakan Zhamanak," claims Armenia "has taken yet another step on the path toward dictatorship."

Leading opposition groups also saw political motives behind what was supposed to be a competitive contest mandated by an Armenian law on television and radio.

Hayk Babukhanian, an opposition parliamentarian and former newspaper editor, says, "The commission did receive an order to shut down the A1+ television [station] because A1+ was the only channel that allowed itself to criticize the head of state."

Hovannes Galajian, the editor of the newspaper "Iravunk," agrees with this assertion. "[The commission members] are pursuing political goals. First, to squeeze out those [television] companies that do not fit the authorities' taste. And second, to create a conflict between existing and newly created television companies."

Kocharian has denied any involvement in the decision and claims publicly that he hopes A1+ will stay on the air.

The broadcasting commission denies that its decision is politically motivated, saying it granted the A1+ frequency to the entertainment company Sharm only because the latter submitted a stronger bid. Its members insist that Sharm won because it pledged to broadcast more of its own programs -- one of the conditions set by the law on television and radio. The other legal criteria for the selection of frequency users are the availability of modern broadcasting equipment, sufficient financial resources, and competent personnel.

A1+, which is owned by a private company called Meltex, is relatively poorly funded compared with other private television companies, most of which are controlled by wealthy patrons. However, the station's news programs are widely regarded as being the most objective -- and critical -- in the country.

According to the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, A1+ "performed a valuable public service in offering substantial media access to a broad spectrum of opinion makers, political leaders, and those holding differing views." An embassy statement issued yesterday said its effective shutdown "raises serious questions about the future of free and independent media in Armenia."

A1+, meanwhile, is awaiting a court verdict on an appeal it filed against the broadcasting body's decision. Its director, Mesrop Movsisian, said it is still possible to salvage the station: "The struggle is not over. This doesn't yet mean that we have been defeated. Time will tell."

Leading opposition parties plan to hold a demonstration tomorrow to protest developments. They claim that shutting down A1+ is part of a broader effort by Kocharian to help his re-election effort next year. The Armenian leader has dismissed the charge.

The U.S. Embassy statement warned that failure to enable A1+ to resume its broadcasts could call into question the freedom and fairness of the polls.