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Armenia: Top Independent TV Station Still Off The Air

Armenia's leading independent television continues to face an uphill battle to resume broadcasts eight months after its controversial closure by the authorities. The popular A1+ channel, which was stripped of its broadcasting license in April, is still denied an opportunity to return to the air despite repeated assurances given by Armenian leaders to Western governments. A tender for several air frequencies, scheduled for this month, has been delayed under dubious circumstances. As RFE/RL Yerevan correspondent Emil Danielyan reports, restoring A1+ to the airwaves is seen as especially important ahead of upcoming presidential elections.

Yerevan, 29 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The A1+ office in Yerevan is a quiet place these days, with no reporters or technical personnel hurrying to get the latest news to the public. Visitors would hardly notice any sign of activity at the station, once widely regarded as the most objective and impartial in Armenia. Eight months after being forced off the air, its 70 or so staff are losing hope that they will be allowed to resume work anytime soon.

The mood turned gloomier this month, on 18 November, after an Armenian court suspended a crucial bid for several television frequencies, which was seen as the only realistic possibility of reopening A1+.

The official motive for the injunction was a lawsuit filed by another private television station, Noyan Tapan, against the state commission that regulates broadcasting. But with Armenian courts rarely ruling against the government, there is a widespread suspicion that the authorities are keen to bar A1+ from covering next February's presidential elections, in which President Robert Kocharian will be a top contender.

Mesrop Movsesian is the owner and director of A1+. He says that at stake is the very survival of his company.

"There are two conflicting goals involved. For A1+, the main thing is to preserve its team [of journalists], whereas the broadcasting commission wants to make sure that if A1+ is to resume its work, it does so after the elections."

Noyan Tapan, which is owned by the eponymous news agency, is protesting the "illegal" refusal by the National Commission on Television and Radio to consider its bid. The regulatory body, whose members were appointed by Kocharian, refused to accept it on the grounds that the broadcaster did not specify which of the available frequencies it is bidding for. Court hearings into the dispute will open on 25 November and may take weeks, if not months.

Grigor Amalian, chairman of the broadcasting commission, says, "I hope that the judicial process will not drag on. I am doing everything so that our representatives in the court have all necessary documents to prevent excessive delays."

However, Movsesian and some local observers suspect Noyan Tapan and the authorities of striking a secret deal to further delay A1+ broadcasts. Amalian dismisses the allegations as "absurd."

Whatever the real story, the indefinite postponement of the frequency tender appears to have dealt a final blow to A1+'s chances of covering the presidential race or parliamentary elections in May 2003. The cash-strapped channel, which has been unable to earn advertising revenues since April, hoped to cover part of its huge financial losses through campaign ads.

More importantly, A1+ was the only major TV station that often aired criticism of Kocharian and the government while seeking to present a broader range of opinions. There are dozens of channels operating across Armenia. However, virtually all big private networks are owned by businessmen loyal to Kocharian. This has prompted concern that stations are not as objective in their news reports as they should be.

Kocharian also firmly controls the state-run Armenian National Television, the most accessible media outlet in the country. All this gives him a huge advantage over his election challengers. Armenia's far more diverse print media have small circulations and therefore less influence than television.

The official reason for closing A1+ was that it lost a tender for its frequency. But the shutdown was strongly denounced by local and international media watchdogs. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists accused Kocharian of "blatantly abusing the frequency licensing system in an attempt to silence a critical media voice."

Vicken Cheterian, director of the Swiss-funded Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan, shares those concerns. "Taking A1+ off the air is a step backwards. It is not a step forward [in protecting press freedom]."

The decision to pull the plug on A1+ triggered a series of opposition rallies in the Armenian capital last spring. It was also criticized by the United States and the Council of Europe. In an April statement, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan indicated that A1+'s continued existence is essential for the freedom and fairness of the 2003 elections.

Senior Council of Europe officials have said all along that they received assurances from Kocharian that A1+ will stand a very good chance of being reinstated if it bids for another frequency this autumn. In July, for example, the secretary-general of the Strasbourg-based human rights organization, Walter Schwimmer, told RFE/RL that he is "confident that a positive solution will soon be found" to the issue.

However, the broadcasting commission's Amalian insists that Yerevan officials could not have explicitly promised to reopen the channel. He says the authorities can only guarantee the fairness of the process.

"It would have been ludicrous to say in advance who will win the [delayed] contest. It's just not realistic."

Ironically, it was the Council of Europe that prompted the Armenian authorities to reform the opaque regulatory framework for the electronic media. Two laws adopted in 2000 were meant to render state television more independent and put in place equal competitive rules for private channels.