Armenia: Independent Channel Kicked Off Air

The decision to pull the plug on a popular channel is widely blamed on the government's intolerance of dissenting voices in the media

Armenia: Independent Channel Kicked Off Air

The decision to pull the plug on a popular channel is widely blamed on the government's intolerance of dissenting voices in the media

The independent A1 Plus television channel, which was stripped of its broadcasting licence by the government in March, has failed in its attempt to win it back.

Armenia's court of appeal has rejected the channel's bid to overturn the order, which many believe was intended to punish the station for its fierce criticism of government policy.

Since its launch in 1991, A1 Plus has captured a large audience and has also won the backing of the mass media and local NGOs, as well as the support of Armenia's American embassy and the European parliament.

Yet it lost its license in March when the National Commission for Television and Radio Broadcasting, NCTRB, announced new frequency tenders, as it is required to do under state law.

The NCTRB deputy chair, Shamiram Agabekian, announced that A1 Plus' old frequency was to be awarded to Sharm Advertising, which had been deemed to have a "more promising" business plan. The core of Sharm's staff comprises former participants of KVN, a TV show featuring comedy acts from all over the former Soviet Union.

President Robert Kocharian has insisted there is no vendetta against the station, which he said would be welcome to bid for other frequencies up for tender later this year. He added that he was in favour of keeping A1 Plus on air, "If a channel like this did not exist already, I would personally see to it that one is established."

But much of the country's media and NGO activists remain convinced that the channel was removed from the scene for purely political reasons in the run-up to the 2003 parliamentary elections.

"A1 Plus criticised the government and exposed the sordid side of power," said the channel's founder, Mesrop Movsisian. "No wonder its license was revoked."

Movsisian pointed out that A1 Plus had been kicked off the air immediately following the announcement of the tenders, although by law it could have continued until its replacement began broadcasting.

The Freedom of Press Support Foundation was equally critical, claiming the court decision was unsubstantiated and that the judiciary had shown it was "afraid to exercise its own right to independent judgement. It is safer to rule in favour of the authorities, even at the risk of sowing public distrust".

The foundation was set up by lawyers, human rights activists and journalists and has already defended several lawsuits brought against the media, including one high profile case in which the HSBC Armenia Bank sued two newspapers for libel.

Armenia's judiciary is widely criticised for being too dependent on the government. Critics complain that because the president appoints the judges, they tend to kow-tow to their patron. "In a conflict between the press and government officials, the courts usually side with the bureaucrats," said Boris Navasardian, president of the Yerevan Press Club.

However, justice ministry press secretary Ara Sagatelian dismisses this as sour grapes, and indeed the media is not always on the losing side when challenged in the courts by the government's big guns.

Last spring, Nikol Pashinian, editor of the opposition paper Aikakan Zhamanak, won a tough battle against civil aviation chief Ovanes Eritsian, who had sued his paper for libel and offensive language.

The paper angered the authorities after it leaked minutes from a Civil Aviation Office meeting last November, which revealed that Eritsian had ordered his staff to find out how opposition publications that "make the government look bad" were available to read on aeroplanes.

Pashinian was forced to give the police a sworn affidavit that he would not leave the city. But there was widespread media support for him and the case was dismissed in April. The paper was fortunate - many come off worst when tackled by the establishment.

Astkhik Gevorkian, chair of Armenia's press union, blames this weakness on a lack of solidarity among journalists. "If we could forget our political differences for a while and face the common enemy together, we could defend ourselves much more efficiently," she said.

For the foreseeable future, this would seem to be a vain hope. In Armenia, the country's media outlets are divided by strongly opposing political beliefs and these differences show no sign of disappearing.

Ashot Gazazian is an independent journalist based in Yerevan

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