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Armenia: Independent TV Station Faces Renewed Pressure

Embattled channel sees political motives behind eviction order.
By Gegham Vardanian
Four years ago, Armenia’s A1+ independent TV station was forced off the air in what its journalists maintain was a government-inspired vendetta.



Now, A1+ says the authorities are behind moves to force the TV station out of its offices.



For 15 years, A1+ has rented space on Grigor Lusavorich Street in downtown Yerevan.



But the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, which owns the building, is suddenly demanding that A1+ leave.



"The academy is just a tool. I am deeply convinced that had it not received 'instructions', [the academy] would not have resorted to such a step," human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanian told IWPR.



“All this is aimed at creating new obstacles for A1+, in order to complete the process started four years ago of closing the TV station down.”



Last year, the Academy of Sciences filed a suit demanding the eviction of A1+ from the building, and eventually won the case.



Court officers suddenly showed up at A1+ on March 16. They told the journalists to gather their equipment and get out within 17 hours.



"The court officers have two months to implement the court’s decision. How can it be explained that a company is given a few hours to empty the premises when they understand full well that this is impossible to do in such a short time?" said Olga Safarian, a lawyer for the NGO Internews, which promotes the development of free media.



A1+ was forced off the Armenian airwaves on April 2, 2002, when the National Television and Radio Commission, appointed by the president, took away A1+’s licence and gave it to another company.



The Council of Europe, the OSCE, and international watchdog groups have defended A1+ on several occasions over the last few years.



"The government continued to restrict full media freedom in the country,” said Human Rights Watch’s 2005 report on Armenia. The report noted that as well as A1+, Noyan Tapan television and Russia’s state-controlled NTV also remain unable to broadcast because the government has taken away their frequencies.



Over the past four years, A1+ has filed eight applications to obtain TV frequencies and two applications to obtain radio frequencies. Each time the National Television and Radio Committee refused.



A1+ has also brought numerous legal actions in various Armenian courts to win the right to a license. These suits have similarly failed, and the TV company is now trying to press its case at the European Court of Human Rights.



Academy of Sciences manager Ermir Grigorian denied politics were behind the decision to try and evict A1+.



“A1+ should leave those rooms, because our language institute is to be located there," said Grigorian.



But on March 17, the day that A1+ was told to vacate the building, human rights activists, public figures, and journalists assembled at the broadcaster’s offices. The court officers postponed their visit.



Thereafter, Prime Minister Andranik Margarian met with academy president Fadey Sargsian and promised that A1+ would be given alternative premises to rent.



"We offered A1+ appropriate space and promised to resolve the problem," the prime minister told journalists in the national assembly on March 22.



"Until the problem of the new premises is resolved, A1+ will have no problems and the TV company will not leave its current premises," National Academy of Sciences head Sargisian told the Haikakan Zhamanak newspaper.



But A1+ director Mesrop Movsesian, who claims A1+ spent 34,000 US dollars on upgrading the facilities at its present offices, said the government was already trying to force the company to accept far inferior premises.



"The size of the offices is satisfactory, but everything is ruined there. We cannot go and work in a dirty building. We will need financial expenditures to repair rooms and the corridor,” Movesian told IWPR. He said that even if A1+ did accept the space, it could be impossible to empty its current premises within two months, as the Academy of Sciences is demanding.



"A1+ should retain its premises, especially as it has been an honest tenant which has invested money in the building," Boris Navasardian, head of the Press Club in Yerevan, told IWPR.



"Providing suitable new premises for A1+ would be a positive step which would demonstrate a commitment to enhance media freedom and pluralism in Armenia," said Bojana Urumova, Special Representative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to Armenia.



"Any move from one place to another creates additional problems for any organisation. Although A1+ is not broadcasting now, it continues to be an active player in the information field that produces serious products,” said Navasardian.



The station continues to produce TV shows, and publishes a weekly edition and daily news through the internet.



Every year, Armenian journalists and human rights activists organise protests on the April 2 anniversary when A1+ was deprived of the license.



"The media and those in the journalist community who are ready to fight for freedom should assist A1+ in whatever decision it might make," said Navasardian.



Gegham Vardanian is a journalist for Internews in Armenia.

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