By David Brewer
Media affairs analyst
The European Court of Human Rights is studying an appeal by an Armenian TV station against a government decision to close it down.
The court’s judgement could have far-reaching implications for freedom of expression and human rights in Armenia and across the southern Caucasus.
In April 2002, the Armenian government took A1+ off the air.
The TV station, which was the most popular independent news channel at the time, has since reapplied ten times for a licence to broadcast. Each time it has been refused.
Three years ago, A1+ took its case to the European Court of Human Rights. A two-year investigation followed.
The Armenian government says A1+ lost its licence because it presented a poor application when the competition to broadcast took place.
Ministers in Yerevan say they have co-operated with the European Court investigation and have submitted evidence to support their decision to close the TV station.
When the A1+ signal died, almost four years ago, thousands gathered on the streets of Yerevan to protest.
Those protests lasted for more than a week. It was a show of public support that convinced the A1+ president, Mesrop Movsesyan, that he must find other ways to continue delivering news to the people of Armenia.
“The sheer scale of the public protest, when ordinary people realised that freedom of expression was being attacked through the silencing of A1+, persuaded us that we had a duty to continue to operate as a news organisation, even though our transmitters had been turned off,” he said.
Mr Movsesyan set up a news agency, a newspaper and websites in Armenian, Russian and English in order to continue to provide coverage of events in Yerevan and the rest of the country.
For news producer Susanna Ohanjanyan, that decision meant that her news deadlines changed and the vehicle for delivering her news material changed too.
In a small office close to Yerevan’s Republic Square, Ms Ohanjanyan supervises the finishing touches to the top TV news item of the day.
It is just one of the pieces produced by her team of journalists at A1+, but they will not see it broadcast.
Gone are the days of hourly news bulletins, broadcast 24 hours a day, transmitted live from the A1+ news centre.
Now Ms Ohanjanyan is producing news to be broadcast by the network of affiliate TV stations that A1+ has established across every region of the small, landlocked country.
These affiliates are currently unaffected by the government ruling that silenced A1+ TV.
Ms Ohanjanyan’s latest deadline is the departure time of the local minibus taxi that will take the news reports on the five-hour journey to the mountainous region of Syunik Marz, on the border with Iran, where they will be broadcast locally.
Turn to newsprint
Editor Lenah Badeyan’s deadlines are also no longer the hourly TV bulletins.
Now she has to focus on the regular updates on the A1+ Armenian, Russian and English news websites.
She also has to supervise the news stories produced for the Thursday night print run of the weekly A1+ newspaper, distributed in Yerevan.
As well as being unable to broadcast, A1+ journalists are forbidden from attending government news conferences and are refused interviews with ministers.
If they are seen on the streets of Yerevan interviewing members of the public, police move them on.
Boris Navasardian, president of the Yerevan Press Club, says the continued existence of A1+ angers many in power, including politicians, business leaders and members of the judiciary.
He says many want to see the media organisation destroyed and that anger extends to the current government, which, Mr Navasardian says, feels that any alternative point of view should be silenced.
The press club president says some Armenian intellectuals and journalists feel A1+ takes an opposition line and is not professional enough in its coverage.
However, he says most respect A1+ for being independent and producing content that is valuable.
He says the decision of the European Court of Human Rights will have powerful implications for freedom of expression in Armenia, whichever way it goes.
He says he waits for the outcome with mixed feelings.
“If A1+ loses the appeal, it will send a signal to the government that it is acceptable to limit the power of the media. If A1+ wins, it will create fresh enthusiasm for those prepared to stand up for the rights of the citizen and more activities will follow.”
“Either way, the situation as regards freedom of expression and human rights in Armenia will never be the same again,” he says.