Monday, 24 January 2011

Opinion: Pluralism on Armenian TV Decreasing More and More

In the morning of January 21, 2011, TV viewers in Armenia had to once again arrange their TV channels. “ALM” and “TV5” are no longer functioning among the list of channels permanent since 2002. Instead of the two TV channels – “Hayrenik” and “Ar” - belonging to businessman Hrant Vardanyan, “Ar” remained on air with logo, but “Hayrenik” with the content. “Shoghakat”, too, lost its channel. It will henceforth be broadcasted on the channel “Ararat” of Public TV.

Such kind of changes among the TV channels is a consequence of the digitalization process commenced in 2010 with the amendment to the ‘Law on TV and Radio’.

TV channels actually providing pluralism were excluded as a result of the changes taken place in 2010 in the field of Armenian television. Moreover, now the experts don’t even rule out obstacles that may be created for the internet broadcasting.

On May 18, the Press Club of Yerevan, the Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech and the “Internews” Media Support NGO made a statement, which criticized this initiative of the government. The statement pointed to a number of issues with the draft law.

However, the main concern was the following: such amendment in the Law would more and more decrease the pluralism on Armenian broadcasts. It was grounded as follows: the number of TV broadcasters liable to licensing, according to the government initiative, is 18 against the previously existing 22. Until now no audit results of TV frequencies held in Armenia have been published for the society to justify the decision of such an exact number of broadcasters. And on June 2 during her speech at the American University, the US Ambassador to Armenia Mari Jovanovich expressed amazement regarding digitalization of TV companies which affords an opportunity to increase the number of TV channels all over the world, however, in Armenia their number is decreasing. All this seriously contradicted also Recommendation (2003)9 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, according to which transition to digital broadcasting must not be done at the expense of pluralism decrease.

On June 10, despite all the concerns, National Assembly accepted the new edition of the Law ‘on TV and Radio’.

The YPC, the Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech and the Internews said: “The set number of licenses assumes that some of the currently operating TV companies will be deprived of licenses, which means that the new TV companies including, probably, those ready for digital broadcasting will hardly appear in the market.”

The competition, held at the end of the year, showed that really no new broadcasters appeared in the television field. Moreover, the whole process turned into an imitation because of the absence of a real rivalry. It was obvious, that a pre-competition agreement has been reached among the TV companies: it was previously decided for each of them to apply for a certain channel. And only 2 of 18 competitions, announced for public and capital broadcasting, were applied by two participants for each.

One of those competitions was applied by “A1+” TV Company which in 2002 was deprived of air according to a groundless decision. And 8 out of 10 regional competitions had only one participant each, and there was a real rivalry only in case of 2 competitions. Naturally, one of them was the ‘Gala’ TV in Gyumri which is not controlled by the authorities and which did not receive a license for digital broadcasting. As to the ‘A1+’, it again failed to return on the air.
During the competition process the YPC suggestion on involving experts and realizing parallel examination of applications by the NGO representatives was ignored. Suggestion of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech to publish all the applications on the NCTR website was ignored, too.

Therefore, it is difficult to trust the decisions reached by NCTR (National Committee on TV and Radio) in case of unconfirmed facts of an independent source, and to hope that an impartial and equal treatment has been applied, especially that the committee has long ago proved about its stressed partial and discriminated attitude towards “A1+”, dictated probably by political utility.

As a reminder: there is no exact differentiation of satellite, cell, internet and other means of broadcasting according to the existing law. And still in November 2009, our observation on that a licence is allotted for a specific type of broadcasting and it cannot refer to all types, was responded this way by the NCTR Chairman Grigor Amalyan, “Television broadcasting is prescribed as a type of activity by RA Law, and in essence, companies licensed by legislation are considered to be TV broadcasters.”

In this respect Boris Navasardyan, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club has expressed concern that now, after the competitive process over, there may be efforts to hinder the Internet broadcasting, “The Internet develops and the opportunities of the Internet broadcasting and watching grow. The next round of elections is near, and it is clear that under such conditions similar efforts are predictable.”

Anna Israelyan is a veteran journalist working for the "Aravot" daily since 1997
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