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January 21, 2011
Armenian Media 2010: Pluralism on TV Decreasing More and More
By Anna Israelyan
Head of National Committee on TV and Radio, Grigor Amalyan

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.

The US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her meeting with representatives of the civil society of Armenia on June 5, 2010, said that she had expressed concern to President Serge Sargsyan and other officials regarding media freedom in the country: “I know that many of you are concerned with the recent amendments made by the government to the Law 'On TV and Radio'. Those concerns are shared by the USA, OSCE and EU. I raised these issues and the response was that the authorities are ready to review the draft this autumn.”

Whether the Armenian government kept its promise or not, we will discuss later, but now let us remind about the concerns regarding the new edition of the Law Draft 'On TV and Radio', which later became fatal in the upcoming contest process predetermining the next 10 years of Armenian television.

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 plausibly criticized this initiative of the government. Especially, reasoning the need of stipulation of legislative provisions of television digitalization, the draft contains provisions that have nothing to do with the above mentioned and have been repeatedly criticized by the public. For example, the requirement on not breaking the programs of Public TV and Radio with trade ads was removed. The statement reported also that important issues consistently specified by a number of media as well as international organizations, don’t get solution. Imagine that satellite broadcasting in Armenia continues to depend on TV broadcasting and that NCTR is authorized to allot a licence to have the opportunity to use that resource, or that the Law's new edition, too, will not provide social and political diversity of the NCTR staff, participation of society in the formation of NCTR, transparency of its decision-making.

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’. It continued to be criticized. On June 15, comments of the OCSE office representative regarding the issues on the media freedom were published reporting many provisions of the law which “are extremely far from the democratic criteria of the OCSE”. It was also stated that some of the OCSE basic suggestions have not been taken into consideration and have been totally ignored. Here are some of them: “To make a clear distinction in regulation of satellite, cell, on-line broadcasting and nonlinear video services”, “To improve the order of selection and appointment of the Council of Public TV and Radio to provide pluralism on public broadcasting”.

On June 15, Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division sent a letter to RA president saying that recent amendments to the law “will most likely have a negative impact on media pluralism of Armenia, on diversity and availability of information and opinions for the public.”

It is notable that already in the midst of the year all the pessimistic predictions in this regard did come true.

On June 10, at the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, Ambassador Ian Kelly, U.S. Representative to the OSCE stated that “those amendments will reduce the electronic media pluralism, as well as the diversity and availability of information and opinions for the society in Armenia.”

And on June 18, Margaret Sekagya, the United Nations Special reporter on Human Rights said: “These additions and amendments will further restrict and seriously hinder the Armenian society to access a diversity of information and opinions.”
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.

Except “A1+”, NCTR has never scrupulously examined and later followed the implementation of the promises involved in tender bids of other TV companies. For example, in 2003 a licence of “Max Concern” was attached to the bid of “ArmNews” TV - rival of “A1+”. The Concern had to implement a $2,5 million investment project over the next 7 years, but didn't, according to a statement made in the media by one of the owners of “Max Concern”.

However, after 2002-2003 competition, none of the TV companies has been sanctioned for not realizing the licence terms or for not acting within the law, although even the analysts, personally following the broadcasts, have reported numerous violations in both cases. And while assessing the applications, NCTR didn’t take into consideration how the TV companies have realized their financial, technical and program promises over the past years.

Summarizing the competitive process, Boris Navasardyan, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club said, “I consider it to be a demonstrative challenge or, using the definition of “Freedom House”, a slap addressed to Armenia and to international community. It was really a slap, in order to say that though you consider there is no pluralism in the country, but other, almost all the channels receive maximum grades, which means that also their pluralism is assessed very high, but “A1+” is graded 0.”

60 Let us miss the NCTR statement on this assessment as a suit regarding this decision is still expected.

At the end let us go back to the promise given to Hillary Clinton. On September 18, it became clear that RA President Sargsyan has proposed to create a working group under the supervision of RA Ombudsman to complete the legislative settlement activities regarding digitalization process of television broadcasting. No amendments were made in autumn. At the end of the year representatives of NGOs, involved in the group, confessed that the works “in the group go very slowly and there is no a final decision upon any of the principle issues or a final formulation of an item yet.”

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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