Armenia in New TV Controversy

Opposition station hopes Council of Europe will fight for its right to broadcast.

Armenia in New TV Controversy

Opposition station hopes Council of Europe will fight for its right to broadcast.

Wednesday, 17 September, 2008
Government critics in Armenia say a small amendment to a new broadcasting law is being used to keep the country's leading opposition news channel off the air.

Supporters of the A1+ television station, which ceased transmission in 2002 when broadcasting licenses were renewed, are hoping to win the backing of the Council of Europe, CoE, which has already criticised the Armenian government's treatment of the channel.

The new law on TV and radio which parliament passed on September 10 commits the country to moving completely to digital broadcasting by 2015, with parallel analogue and digital transmission from 2010 on.

The government is offering currently active TV stations a chance to bid for new digital broadcasting licenses from 2010.

The catch, as far as A1+ is concerned, is that the current licenses are being automatically extended until June 2010, which means that no other companies will have a chance to enter the market before then.

A1+ was a popular source of alternative news to the pro-government line, which now dominates the electronic media in Armenia. Its removal from the airwaves sparked large protests.

Economics minister Nerses Yeritsian, presenting the new bill to parliament, denied that there was any political agenda behind it or any link to A1+, saying that postponing the issuing of new licenses was "the most fair and open mechanism".

"After 2010, when the current licenses expire, everyone will receive an equal opportunity to take part in a competition and win a broadcasting frequency," said Yeritsian.

Opposition members of parliament dismissed the minister's arguments.

"This is an underhand way of stripping A1+ of its chances of going on air and taking part in a license competition," said Zaruhi Postanjian of the opposition Heritage Party. "This is being done so that the market of existing TV companies won’t be extended to include one more company."

A1+ had hoped to regain its broadcasting rights following a ruling in its favour issued by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in June.

The court ruled that Armenia had breached article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights by denying A1+ a license. On September 17, the court's decision was sent to the CoE’s ministerial committee, which will issue specific recommendations to Armenia, and monitor their implementation every six months.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, in a resolution on Armenia agreed on June 25, also referred to A1+ and called for the national licensing authority "to now ensure an open, fair and transparent licensing procedure".

When Claudia Luciani, director general for political affairs and cooperation at the CoE, met the speaker of Armenia’s parliament Tigran Torosian on September 11 she criticised the way the bill had been passed the day before.

"The bill was adopted in haste, without any European expertise," she said. "It is not a step towards implanting the resolutions of PACE but a step backwards, which means that both the government and the national assembly have not taken the proposals in the PACE resolutions seriously."

Even some pro-government supporters have failed to back the amended broadcasting law. Armen Ashotian, a parliamentary deputy with the governing Republican Party and chairman of parliament's commission on science, education, culture and youth, abstained on the first reading of the bill and did not vote in the second and third readings.

"I am not sure that the technical advantages which are meant to justify the law outweigh the political risks," Ashotian told IWPR.

A statement by five journalistic organisations called for the decision to be overturned, saying it had "nothing to do with defending the interests of broadcasters, consumers and the state, nor with “guaranteeing equal opportunities and preventing market shocks” – arguments the government has used to justify its amendments.

Movses Hakobian, a legal consultant to the media development organisation Internews, said the entire law was conceptually flawed.

"There’s no definition of the transition to digital broadcasting," said Hakobian. "Even the justification [document] for the bill points out that it’s currently impossible to make an accurate assessment of the technical requirements this will impose on the state, its citizens and the broadcasters, or of what the anticipated costs are. They have no idea what the cost will be – what’s going to happen if the cost comes to more than the budget can afford? What will we do?"

Minister Yeritsian responded that the government was seeking the help of outside experts to ensure that the switch-over works. He said, "We have a programme, but there are gaps and pitfalls. We have asked for an international audit to be conducted on this and we need serious international expertise."

Mesrop Movsisian, the director of A1+, believes that the whole bill was designed to keep his company off the airwaves.

"It shows that the authorities are so frightened by the possibility of suddenly hearing an alternative voice that they are once again resorting to suppressing free speech in Armenia," he said.

Gegham Vardanian is a journalist with Internews in Yerevan.

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