The list of participants in 18 licensing contests unveiled by the National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH) suggests that only two frequencies will actually be contested by more than one company.
One such contest features A1+, the country’s arguably only independent TV station that was controversially taken off the air in 2002 and never granted another license in about a dozen tenders since then.
A1+’s rival is ArmNews, a TV station now on the air that alternates its news programs with half-hourly retransmissions from pan-European news channel EuroNews.
The other contest pits ALM, a company run by a holding owned by a TV pundit and leader of a political party, against another working TV station “Yerevan”.
HRAH head Grigor Amalian said “it will take time to understand why only these two particular contests have turned out to be competitive.”
“Personally, I expected a more active participation [from companies],” Amalian told RFE/RL on Thursday.
According to the schedule approved by the HRAH, the publication of the contestants’ bids and accompanying documents will start on October 27 and will last for three days.
“In fact, this is the penultimate stage, because we will still have time for work, for examining the submitted documents, and we will express our position in the second half of December,” Amalian added.
All in all, 20 companies are participating in 18 contests for digital broadcasting licenses, of which six will be for nationwide broadcast, nine will target audiences in capital Yerevan and three in provinces.
Ashot Melikian, chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Freedom of Speech, compared the situation in the television licensing tender with unrivaled polls that often happen in Armenian elections when candidates have an opportunity to run for parliament or other elected bodies from single-mandate constituencies.
“This is like only one candidate running for a post in a constituency and eventually succeeding in winning the election,” he told RFE/RL.
Talking to RFE/RL on Wednesday, Mesrop Movsesian, the head of A1+’s founding company, Meltex, said they had submitted “a solid package” and “intended to be guided by it” should their bid prove successful.
The current contests are the first in more than two years after the Armenian authorities controversially suspended the supposedly competitive licensing process in 2008 citing the need to expedite the country’s transition to mandatory digital broadcasting.
Armenia - Thorbjorn Jagland, Sectretary General of the Council of Europe, addresses the Forum For the Future of Democracy, Yerevan, 21Oct2010
The move came shortly after the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights fined them over the HRAH’s consistent rejection of A1+ applications for a new frequency and has been widely viewed as a measure to preclude the company’s immediate return to the air.
The HRAH has repeatedly claimed that the tenders in which A1+ failed to regain its broadcasting license were objective and truly competitive.
The question about A1+ was also posed to a senior European official visiting Yerevan for a three-day international forum dealing with democracy issues.
Responding to an “Aravot” daily reporter’s request to comment on lingering concerns in Armenia about the fairness of the current TV licensing competitions, Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland said that “democracy is a process and Armenia is now in this process.”
“The Council of Europe is helping things go in the right direction. Some may claim slowly, but it is better to go slowly than not to go at all,” he said.
In his closing remarks at the Council of Europe-organized forum “For the Future of Democracy” earlier on October 21, Jagland said that “no democracy could be built without freedom of expression.”
“Because freedom of expression is the mother of truth, the basis for freedom and democracy and the avenue to prosperity,” he said.