A1+, Armenia’s leading independent television controversially taken off the air eight years ago, said on Thursday that it is extremely unlikely to win a new license and resume broadcasts anytime soon.
The National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH) will formally announce on Tuesday the start of tenders for virtually all broadcasting frequencies available in the country. The Armenian authorities controversially suspended the supposedly competitive licensing process two years ago, citing the need to expedite the country’s transition to mandatory broadcasting by 2013.
Mesrop Movsesian, the A1+ owner and executive director, reaffirmed the once popular TV channel’s intention to contest at least one of those tenders administered by the HRAH. But he was highly pessimistic about their fairness and objectivity.
“As always, there will only be play-acting and imitation of a contest,” Movsesian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “The winner will be not the best project but the will of a single person.” “I lost my optimism in 1998 and don’t expect anything good,” he said.
Movsesian was far more optimistic about A1+’s chances of returning to the airwaves three months ago, saying that the Armenian authorities will finally bow to international pressure. “Reluctantly, they will give us a frequency,” he said at the time.
The change in his mood may result from the recent passage of highly controversial amendments to an Armenian law on television and radio that are meant to regulate the digitalization process. The government-drafted amendments sparked a storm of criticism from Armenian media associations. They say the legislation will enable the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian to retain its strong influence on the news coverage of virtually all Armenian broadcasters.
The United States as well as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have also expressed concern. The critics are particularly worried about new provisions of the law reducing the number of broadcasters, making all forms of broadcasting subject to state licensing and setting what they sees as ambiguous procedures for the establishment of new TV and radio channels.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the matter with Sarkisian during her recent visit to Yerevan. Clinton said he assured her that the Armenian government is ready to make further changes in the law. Armenian officials have yet to publicly confirm this.
The HRAH chairman, Grigor Amalian, told RFE/RL Thursday that possible changes will not affect “procedures related to the unfolding contests.” “There will be no new requirements that will seriously affect competition factors in these announced tenders,” he said.
Amalian also said that his regulatory body, which is formed by Armenia’s president and parliament, will adhere to the broadcasting law when selecting the winners of the tenders. He said it will substantiate those decisions, expected in December, in writing.
The first such bidding administered by the HRAH in early 2002 ended in A1+, the only national broadcaster that had regularly airing criticism of the government, losing its frequency to another TV company loyal to the authorities. A1+ tried unsuccessfully to win another frequency in over a dozen others tenders held in the following years.
Amalian’s commission has insisted all along that they were objective and truly competitive, a claim strongly disputed by local and international media watchdogs. The European Court of Human Rights fined the Armenian authorities 30,000 euros ($38,000) for the HRAH’s consistent rejection of A1+ bids in June 2008.