The Armenian government has again postponed the country’s transition to mandatory digital broadcasting by local TV and radio stations which has prompted concerns from press freedom groups.
The government began the digitization process in 2010 with amendments to an Armenian law on television and radio that required broadcasters to obtain new, digital licenses. It announced in 2012 that analog broadcasts by them will discontinue in January 2015.
However, that deadline was subsequently extended by one year for technical reasons. Some Armenian media experts estimated this summer that only 20 percent of the country’s households have digital TV sets or signal decoders. The latter devices cost up to $80 apiece, a sizable sum for many Armenians.
Last week, the government decided to distribute such decoders to about 49,000 low-income families free of charge. It is not yet clear when those families will receive them.
Grigor Amalian, the head of Armenia’s national retransmission company, indicated that analog broadcasts will continue at least until the vast majority of TV viewers can receive digital signal. “If we again have a force majeure situation in terms of technical issues we will not switch off analog signal,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Amalian said that the Armenian Ministry of Transport and Communication has already instructed his company to ensure that analog broadcasting is not blocked during the New Year and Christmas holidays to be marked in the first week of January.
Ashot Melikian of the Yerevan-based Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech suggested that the digitization process will not be completed in the following weeks because Amalian’s company has still not received the decoders purchased by the government. “Obviously, they can’t get and distribute the decoders within one day, week or even month,” he said.
The switch to digital broadcasting has been controversial also because it was supposed to significantly reduce the number of Armenian TV and radio stations. The limited number of available digital frequencies meant that more than a dozen provincial broadcasters will have to be taken off the air. They included the Gyumri-based channel GALA, one of the few Armenian TV stations whose news reporting is not controlled by the authorities.
The repeated extensions of the digitization deadline have enabled those broadcasters to remain on air for now. More importantly, the Armenian parliament approved earlier this month a bill allowing them to continue their operations. However, their analog broadcasts will be restricted to their respective urban communities.
“The state chose not to shut them down but created unequal conditions for them and the other broadcasters,” said Melikian. “And those unequal conditions carry risks.”