The future of regional TV companies which did not receive broadcasting license in 2010 remains vague. On 17 December 2015 the Armenian National Assembly passed the amendments to the RA Law on Television and Radio presented by the government but not all questions were answered.
Initially, upon the switchover from analog to digital broadcasting the government envisaged leaving only one regional TV channel per marz, the others were to close down. Considering the migration to digital transmission, it was an absolutely acceptable approach, which the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression and its partners have stated repetitively. Now, according to the aforementioned law, the regional TV channels were given an opportunity to continue analog broadcasting until the creation of a private multiplex or until new competitions are announced.
At first sight, it seemed to be the best possible solution. Some local broadcasters were even in euphoria. Meanwhile, this change was an attempt to resolve the problem on the surface; the government did not want to close these TV channels on its own initiative because that would contradict the logic of the process of digital migration. Instead, there were no equitable conditions, which could lead the TV companies to slow death. Logically, if only one TV channel has a license for digital broadcasting in the marz, and the others continue analog broadcasting, the TV channel which has digital broadcasting will have more favorable conditions. First, digital broadcasting is better quality than analog broadcasting. Second, those who have a digital receiver (TV or decoder) will no longer watch analog transmission, which will also provide financial advantage to digital broadcasters as advertisers would choose to deal with digital broadcasters.
The authorities have announced that beginning with last June digital transmission covers the entire territory of the country, and analog transmission is not switched off for one single reason: the government has not been able to provide free-of-charge decoders to families at risk which it has to do. However, in the upcoming 3-4 months this process will end too, and analog transmission will be switched off. In other words, all the viewers will go on to receive digital signals, and dozens of regional TV channels will continue analog transmission? At least, this is what the law states. It is absurd, isn’t it? In addition, obviously, this situation will start sooner than private multiplex will appear which will take over the local TV channels. Will the latter survive till then? It is hard to tell.
The journalistic organizations expected such future for the TV channels. To protect them from the threat of closure, back in 2014 the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, Yerevan Press Club and Media Initiatives Center submitted to the Armenian National Assembly a legislative package which stated the issues of the switchover from analog to digital and proposed solutions. In particular, it proposed eliminating the obsolete procedure of licensing and use simple licensing, promoting free and fair competition.
However, the law adopted on 17 December 2015 which was drafted in confidentiality and without an open discussion did not only ignore the proposals of the journalistic organizations but also made the situation even worse and more complicated.
This concerns the establishment and activities of the private multiplexor. The law states: “The private multiplexor must implement multiplex through its own electronic communication network the coverage of which should not be smaller than the area of the coverage of the digital broadcasting network.” Only big enterprises can meet the conditions stated in the draft law. Hence, obviously, by having such a provision in the draft law, the Armenian authorities are setting up a monopoly and ruling out the existence of small and medium enterprises in this sphere.
In the meantime, Georgia promotes involvement of small and medium enterprises in this stage of switchover from analog to digital broadcasting. The frequencies have been digitalized and provided to them free of charge. Hence, broadcasters have become small multiplexors, and this is the right way of developing this sphere.
Analog broadcasters in the Armenian marzes have announced repetitively that if the legislation provides for, they may become private multiplexors. “If we united with other TV channels sharing this problem, made investments, we could have our own regional broadcasting multiplex and implement digital transmission, like in Georgia,” Khachik Danielyan, the director of Alt TV Channel of Armavir region told CPFE. However, the law does not allow for this. Kh. Danielyan says Alt TV is in uncertainty: the extension of the license term does not resolve their problem.
Unlike the director of Alt TV Channel, the changes have not overpowered Mnatsakan Harutyunyan, the director of Hrazdan TV Channel. On the contrary, he is optimistic and his slogan is “there is no evil without good”. “The license issued to us does not state that we will be deprived of air in case of switching off the analog transmission; it states that the term of our license is until the new competition is announced,” M. Harutyunyan told CPFE. According to him, if analog transmission is switched off, their TV company will be included in the package of a company offering telecommunication services. They have already received proposals from Rostelecom and Ucom. “Whatever they did, they were not able to suppress us and smash us. We will continue to work until the new competition is announced,” M. Harutyunyan said.