The Armenian authorities appear determined to maintain their long-standing control over the country's broadcast media by means of newly enacted legal amendments criticized by local press freedom groups and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The government-drafted amendments, which were finally adopted by parliament on June 10, should enable the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian to continue the de facto ban on the independent A1+ TV station imposed by Sarkisian's predecessor Robert Kocharian over eight years ago. They are also expected to lead to the eventual closure of another, regional independent broadcaster that has managed to remain afloat despite defying government orders in recent years.
The changes in an Armenian law on television and radio were enacted under the guise of Armenia's ongoing transition to mandatory digital broadcasting. The process formally started in September 2008 with a two-year suspension of fresh tenders for broadcasting licenses administered by the presidentially controlled National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH). The controversial freeze was widely seen as a government attempt to ward off renewed Western pressure for the reopening of A1+, the only Yerevan-based TV channel that had regularly aired criticism of the Kocharian administration.
It came three months after the European Court of Human Rights fined the Armenian government 20,000 euros ($25,000) for the HRAH’s consistent rejection of broadcasting frequency bids submitted by A1+. The Strasbourg-based court said those decisions ran counter to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The once popular TV station, which had specialized in online news reporting since being taken off the air in April 2002, hoped to resume broadcasts as a result of renewed frequency tenders due in the second half of this year. Media experts in Yerevan consider the government bill unveiled in May a serious blow to those hopes.
Particularly controversial is an amendment that sets the maximum number of TV stations operating in Armenia (there are presently at least 22 of them) at 18, and requires some of them to have a particular thematic focus (e.g., culture, education, or sports), or to simply retransmit foreign channels. In a joint assessment issued ahead of the bill's preliminary approval by the National Assembly on May 20, Armenia's five leading media associations said this would "reduce the possibility of A1+ obtaining a broadcast license." They also questioned the still unclear government rationale for limiting the number of broadcasters.
Under the government bill, Armenia's 10 regions would not be allowed to have more than one regional TV channel each, starting from 2015. Gyumri, Armenia's second-largest city and the capital of the northwestern Shirak region, alone numbers four such stations at the moment. One of them, GALA TV, is arguably the only functioning Armenian broadcaster whose political news reporting is often critical of, and not influenced by, the government. (The other electronic media, especially the Yerevan-based national networks, are believed to be guided by instructions from the presidential administration.)
GALA fell foul of the authorities and nearly went bankrupt after breaking ranks in 2007 to provide airtime to opposition leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who himself had curbed media freedom on the airwaves while in power. Its embattled management and pro-government competitors now privately expect the cash-strapped station to lose its license in the coming years.
In a further blow to A1+ and other potential entrants to the broadcasting sector, the amended law does not spell out clearer criteria for the selection of winners of frequency biddings. It also retains a clause essentially requiring the HRAH to give preference to existing TV or radio networks.
The concerns expressed by Armenian media watchdogs were mostly shared by OSCE officials dealing with media freedom. Earlier this month, they presented the authorities with a list of recommendations related to the amendments. "If adopted in its present form, the law would not guarantee pluralism in the broadcasting sector," Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE's Vienna-based representative on freedom of the media, said in a June 1 statement.
The government claimed to have accepted most of the OSCE recommendations when it subsequently submitted the amendments to parliament for final passage. However, it clearly failed to budge on their most controversial provisions. Those also include mandatory licensing by the HRAH of broadcasting through the Internet and mobile phone networks. This could potentially complicate A1+'s recently announced plans to launch Internet broadcasts.
In another joint statement issued on June 6, the Yerevan Press Club and four other civic groups accused the government of breaking its promise to significantly modify a bill which they believe could cause broadcast media "irreversible damage." "The time, the effort and resources that our organizations as well as international structures and their experts have spent has not yielded an adequate result," read the statement.
The only concession the government made in the following days was the restoration of a legal clause obligating the HRAH to substantiate rejections of broadcasting license applications. But this will hardly placate its critics, which now seem to also include the European Union.
In an extraordinary statement issued on behalf of the Yerevan-based European Union ambassadors earlier on June 10, the EU Delegation in Armenia effectively urged the authorities not to pass the bill in the second and final reading for now. It said they should "continue working closely with civil society, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE experts with a view to bring the law further in line with international standards."
By ignoring this appeal, the Armenian authorities underscored their self-confidence and the lack of strong pressure on them from Western governments and human rights bodies such as the Council of Europe. After years of timid attempts to get A1+ back on air, the Strasbourg-based organization seems to be losing interest in the matter. The leadership of its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) backed away in June 2009 from its earlier intention to demand that Yerevan at last "grant a broadcasting license to A1+." A fresh resolution on Armenia adopted by the PACE at the time only contained a vague call for the fairness and transparency of the licensing process.
The Sarkisian administration also seems confident that the restrictive media bill will not hamper its upcoming negotiations with the EU over an "association agreement" stemming from the bloc's Eastern Partnership program for six former Soviet republics.
In a recent policy paper on Armenia, the European Commission said "sufficient progress towards the principles of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights" is a key precondition for the success of those talks. Whether that means the authorities in Yerevan should at last tolerate domestic broadcasters they do not control is not clear yet.