Narine Avetisyan knew the switch to digital broadcasting was a threat to the TV channel she directs, so did the editors of over a dozen of small, regional broadcasters across Armenia - and they fought it every step of the way. To no avail - when the analogue transmission was cut off in November 2016 the editor of Lori TV, in the northern city of Vanadzor, was left with no options as the channel she heads was unable to apply for the swap and move onto digital broadcasting. As it happens, no competition for the license was ever organized and politics meddled in.
In 2010 amendments to the law regulating television and radio broadcasting determined that each marz (region) and city of Armenia was to have one single private TV company operating“to satisfy the interest of [both] nationwide and local populations.” It sounded like a death sentence for the 12 regional TV channels which were doomed to close down - companies without a digital broadcasting license could operate only until 2013, and not all of them were going to get one.
In Armenia, 27 TV stations hold a license for digital broadcasting - eight of them can broadcast for the whole country, ten in the capital Yerevan, and nine in the regions.
Lori TV, which has been broadcasting since 1995, and the other 11 regional channels remained out, as their licenses were not extended. What is at stake is Armenia’s media diversity, maintains both journalists and rights’ groups, and the chance to offer a variety of views on issues affecting the country’s regions - there is more to Armenia than just Yerevan, and regional broadcasters are essential.
Following protests from media organizations the deadline was extended to end in 2015, then again extended to the end of 2016, allowing regional companies to continue operating under their current licenses until an open tender would select a private multiplexer to operate nationwide. The plan was for a private company to operate a multiplexer, a method by which multiple analog or digital signals are combined into one over a shared medium, to install transmission towers and stations, and develop a thorough distribution network enabling the regional TV channels to broadcast. There’s a catch - the tender evaporated and the National Committee on Television and Radio did not select the expected private provider.
According to the head of the “Committee on the Defense of Freedom of Speech,” Ashot Melikyan, the glitch was procedural.
“The requirements were demanding, that’s why it failed,” explains Melikyan who heads the Yerevan-based NGO advocating for transparency and freedom of expression. “The competition was cancelled, the conditions set for the ownership of the private multiplexer were not attractive and quite hard [to meet].”
Neighboring Georgia, which switched to digital in July 2015, allowed several small and medium-sized multiplexers to operate instead of a large, single one.
“If we had applied that experience, left-out TV stations could team up and create small multiplexers [thus] continuing their professional activity,” adds Melikyan who maintains that one single, private company covering the whole of Armenia would raise questions about monopoly.
The idea of small multiplexer set up by the regional channels is supported by the TV stations as well, but it would require a change in the current legislation, an option which does not feature on the horizon.
Lacking applicants for the private multiplexer, the government sticked to a public one, which started operating from July 1st 2015 and allows the licensed regional TV stations to broadcast.
The other issue is related to the 12 regional TV channels, in private ownership, which in 2010 were revoked their license to broadcast.
Lori region used to have four TV stations, but only Fortuna TV, a channel owned by Karen Karapetyan, an MP for the ruling Republican Party, received in 2010 the the right to broadcast in the marz. Avetisyan maintains there was a political motif.
Since 2011 Fortuna TV is available across the marz, offering a mix of programs produced in-house as well as Armenian soap operas and talk shows created by national broadcasters. Karen Arshakyan, Fortuna’s director, did not respond to queries for this article - as seven years have passed since the channel was granted the license he declined to comment on the issue.
Analogue broadcasting remains available to consumers with cable TV, which is a paid service, hence less common. Two companies, Ucom and Rostelecom, provide cable broadcasting in Vanadzor and, according to Avetisyan, they took out Lori TV from their packages despite a prior agreement.
Lori TV have teamed up other regional TV companies in a similar position and fought for their right to be on-air with the Committee of Defense of Freedom of Speech, the Yerevan Press Club, and the Media Initiatives Center. With the support from Edmon Marukyan, a formerly independent MP from Lori region recently elected in the list of the Yelk Alliance, they proposed to introduce changes to the bill to save the regional channels, but received neither an answer nor any feedback on their requests.
In November 2013 six regional outlets - Lor, MIG, and Ankyun+3 from Lori region, ALT from Armavir marz, Ijevan from Tavush region, and Hrazdan from Kotayk - wrote an open letter to the President, the Speaker of the Parliament and the Prime Minister to voice their concerns that “the cessation of analogue transmission made our work useless, as the programs are not available to the consumers.’ The signatories added that, “it is clear that we were also deprived of advertisers as a result of this situation. As the competition for a private multiplexer did not take place this year due to the absence of applications, it is more likely that our companies will close than a private multiplexer will appear.”
The letter fell on deaf ears - the senders received no response.
Ashot Melikyan maintains that first of all the law should be reviewed, while according to Edmon Marukyan, the license-granting process was not “fair” and was subject to political connections.
“The law was adopted by the political majority, which nowadays is the Republican Party of Armenia, which obeys to top officials [in the government],” maintains Marukyan whose party holds nine seats in the National Assembly - not enough to effectively influence a change in the bill without government’s support.
“It is now seven years that we have been struggling to keep our broadcasting place," laments Avetisyan.
As it stands, a solution does not look promising any time soon.