THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION OR THE PRE-ELECTION “OPTIMIZATION” OF THE AIR
As the new cycle of the national elections gets closer, the ruling circles start to pay more and more attention to mass media. It does not take much to guess that they are hardly preoccupied with the concern about the independence and impartiality of journalists and their ability to meet the information demands of the society. It is rather the contrary. Those at power think about how the control over media can be strengthened – primarily, over the television that played an enormous role during the last election campaigns.
Having pushed the uncontrolled “A1+” TV company out of the air, putting a barrier in front of other, potentially disobedient bidders for broadcast licenses, the authorities got in 2003 the coverage of elections that they wanted. Yet this was not very easy to accomplish. It is a hard task to scrutinize over 40 TV channels. So many watches, aware of general strategy and able to implement it, had to be distracted from other election-related matters! For this is a delicate sphere, where the pure loyalty is insufficient, one must also have a gift of manipulation, to be able to both strangle the freedom of expression and bluff the international observers.
Thus a fresh idea ripened in the state minds, responsible for propaganda: the number of TV channels must be reduced! Naturally, this initiative must be justified by the interests of the information consumers, under the allegation that neither the professionals nor the material resources of the country are sufficient for several dozens of TV channels. Hence, to improve the quality of the media production, the potential that exists in the country should be concentrated.
The first step of the "conspirators” was the introduction of amendments to the RA Law “On Television and Radio” in December 2003, according to which the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR) was permitted to refrain from announcing competitions to vacant (vacated) frequencies upon its own discretion. The Council of Europe and its experts, monitoring the process of broadcast legislation reforms, made no response to this. Thus, the mistake carelessly committed by the authorities was “rectified”: when the Law was adopted, the proposal of the journalistic community on the mandatory publication of the list of frequencies available and announcing competitions for them was passed.
Having removed the legislative obstacle, the “conspirators” started “the explanatory campaign”, telling the world how useful the reduction of the TV channels is, referring to this subject with increasing persistence. In general, the arguments quoted in favor of concentrating the professional and market resources sound quite reasonable. But there is one more than essential circumstance hindering the perception of these arguments: the development and implementation of conceptual reforms in the broadcast sphere, including the optimization of the air, can only be trusted to a body, truly committed to the idea of free and professional media. Meanwhile our NCTR is predominantly focused on the protection of the air from the independent and uncontrollable entrants and the reshaping the media market to the benefit of a narrow group of those, perceived as loyal to the authorities. The more freedom NCTR gets by the Law, the more “effective” it will be in its policy of monopolization and media control. To finally disperse all public doubts with regard to its true mission it took this structure, formed in 2001, only a couple of months.
The prospect of reduction in the number of TV channels is most probably welcome by the loyal majority of the present broadcast companies’ owners. Previously they rushed to open and buy TV channels for various reasons – to use them as a forum for their own political programs, to provide information services to the top leadership of the country and be reciprocated by favors in other matters, to block the way to the license for “A1+” and gaining the benevolence of authorities at the same time. As a rule, the “love” of the business elite to broadcasting was conditioned by all the three factors mentioned.
Few of the present-day air holders truly expected to make money by doing television, particularly, taking into account how limited the advertising market in Armenia is. On the contrary, they were ready to sacrifice a part of their profits from the main business for this responsible task. Yet as the time passed, the burden became increasingly oppressive for some of the TV company owners: this turned out to be not only an expensive occupation, but also quite of a headache – what if something undesirable get to the air? And it is not very easy to get rid of the problematic TV business, either. It can only be sold or transferred to a very reliable person, and only upon a blessing from above. And until the reliable alternative appears, one must bear his cross! The absence of the requirement to fill in all the vacant frequencies actually proves to be a solution, since it opens the way for TV shutdowns or mergers. This will allow saving financial resources, redirecting them to other methods of attaining necessary results during elections as well as doing with a smaller number of qualified “watches”.
A witty person compared politics to a currency exchange desk: here the power is translated into wealth, and the wealth is translated into power. The campaign to reduce the number of Armenian TV channels also combines the interests of the power and the money. We have already defined what the goals of the authorities in the view of elections are in this. But the concentration of the broadcast business within a smaller group of players also sets ground for a significant growth of profits. When this or that branch of economy is protected against the penetration of unwanted competitors, all the possibilities exist to regulate the incomes and expenses. Similarly to the tax and customs bodies creating conditions for the monopolization of certain market segments, NCTR, in the name and upon the demand of authorities, is introducing the principle “everything is under control” into the broadcast sphere.
The complete arbitrariness in conductance (and now also in non-conductance) of a competition for frequencies is not the only “achievement” of the Commission. It “rules” the domain in its charge also by selective application of the legislative restriction on advertising. Some are penalized for their violations, some are not… In the same arbitrary way the laws on the language, on copyright and the clauses of the broadcast legislation on the volumes of self-produced programs, technical requirements of the broadcasting, etc., can be applied.
The system described simply makes one admire its perfection. It destroys even the seemingly unshakable stereotype that the profitability of a medium is the basis for its independence. The mechanisms created not only observe the interests of the privileged broadcasters but also their loyalty to the authorities.
There is an impression that there is only one obstacle remaining on the way to the pre-election “optimization” of the air: the permanent readiness of the untamed “A1+” TV company to participate in any new competitions to any vacant frequencies. It is the absence of those that continues to serve as a justification for the Armenian authorities in the eyes of the international community for not allocating a frequency to “A1+”. Accordingly, NCTR, despite the amendment to the Law, remains tied with an informal obligation to announce competitions to the vacated frequencies. This is why the “system” cannot afford stopping the broadcast of any single TV channel, however unprofitable it is. The sacred spot must remain filled! The only thing that can help the authorities to get rid of the “ghost” of “A1+” is… the European Court of Human Rights, should it refuse the suit of this TV company (rather, its founder, “Meltex” LLC) against the Republic of Armenia.
In this case all the eight “defeats” of “A1+” in the competitions of 2002-2004 will thus be legitimized on the European level, and NCTR will get a strong argument: is it worth announcing competition for the vacant frequency if the only bidder for it is a TV company that permanently loses… Then – “full speed” command to “optimization”!
The numerous international organizations, getting ready to observe the coming elections and monitor media, can already state: “The coverage of elections on the TV air will not correspond to democratic standards, principles of plurality and freedom of expression.”