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By Astghik Bedevian and Anna Saghabalian
Armenia’s leading opposition groups accused the authorities on Monday of thwarting their attempts to run television advertisements urging voters to reject the proposed amendments to the Armenian constitution.

Meanwhile, a senior ally of President Robert Kocharian effectively admitted that the country’s main television stations loyal to the ruling regime are airing ads commissioned by the “Yes” campaign free of charge.

Opposition leaders told RFE/RL that none of the state-run and private broadcasters has so far agreed to broadcast opposition ads on the grounds that they have still not decided on their tariffs for referendum campaigning. “We are constantly being told to wait,” said Grigor Harutiunian of the Artarutyun (Justice) alliance.

“They have failed [to win popular support for Kocharian’s constitutional reform] and they are well aware of that,” claimed Artashes Geghamian, the leader of the National Unity Party (AMK). “If they are not, then what prevents them from giving airtime to the opposition?”

But Mher Shahgeldian, the “Yes” campaign manager, flatly denied that Kocharian and his governing coalition have deliberately denied the opposition airtime ahead of the November 27 referendum. “TV companies themselves organize their programs and invite politicians or experts,” he said, adding that some opposition leaders have already featured in televised talk shows on constitutional reform.

Still, Shahgeldian could not explain why the TV networks are already airing “yes” ads, while refusing to sell airtime to the opposition. Furthermore, he indicated that the more than two dozen pro-Kocharian parties campaigning for the passage of the draft amendments have not been charged for those ads. “We do not know of any [TV] tariffs,” he told reporters.

Armenia’s state-rung Public Television and over a dozen private networks rarely air any criticism of Kocharian and are believed to be effectively controlled by the latter. The only TV channel critical of the Armenian leader was controversially forced off the air in April 2002. The Armenian TV stations’ coverage of the 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections was found to be extremely biased against the opposition by international election observers.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, are putting an optimistic spin on their lack of access to air waves, saying that heavy pro-government propaganda has always backfired in Armenia. “We don’t need to do much campaigning in this situation,” said Aram Sarkisian, the leader of Armenia’s most radical opposition party, Hanrapetutyun.

“The obstacles work in favor of the opposition,” agreed Geghamian.

Geghamian, Sarkisian and Artarutyun leader Stepan Demirchian have each launched their pre-referendum campaigns, separately touring the country and holding rallies. The three leaders do not rule out the possibility of joining forces on the eve of the referendum.
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