By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri and Harry Tamrazian in Prague
In what could be interpreted as a further restriction of opposition access to television, the private broadcasters in at least one Armenian region said on Monday that they will not accept paid political advertisements for the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
The three TV stations based in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri told RFE/RL that they will only provide news coverage of the unfolding election campaign. That coverage has been highly supportive of pro-government parties and individuals candidates in the past.
The development came amid opposition protests against prohibitive prices of campaign ads that have been set by the Armenian Public Television and private national networks based in Yerevan. Opposition leaders claimed on Friday that the prices varying from 80,000 drams ($220) to 130,000 drams per minute were dictated by the government with the aim of minimizing opposition access to airwaves. The broadcasters insist that the rates are solely market-based.
Under Armenia’s electoral code, all TV and radio stations had to publicize their fixed campaign fees by Monday. None of the three channels broadcasting to Gyumri and the surrounding Shirak region met the deadline. “According to the law, those TV companies will not be allowed to air propaganda during the election campaign,” said Sayat Minasian, chairman of a local election commission.
At least two of the cash-strapped local broadcasters were clearly aware of this, saying that they will deliberately miss a rare opportunity to earn extra revenues. One of them, Shant TV, gave no explanation for the surprise move, while the other, Tsayg, cited “moral values.”
“For us the main thing is the calm of our viewers,” said Margarita Minasian. “We don’t want to get on their nerves with political ads.” She said Tsayg will only cover the election campaign and express its “position on the elections to the National Assembly.” That position is unlikely to be sympathetic to political parties blocs opposed to President Robert Kocharian.
The chief executive of the third Gyumri channel, Gala TV, claimed that he was simply unaware of the legal requirement. “We thought that the law applies only to public television,” said Mher Khachatrian.
It was not immediately known if local broadcasters in other parts of the country, which would charge election contenders far less than their Yerevan counterparts, have made a similar decision.
The opposition complaints, meanwhile, were echoed on Monday by a top representative of Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), a Paris-based media watchdog. “It’s a very crude way of preventing an opponent from addressing the country’s population,” Elsa Vidal, the RSF director for Europe and the former Soviet Union, told RFE/RL.
“It’s old and useless method. It just underlines that the authorities are afraid,” charged Vidal.