By Harry Tamrazian in Prague
A senior U.S. diplomat criticized Armenia’s leaders on Monday for restricting opposition access to electronic media, suggesting that they fear losing power and the resulting material benefits in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Julie Finley, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was specifically concerned about the record-high prices of political advertising that were set by Armenia’s leading broadcasters recently. She also questioned the Armenian authorities’ stated commitment to creating a level playing field for all election contenders.
Leaders of the Armenian opposition say the campaign ad rates, varying from 80,000 drams to 130,000 drams ($355) per minute, are part of a broader government effort to bar them from using television in the run-up to the May 12 elections. However, the TV channels, all of them loyal to the government, have denied this, insisting that their campaign fees are market-based and were not dictated by the authorities.
Finley was clearly unconvinced by such assurances as she spoke to RFE/RL during a visit to its headquarters in Prague. “Whoever has the power to do so, they’d better lower their rates,” she said. “I think it’s very odd to me that leaders in countries [like Armenia] are so afraid to make media available or transparency more prevalent. It says only one thing to me: that the leaders are afraid of losing their jobs and maybe the opportunity, just perhaps, of salting away some money in bank accounts in some place.”
“If you’re not afraid, then why not let this stuff open up, let the rates down, maybe create something where there aren’t even any rates, maybe have time on Saturdays and Sundays when there is three hours of free airtime,” Finley added. “There are all kinds of things you can do if you really want to have fair elections.”
Armenian law entitles parties and electoral blocs running for parliament to only 60 minutes of free airtime on state television and 120 minutes on state radio. Opposition parties also complain about what they see as a biased coverage of their activities by the TV stations that rarely air criticism of President Robert Kocharian and his government.
Finely warned that equal campaigning opportunities are as important for the freedom and fairness of the Armenian elections as the voting and counting of ballots. “They [the authorities] refuse to understand that it is about the weeks, many weeks, before the election day, that everything that goes on in that period is as important as how the election day runs,” she complained. “And all of those things have to do with freedom of assembly, freedom of media. Do they all have access to the television? Do they all have access to the radio? Do they have the ability to gather supporters in a town square?”
Visiting Yerevan last October, Finley was assured by Armenian officials that the 2007 elections will be more democratic than the ones held in the past. The trip was overshadowed by Kocharian’s failure to receive her, ostensibly due to his busy schedule. The Vienna-based diplomat was “very, very disappointed” with some commentators interpreted as a snub.
But Finley insisted on Monday that she does not think she was shunned by the Armenian leader. “He couldn’t work it into his schedule,” she said. “It wasn’t because I was insisting on meeting him or wanted to meet him or had expressed an interest in meeting him.”
(Photolur photo: Julie Finley.)