By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s leading television stations said on Monday that they have already set their prices for political advertising to be aired by candidates in next February’s presidential election.
The prices are virtually identical with the campaign ad rates which they set in the run-up to last May’s parliamentary elections and which were described as exorbitant by opposition parties.
The Armenian Public Television (HHH), the country’s most accessible media outlet, will charge candidates 80,000 drams ($250) per minute, or considerably less than the main Yerevan-based private networks. The highest price tag, 130,000 drams per minute, will again be put forward by Armenia TV, which is sponsored and partly owned by a U.S. millionaire of Armenian descent. The rates set by the other major channels vary from 100,000 drams to 120,000 drams.
Armenia’s Electoral Code limits presidential candidates’ campaign spending to 70 million drams ($220,000) but sets no effective mechanisms for enforcing their compliance with the spending cap. The code also entitles all registered contenders to an unspecified amount of free airtime on Public Television. Its total length is due to be decided by the Central Election Commission.
Leaders of the Armenian opposition claimed last spring that the high cost of election-related advertising was decided by the authorities with the aim of restricting their cash-strapped opponents’ access to the airwaves. The TV stations, all of them loyal to the government, insisted on Monday that their rates are market-based.
Gagik Mkrtchian, Armenia TV’s executive director, told RFE/RL that the channel received more than enough advertising orders during the parliamentary election campaign and expects to be just as busy this time as well. He said no presidential candidate will be allowed to buy more than six minutes of paid airtime per day.
“Demand [in campaign advertising] is very strong and that is a good commercial opportunity for the company to boost its revenues,” said Gegham Manukian, director of the Yerkir Media station controlled by the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). He claimed that Yerkir Media’s rate of 100,000 drams per minute will apply to Dashnaktsutyun’s candidate as well and that the latter will not enjoy any discounts.
Also pledging to charge himself was Tigran Karapetian, the controversial owner of the ALM TV channel who also plans to run for president. Karapetian said ALM’s price of 120,000 drams will be affordable for the main presidential candidates.
The most influential of them, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, is already enjoying a highly positive TV coverage of his de facto election campaign, something which his political opponents view as covert advertising. Western observers had described the Armenian broadcasters’ coverage of the previous presidential election held in 2003 as extremely biased against the opposition.