By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s electronic media have long been loyal to the government, and there is nothing unusual about their highly positive coverage of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s election campaign. What is unusual is the fact that Armenian state television and the more than a dozen national private networks take one day to prepare and broadcast reports on his campaign rallies.
This apparently coordinated policy has left media watchers scratching their heads and sparked opposition allegations that TV reports on Sarkisian rallies are censored and even doctored before being aired.
The supposedly competing broadcasters strongly deny this, saying that the prime minister usually meets voters late in the afternoon or in the evening and that their journalists are physically unable to report on those high-profile events in depth on the same day. Such explanations are less than convincing, though, considering the fact the TV channels inform viewers about other events taking place in Armenia in a far more timely manner.
“The prime minister’s meetings take place in the afternoon and in order to be able to ensure the principle of equality [of all presidential candidates] we air reports the next day,” said Shavarsh Gevorgian, head of the news service of H2, Armenia’s most accessible private TV channel. “And this is true not only for Serzh Sarkisian’s meetings.”
“Please, don’t look for anything suspicious here, especially in relation to our TV company because we don’t cover Serzh Sarkisian’s campaign every day,” said Gegham Manukian, chairman of the Yerkir-Media channel controlled by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).
Manukian claimed that even some campaign rallies held by Dashnaktsutyun’s presidential candidate, Vahan Hovannisian, were shown on Yerkir-Media the next day. He insisted that Dashnaktsutyun and its broadcasting arm did not cut any deals with a government which Hovannisian regularly criticizes in his campaign speeches.
Sarkisian’s campaign team and the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) also defend the one-day time lag. “I think there is a technical problem involved because our meetings in remote regions take place late in the evening and I think it’s not quite possible to report on them the same day,” Eduard Sharmazanov, the HHK spokesman, told RFE/RL.
Sarkisian’s rallies usually take place before 4 p.m. local time. In Yerevan, prime minister campaigned earlier in the afternoon, giving TV journalists enough time to prepare their reports before evening news programs.
Opposition representatives, meanwhile, claim that Sarkisian-related TV reports are censored by the authorities. Ruzan Khachatrian, a former TV journalist and spokeswoman for the opposition People’s Party supporting former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, went further last week, alleging that the Sarkisian campaign itself produces those reports and sends them to the numerous local broadcasters. She said the authorities are anxious to demonstrate a high degree of popular support for the election favorite and hide the fact that many teachers, doctors and other public sector employees are forced to attend his gatherings.
The Yerevan Press Club (YPC), an independent media watchdog closely monitoring the election coverage, believes that the censorship claims are not necessarily wide of the mark even if there is no compelling evidence to substantiate them. “The identical coverage of the election campaign by the seven TV channels [monitored by the YPC] is enough of a reason to suspect some sort of a guidance or hidden censorship,” the YPC chairman, Boris Navasardian, told RFE/RL.
“We too have noticed the existence of such a phenomenon and will try to see if it that kind of coverage is really a pattern in the next few days,” he said. “And if it is a pattern, then we definitely have a problem.”
The YPC repeatedly criticized the Armenian TV stations for presenting Sarkisian in an exclusively positive light and showing “unprecedented” bias against Ter-Petrosian.