By Ruzanna Stepanian, Astghik Bedevian and Karine Kalantarian
Armenia’s leading private broadcasters denied on Tuesday opposition claims that they were forced by the authorities to set artificially high prices for political advertisements to be aired during the unfolding election campaign.
Still, opposition leaders repeated their claims that the prohibitive cost of such adverts is aimed at effectively barring opposition parties from using the electronic media in the run-up to the May parliamentary elections. Armenian law guarantees them only 60 minutes of free airtime on state television and 120 minutes on state radio.
“The prices were set for pro-government parties,” said Grigor Harutiunian, a leading member of the People’s Party of Armenia. “Only political forces with dirty money can afford them.”
“They are driving us to the streets,” warned Smbat Ayvazian of the radical Hanrapetutyun party.
Some representatives of the governing coalition agreed that the campaign ad rates, varying from 80,000 drams to 130,000 drams ($365) per minute, are disproportionately high for a country like Armenia. “Of course the rates are very high, and we must jointly lower them,” said Rafik Petrosian of the governing Republican Party (HHK). Petrosian said he will raise his concerns with the HHK faction in the National Assembly.
However, the faction leader, Galust Sahakian, again dismissed the complaints, saying that credible political forces must have substantial financial resources at their disposal. “I don’t think that a party with many followers can not raise such sums,” he said.
In another blow to the opposition, it emerged on Tuesday that 18 out of the 29 local TV stations across Armenia have mysteriously decided not to run any pre-election advertising. Opposition politicians and some media experts believe that this will not keep them from promoting pro-government candidates in their news programs.
Meanwhile, the main private networks in Yerevan, whose news coverage is supportive of President Robert Kocharian, insisted that they did not receive government orders to collude and made political advertising unaffordable for the opposition. The executive director of Armenia TV, which set the highest fee, said the company will cut back on commercial advertising during the election campaign and needs to make up for the resulting losses.
“Absolutely not,” Gagik Mkrtchian said, commenting on the opposition claims. “These are false claims.”
Mkrtchian said Armenia TV charges commercial advertisers the average of 72,000 drams ($200) per minute, or 45 percent less than its campaign ad rate. Yerkir-Media television, which is controlled by the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), reported an even bigger disparity: 100,000 drams for campaign ads and up to 40,000 drams for regular commercials.
Gegham Manukian, a Dashnaktsutyun parliamentarian who runs Yerkir-Media, said this and other TV channels are simply looking to cash in on the electoral race. “The election campaign will be short, and, as business enterprises, TV companies have to make the most of it,” Manukian said. “This is pure market-based economics.” Opposition politicians will still be frequent guests at Yerkir-Media talk shows in the run-up to the polls, he added.
But Petros Ghazarian, a talk show host at another TV station, Kentron, admitted that the Armenian broadcasters are not immune to government pressure on this and other issues. “Business is still very dependent on the authorities, and many TV companies simply don’t want to take risks and be as objective as possible,” he said. “That’s a serious problem.”