By Shakeh Avoyan
The Armenian opposition condemned on Monday a Constitutional Court ruling that will allow state television to end the hitherto mandatory broadcasts of some parliament sessions that usually feature strong verbal attacks on the government.
Under a law regulating the work of the National Assembly, the Armenian Public Television has to broadcast, in prime time, special sittings during which parliament deputies put questions to government ministers and make 3-minute statements on any issue. The assembly can also order the state-owned channel to broadcast its other sessions as well. In addition, the Armenian Public Radio has to broadcast all parliament sessions in full.
The legal provision, in place since 1995, has enabled opposition parties to spread their views through the two government-controlled broadcaster whose news coverage has traditionally favored the government. The management of the Armenian Public Television and Radio (HHRH) has been pushing for its abolition since last year, saying that it contradicts articles of Armenia’s constitution guaranteeing press freedom. The Constitutional Court accepted these arguments on Friday after an appeal filed by President Robert Kocharian.
Opposition leaders described the ruling as the latest in a series of government measures which they say are aimed at further restricting opposition access to the airwaves in the run-up to the May 12 parliamentary elections. They told RFE/RL that the mandatory broadcasts are necessary given the fact that state television and all major private networks are loyal to the Kocharian administration.
“I disagree with the [Constitutional Court’s] decision,” said Vazgen Manukian, the veteran leader of the opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM) party. “I believe the decision itself is unconstitutional.”
“Our first channel has never been known for covering the most important things. It is therefore necessary to obligate it show things which the National Assembly considers important,” he added.
The pro-Kocharian TV channels sparked a controversy last week by setting unusually high prices of election-related political advertising which will be affordable mainly for pro-government parties and individual candidates. The mostly cash-strapped oppositionists hoped to partly offset that by heavily using televised broadcasts of the relevant sessions of the outgoing parliament in the coming weeks. The court verdict enables the HHRH to stop those broadcasts.
“This ruling as well as the surge in the cost of campaign ads are clearly aimed at further limiting the opposition’s campaigning possibilities in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections,” said Stepan Demirchian of the opposition People’s Party of Armenia. “It shows that the authorities are scared of full-scale opposition campaigning.”
“Of course that was done deliberately in connection with the 2007 and 2008 elections,” agreed Manukian.
But Galust Sahakian, a leader of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, rejected the claims. “If we accept that the media is free, then the media themselves must decide what to broadcast,” he said.