President Serzh Sarkisian on Thursday urged the Armenian media to be fair in its coverage of next year’s parliamentary elections and spoke of “progress” in press freedom in the country.
“Elections are a period of heated discussions, but I hope that lies, provocations, insults and name-calling is not what will energize political life,” Sarkisian said at a New Year’s reception for journalists mostly working for news organizations loyal to his administration.
“For that reason I am using this opportunity to urge all players in the media field to be impartial and unbiased and mindful of the importance of political processes expected in our country in 2012,” he said.
Most media outlets failed to provide that kind of news coverage ahead of just about every election held in Armenia since independence. This is particularly true for television stations, by far the most accessible source of information in the country.
Western election observers have criticized them for openly backing establishment candidates and being biased against their opposition challengers. The last national elections, won by Sarkisian and his Republican Party amid fraud allegations, were no exception in that regard.
“I have the impression that in the course of the past year Armenian media outlets took yet another step towards providing impartial information,” Sarkisian told editors and reporters attending the presidential reception. “Progress in the activities of media in our country is really noticeable,” he said.
Critics will counter, however, that the Sarkisian administration has shown no signs of abandoning or easing its strong influence on the political news reporting of virtually all Armenian broadcasters. The latter still rarely reports critical of the president.
The government’s continuing de facto control of the airwaves was highlighted by official tenders for new broadcasting licenses held in late 2010 after the passage of amendments to an Armenian law on broadcasting. The amendments were strongly criticized by local media associations as well as Western governments and watchdogs.
A state body administering the tenders refused to grant a new license A1+, the country’s leading independent TV station that was controversially taken off the air in 2002. It also made sure that another, functioning independent channel based in Gyumri will have to end broadcasts in 2015.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists criticized the tenders in a February 2011 report. “The amendments [to the broadcasting law] positioned Sarkisian to maintain control over the country’s docile television and radio stations,” it said.
The last 18 months have also seen an upsurge in libel suits against mainly independent and pro-opposition publications filed by serving and former government officials, pro-government parliamentarians and businessmen. That followed the adoption by the Armenian parliament in April 2010 of legal amendments which decriminalized libel but drastically toughened financial penalties for such offences.
Press freedom groups regard the 30 or so defamation cases brought since then as a serious threat to free speech. “This tendency to use lawsuits to throttle news media must be reined in,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in May 2011.
The state human rights ombudsman, Karen Andreasian, added his voice to these concerns last month, asking Armenia’s Constitutional Court to pass judgment on the matter. The Constitutional Court responded by instructing lower courts to be more cautious in handling libel suits and generally avoid imposing hefty fines on media.