Television: How is the great persuader performing pre-May 12?

Slogans such as “Make Your Right Choice” intrude into Armenian homes through television heralding the upcoming elections.

The television becomes the most powerful instrument of propaganda in the election year; 70-80 percent of a candidate’s campaign ads are through television.

How available is the air to political forces; do the Armenian channels pay equal attention to the pro-governmental and the oppositional parties?

Opinions collide:

A number of organizations held media monitoring before the start of the official campaign. Results have shown airtime is not distributed quite equally among parties or personalities.

Moreover, some parties have appeared on so-called “black lists”, and face an information blockade.

Boris Navasardyan, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club says there is a “specially agreed policy of not giving air to Hanrapetutyun (Republic), Zharangutyun (Heritage) and Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) parties.”

Since March, TV companies have started covering events related to these parties. During the same month general liberalization of TV companies has been observed, which, Navasardyan says, is a result of monitoring mass media activity held by international bodies.

Stepan Safaryan, included in the proportional list of the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, argues that the chairman of his party former Minister of Foreign Affairs Raffi Hovannisian has been invited to political talk-shows only three times over the past five years. Since the beginning of this year, ARF party members have participated in political talk shows 16 times, Republican party 15 times. From the opposition, National Unity six times, Armenian All National Movement six times.

“Television channels have neither invited for programs nor have they covered any press conference within the five years, nor they have reflected on the court case of depriving the party of its premises,” Safaryan says.

According to the results of the February monitoring by the Press Club the ALM TV Company occupies a special position [in the list of the observed TV companies]: 85.5 percent of its programs are devoted to the activities and the position of the leader of the People’s Party, Tigran Karapetyan.

“The parliamentary elections will become a litmus-paper to determine further relations between the European Union and Armenia . . .”

German Ambassador to Armenia Heike Renate Peitsch

Meanwhile Karapetyan complains that he has been black listed: “Look, Karapetyan has never been invited to any political program on any channel.”

Haylur (the news program on H1 Public TV) is also noticed for a habit of attending only to one side.

“The picture with the news program on H1 is the following: the ruling coalition parties received 75 percent coverage, with the parties not included in the coalition receiving only 25 percent,” says Nina Iskandaryan, the coordinator of the media monitoring of television and radio coverage in the pre-election period held by the Caucasus Media Institute.

The studies [held in Armenia] reveal the importance of the television in the political struggle. Sociologist Aharon Adibekyan says television is the main source of information on ongoing political issues for the greater part of society.

“Television usually takes 85 percent, but when posters and booklets enter the game, the figure drops to 60. Still, the important role of television is obvious. By the way [survey respondents] say the most and the least trusted news programs are those of the Shant and the H1 channels respectively,” Adibekyan says.

Earlier in February, as television companies declared tariffs on advertisement on their channels, the oppositional forces raised a clamor claiming the high prices were unequal competitive conditions in favor of the pro-government forces.

The price increases – by as much as three times over 2003 in some cases – were seen by opposition as pro-government monopolization.

There is some grounds to the opposition claims, as it has been reported that some television stations have refused to sell ad time to opposition candidates; others have sold ad time then returned the fee without running any ads.

Robert Evans, Chief of Party for International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), says it is a common practice that some stations “harvest” the opportunity to inflate ads during election season.

Generally, though, he says that a survey conducted by his organization, mostly comparing advertising habits of the state channel, H1, showed that the main cause of increased prices has been the decrease in the value of the dollar.

“Our monitoring found the H1 rates were practically identical in 2003 with the major difference within the exchange rate,” he says, pointing out that IREX has no political agenda or allegiance. “We provide data. We just measure what’s going on and report the facts.”

Evans explained the impact the American currency has on Armenian TV advertising spending.

“Before, advertisement in Armenia was quoted in dollars because the dollar was a stronger currency, and since January of this year advertisement has been quoted in Armenian drams because the dram is stronger now and more valuable. People should take into account that the Armenian advertising market is stronger today that it was in 2003. The reasons (for increased prices) are certainly not what the opposition claims. Besides, the rates have been increased for all types of commercials.”

“If the May 12 elections are held with gross violations it is not excluded that Armenia may be expelled from the Council of Europe as well as the program of the American Millennium Challenge Account.”

Republican Party member, head of the parliamentary Standing Commission on State and Legal Issues Rafik Petrosyan

Others, though are not convinced.

“This kind of increase in price is obviously targeted at depriving the opposition of the air. It feels like the whole 60 million dram ($166,000) elections fund should be totally spent on buying air on television. It is clear the authorities wanted it to be that way from the very beginning – to minimize the influence of the opposition on the public to the possible extent,” Artur Baghdasaryan, chairman of the Orinats Yerkir (Rule of Law) Party says.

There is also intrigue in the position of the regional television companies on the matter: all four television companies of Lori and Shirak, and three of the companies in Armavir and Syunik have totally refused to broadcast political advertisement -- and thus refusing ad revenue. 

“Everybody knows elections are the best time to earn money for the media. Is it logical the television companies refuse to earn additional means on their own? It’s not, of course. There are grounds to insist this kind of refusal is a result of pressure,” says Elina Poghosbekyan, of the Yerevan Press Club.

Navasardyan believes the regional television companies refusing political advertisement attempt to escape the attention of monitors and gain a chance to provide hidden advertisement.

“It is an opportunity to selectively decide whom to advertise as there are no legal grounds to blame them for creating unequal conditions,” Navasardyan says.

However prior to the start of the official campaign the television channels were already filled with that kind of hidden political advertisement, which is a violation of Article 11 of the RA Law on Television and Radio.

For instance, the news programs on Kentron and ALM have been giving long coverage on Gagik Tsarukyan’s and Tigran Karapetyan’s benevolence activities; other channels have been violating the law in favor of various pro-governmental parties and none of the television companies has been brought to responsibility for such “advertorials”.

“The 2007 elections have already been falsified before May 12th and there might be no need for stuffing ballots on the day of the vote, because people’s minds have already been stuffed with exaggerated advertisements on television, with bribes and pressure,” Ruben Torosyan, head of the Supreme Soviet-Deputies’ Club NGO says.