COVERAGE OF ISSUES OF PUBLIC CONCERN DURING PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
On May 28-30 in Aghveran “Coverage of Issues of Public Concern during Presidential Elections 2008” seminar was held by Yerevan Press Club with the support of Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
The Editor of YPC Weekly Newsletter Elina Poghosbekian presented to the seminar participants the findings of the media monitoring administered by YPC and “TEAM” Research Center ahead of presidential elections (October-December 2007) and during the official pre-election promotion (January 21 – February 17, 2008). The YPC Expert Armen Nikoghosian told how the pre-election rhetoric of presidential candidates was reflected in Armenian press. The amendments to media legislation and their influence on the election campaign coverage were discussed in the presentation by YPC Expert Mesrop Harutiunian. Presidential elections in blogs were described by the head of Media Diversity Institute-Armenia Artur Papyan. The observer of Public Radio of Armenia Lusineh Vasilian addressed the media coverage of domestic political issues during the election campaign and after the elections. The presentation of YPC President Boris Navasardian was dealing with the media coverage of foreign policy issues during elections 2008.
PARLIAMENTARY HEARINGS ON MEDIA LEGISLATION
On June 4 at the RA National Assembly hearings on the issues of the legislative regulation of media activities were held by the NA Standing Committee on Science, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Issues. As the Chairwoman of the Committee Hranush Hakobian said in her opening remarks, RA Law “On Television and Radio” needs reformation, as it was adopted in 2000 and it did not reflect either the numerous recommendations of international experts or the amendments, made in the RA Constitution in November 2005. The practice, Hranush Hakobian stressed, also revealed the imperfection of the law: in particular, over the past few years a number of its provisions was recognized by the RA Constitutional Court to be contradictory to the Main Law. The parliamentary hearings, initiated by the Committee, as its head pointed out, mostly aim at developing a new concept of broadcasting legislation.
At the hearings the Chairman of the Council of Public TV and Radio Company (CPTRC) Alexan Harutiunian, the Chairman of the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR) Grigor Amalian, the representatives of journalistic associations, including Yerevan Press Club, deputies of the RA National Assembly spoke. “Internews” Media Support NGO presented its concept of broadcasting legislation.
The proposals of Yerevan Press Club on the reformation of the Law “On Television and Radio” refer primarily to the procedure of the appointment of the members of the NCTR and CPTRC, the assessment of the bids of broadcasters taking part in the licensing competitions and determination of winners. In particular, YPC suggests that a new notion be introduced to the law, that of “public hearings” (complex of actions, including media coverage of bids, open discussion, etc.), through the results of which decisions on filling in vacancies in NCTR and CPTRC must be made, winners of broadcast licensing competitions are to be determined. Besides, for the proportion of NCTR vacancies to be filled in through the appointment by the RA President candidacies must be nominated not only eligible by the legal criteria, but also submitting recommendation letters from five NGOs, operating in the domains of journalism, law, communications, culture, arts and science for at least 5 years. The same principle should apply also when filling in the vacancies at CPTRC. Besides, in the opinion of YPC, after the reformation of broadcasting legislation it would be effective for the members of the two bodies to resign (which does not render their future nomination impossible), thus creating an opportunity to form these bodies in accordance with the new legislative requirements and the RA Constitution as soon as possible.
As to the determination of the winners of broadcast licensing competitions, YPC proposed to hold an open rating vote on the bids, assessing them on four dimensions: volume of self-produced programs; volume of domestically produced programs; technical and financial capacities of the bidder; professionalism of the management and human resource recruitment policy.
At the end of the hearings the Chairwoman of the Committee on Science, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Issues noted that all proposals made will be analyzed and the draft amendments to the broadcasting legislation will possibly be submitted for the autumn session of the RA National Assembly.
FINAL REPORT OF OSCE/ODIHR ELECTION OBSERVATION MISSION
On May 30 the final report of OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission on the RA presidential elections of February 19, 2008 was released (for previous reports of the Mission see YPC Weekly Newsletter, March 7-13, 2008, February 15-21, 2008 and January 25-31, 2008).
As a conclusion, the report noted that the Central Election Commission (CEC) and the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR) did not ensure that media of Armenia met their obligations and “media bias was evident”. Favorable coverage of presidential candidate Serge Sargsyan, including his official duties as a Prime Minister, granted him undue advantage, while the opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian gains a large amount of negative coverage, also on the Public TV and radio, the OSCE/ODIHR Mission stressed. Speaking about the post-election developments, the EOM also noted the “de facto censorship” applied during the state of emergency in Yerevan (March 1-20, 2008).
In the report section, dealing with media, the EOM expressed its “longstanding concerns” over the independence of broadcast media: high degree of influence of editorial decisions by political and business interests; financial vulnerability of media; absence of real independence of NCTR and its inadequate regulation of broadcasting; actions against journalists and media.
“Despite a relatively high number of outlets, there are no significant alternative sources of information”, the EOM believes and recalls “A1+” TV company that has been off-air since 2002. While Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts on FM and “A1+” web-based service offer alternative political information, these are not accessible to all citizens, the EOM noted.
In the opinion of the report authors, there exists a general lack of diversity in the political viewpoints aired by main broadcast media. The public opinion is not adequately informed through the exchange of political opinion and debate, for example, or through journalistic investigation, commentary and analysis. This has implications during electoral periods, when “candidates should be able to freely present their views and qualifications, and voters should be able to learn and discuss them, as committed to in paragraph 7.7 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document”.
Presenting the media-related legislation, the EOM noted that the public broadcasters complied with their legal obligations regarding the provision of free airtime, and the candidates “were able to freely convey their political messages”: “However, despite criticism voiced during the 2007 parliamentary elections, the slots were again aired mostly outside what is considered to be primetime viewing, thereby potentially reducing voters’ ability to learn about candidates’ views. “
The final report also presented the results of monitoring of the Armenian media coverage of presidential election, administered by OSCE/ODIHR EOM during January 11 – February 17, 2008. The monitoring covered seven TV channels (First Channel of the Public Television of Armenia, “ALM”, “Armenia”, Second Armenian TV Channel, “Kentron”, “Shant”, “Yerkir Media”), 2 radio stations (Public Radio of Armenia, Armenian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) and 4 dailies (“Hayastani Hanrapetutiun”, “Aravot”, “Azg”, “Haikakan Zhamanak”).
According to the monitoring results, ahead of the official pre-election promotion (January 11-20, 2008) in the news broadcasts of four TV channels Prime Minister Serge Sargsian received approximately half the time allocated to all nine candidates and was covered in an almost exclusively positive or neutral manner (on the Second Armenian TV Channel – 66%, “Kentron” – 56%, “Shant” – 53%, “Armenia” – 48%). The same TV channels portrayed another candidate, Levon Ter-Petrosian, in neutral or negative terms.
Despite the fact that during the official election campaign TV channels offered candidates numerous opportunities to appear on their air, Levon Ter-Petrosian did not accept any such invitations, and Serge Sargsian took part in only one program. At the same time, the efforts of some TV channels, in particular, that of “Yerkir Media”, to hold debates between candidates failed, “ostensibly due to lack of interest by the candidates”.
Most TV channels, monitored by the EOM, were not even-handed in their political coverage during the official campaign: Levon Ter-Petrosian received a large volume of negative coverage while Serge Sargsian – overtly positive. The other candidates were covered either neutrally or positively. Many broadcasters adopted contrasting approaches to covering the campaign events of Levon Ter-Petrosian and Serge Sargsian: “These factors indicated the media bias which granted Prime Minister Sargsian a campaign advantage.”
According to the monitoring results, the PTA First Channel allocated reasonably comparable airtime to candidates in news coverage (Levon Ter-Petrosian – 21%, Serge Sargsian – 19%, Artur Baghdasarian – 14%, Artashes Geghamian – 13%, Vahan Hovhannesian and Vazgen Manukian – 11% each, Aram Harutiunian and Tigran Karapetian – 4% each, Arman Melikian – 3%). Yet, the treatment of the candidates was not equal. Even though Levon Ter-Petrosian was the leader in terms of the overall airtime, the majority of his coverage was of negative tone. The coverage of 8 other candidates on the First Channel was mostly neutral or positive. Public Radio of Armenia adopted a similar approach to PTA First Channel.
Similarly extensive share of negative coverage of Levon Ter-Petrosian was recorded on the Second Armenian TV Channel, “ALM”, “Kentron” and “Yerkir Media”. “This arose in part because of the frequency with which President Robert Kocharian and some candidates, in particular Artashes Geghamian, criticized him”, the report notes. Differential treatment of Levon Ter-Petrosian was also seen in other aspects of his news coverage. For example, the PTA First Channel regularly aired distorted footage of his campaign events, and several media aired one-sided footage of the incident that occurred during Ter-Petrosian’s rallies in Talin and Artashat. With the exception of Armenian Service of RFE/RL, few aired any critical coverage of the governing authorities, notably Ter-Petrosian’s criticism of President Robert Kocharian and the Prime Minister.
Serge Sargsian was the “most covered” on five of six private TV channels monitored (the Second Armenian TV Channel, “ALM”, “Armenia”, “Kentron” and “Shant”), primarily in his capacity as a candidate: “The TV stations consistently broadcast footage of Prime Minister Sargsian’s rallies with one day delay and aired similar footage, indicating the possibility of a coordinated editorial policy.”
As to the print media studied, as the monitoring of the EOM showed, the official “Hayastani Hanrapetutiun” gave clear preferential treatment to Prime Minister Serge Sargsian by granting him some 45% of its print space devoted to all candidates, with a generally positive tone. The private “Haikakan Zhamanak” daily showed clear bias in favor of Levon Ter-Petrosian by offering him 56% of its print space, devoted to all candidates, with mostly positive coverage. More balanced and analytical reporting was observed in “Aravot” daily.
“In general, the authorities appeared sensitive to any remarks that could be perceived as critical, and, as during the 2007 parliamentary elections, the media appeared unwilling or unable to broadcast comments criticizing incumbents”, the report section dealing with media monitoring concludes.
Neither CEC, nor NCTR, the report of OSCE/ODIHR EOM notes, ensured that the media met their legal obligation to treat candidates equally. The NCTR, required to monitor broadcasters’ compliance with applicable legal provisions, received three complaints of unequal coverage of election campaigns, and all three were rejected. On February 11 the Constitutional Court issued a ruling on a case brought by Levon Ter-Petrosian on the appearance of unsurmountable obstacles, in particular, due to unequal campaign conditions, created by the public broadcaster. The Court ruled that the arguments presented by the complainer cannot be qualified as “unsurmountable obstacles”.
In the conclusion of the report of OSCE/ODIHR EOM lists a number of recommendations to the Armenian authorities, also with regard to media.
Stressing the necessity to respect the freedom and independence of the media, as objective reporting is crucial during elections, the EOM recommends that the authorities of the country “should refrain from interfering in activities of media and journalists as it undermines their independence”.
The RA Law “On Television and Radio” should provide for a more diverse membership on the National Commission on Television and Radio, “for example by including media professionals and representatives of civil society”.
As to the public broadcaster, its functioning could be enhanced by: “lessening the role of the state in making appointments” to the Council of Public TV and Radio Company; broadening the composition of the Council “by allowing a broader range of political parties as well as non-partisan groups to nominate members”; “developing a neutral, objective and informative editorial line in all its programmes and strictly adhering to the legal requirements”; “providing voters a border range of electoral information through a greater variety of formats”.
Another recommendation of the EOM refers to the procedure of media complaints that must be transparent and easily accessible for stakeholders and public: “Consideration should be given to unifying relevant provisions in a single legal act. Granting two bodies (NCTR and CEC – Ed. Note) the competence to rule on media related complaints created some confusion regarding jurisdiction. Therefore, NCTR should be the sole body responsible to monitor the media’s general compliance with applicable legal provisions.”
Finally, the OSCE/ODIHR EOM recommend that “candidates’ campaign slots provided free of charge on public media should be broadcast after the main evening news, thereby enhancing voters’ ability to learn about candidates’ views”.
PUBLICATION OF “IRAVUNK” PARTY NEWSPAPER RESUMED AND PRIVATE “IRAVUNK DE FACTO” NEWSPAPER LAUNCHED
Since June 3 the publication of “Iravunk” newspaper (party organ of Constitutional Right Union) restarted. As it has been reported, the publication of the newspaper was suspended on April 4, 2008, due to the orders of the RA Service of Compulsory Execution, implementing the court ruling that committed to restore the Chief Editor of “Iravunk” Hovhannes Galajian and the Director of the newspaper Gegham Grigorian in their positions. The conflicts at CRU conference in September 2006 between its leaders, Hrant Khachatrian and Haik Babukhanian, made a split not only of the party but also the editorial board of its print organ. The Chairman of CRU Board Hrant Khachatrian dismissed the Chief Editor and the Director of the newspaper and on February 23, 2007 “Iravunk” was published with a new editor, Piruza Meliksetian. On their behalf Haik Babukhanian, Hovhannes Galajian and Gegham Grigorian since February 27 started publishing an alternative newspaper – “Iskakan Iravunk”. At the same time Hovhannes Galajian and Gegham Grigorian addressed the court demanding to be restored in the positions of “Iravunk” heads (see details in YPC Weekly Newsletter, April 4-10, 2008). Thus, Hovhannes Galajian and Gegham Grigorian again headed “Iravunk” newspaper and Haik Babukhanian again became the Chairman of the Editorial Board.
On the same day, June 3, a new newspaper was published, “Iravunk de Facto”. Its Chief Editor is Piruza Meliksetian. As YPC was told by Piruza Meliksetian, “Iravunk de Facto” is unrelated to any political party and is a private medium. The founder and the publisher of “Iravunk de Facto” is “Tesaket” LLC. The newspaper is issued twice a week on 8 A3 pages, with a print run of 3,500 copies.