“PRESS-CLUB” CYCLE: PRE-ELECTION PROMOTION AND THE CULTURE OF POLITICAL DEBATES
On February 17 another “Press Club” show went on the evening air of “Yerkir-Media” TV company. The guests of the program, the member of the Armenian National Movement Board Aram Manukian and the host of “Urvagits” program of “Kentron” TV company Petros Ghazarian discussed such aspects of the election campaign as pre-election promotion and the culture of political debates.
The next program of “Press Club” cycle will be aired by “Yerkir-Media” on Saturday, February 24, at 19.00.
WORKING MEETING ON THE CREATION OF ARMENIAN-AZERBAIJANI LITERARY ONLINE JOURNAL
On February 18-22 in Gudauri (Georgia) a working meeting was held under “Online Literary Journal for Regional Peace” project. The project is implemented by Yerevan and Baku Press Clubs with the support of Catholic Relief Services.
As writer Vahram Martirosian noted at the meeting, while presenting the idea of this annual project and the prospects of its development, soon an online journal will be launched, publishing the works of Armenian and Azerbaijani writers. The selection of works will be made in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and they will be translated into national languages, as well as into English and Russian.
Apart from organizational issues, the meeting participants also discussed different aspects of bilateral relations. The subject of the presentation of the Program Coordinator of “Yeni Nesil” Journalists Union of Azerbaijan Naila Alieva was the mutual perceptions of Azerbaijani and Armenian societies on the background of regional processes. The President of Yerevan Press Club Boris Navasardian spoke about the role of the civil society in overcoming xenophobia. Deputy Chairman of Democratic League of Journalists of Azerbaijan Malik Bayramov told how the Karabagh conflict is reflected in media and literature of Azerbaijan. An overview of the past and present of the South Caucasus cultural space was made by a culture expert Susanna Gulamirian. The media expert of Baku Press Club Fouad Souleymanov analyzed the political realities and their impact on the prospects of the Azerbaijani-Armenian civil initiatives. The influence of the press on the Armenian-Azerbaijani relations was discussed in the presentation of the Editor of the Yerevan Press Club Weekly Newsletter Elina Poghosbekian. The presentation of the Baku Press Club President Arif Aliev spoke about the place of the project in the context of other regional initiatives.
AMENDMENTS TO THE BROADCAST LEGISLATION WERE ADOPTED IN THE FIRST HEARING
On February 20-22 during an extraordinary session of the RA National Assembly a discussion and vote was held on the draft laws “On Introducing Amendments to the RA Law ‘On Television and Radio’” and “On Introducing Amendments and Addition to the RA Law ‘Regulations of the National Commission on Television and Radio’”. As it has been reported, the amendments to the broadcasting legislation, developed by the Government, were criticized by journalistic associations. In particular, on February 15 at a press conference of Yerevan Press Club and “Internews” Media Support NGO, as well as in the YPC comment, previously published, it was noted the drafts submitted to the parliament do not correspond to the requirements of the broadcasting legislation reform that follow from the RA Constitution. This is primarily true for the procedure of forming the broadcast regulatory body, ensuring its independence and effective performance of its functions. YPC and “Internews” on their behalf presented their proposals on the reformation of the broadcasting legislation (see YPC Weekly Newsletter, February 9-15, 2007 and February 2-8, 2007).
At the voting of February 21 the amendments to the Laws “On Television and Radio” and “Regulations of the National Commission on Television and Radio” were not adopted in the first reading at first (65 deputies voted instead of the necessary 66, all of the voting “for”). After a pause deputy Viktor Dallakian said his button had not worked and suggested that a repeated voting be made. In the repeated voting (72 voted for the document, 2 abstained) the amendments were passed in the first hearing.
COURT RECOGNIZED THE LEGISLATIVE COMMITMENT TO BROADCAST PARLIAMENTARY PROGRAMS TO BE CONTRADICTING THE CONSTITUTION
On February 16 the RA Constitution Court heard the issue of compliance of a number of provisions of the “RA National Assembly Regulations” to the Main Law of the country. This refers to the provisions, committing the public TV and radio to broadcast parliamentary programs. An appeal on the matter was made on December 28, 2006 by the Armenian President Robert Kocharian. The Constitutional Court accepted it for consideration on January 9, 2007.
As reported, the problem of covering the parliamentary activities was raised in March 2006, when the Chairman of the Council of Public TV and Radio Company Alexan Harutiunian made a written request to the NA Chairman with a proposal to reconsider the relations between PTRC and the parliament. In the opinion of the Chairman of the PTRC Council, the need to abolish this legislative commitment was due to the controversial situation that the Public TV and Radio Company found itself in, after it became a full-fledged member of the European Broadcasting Union in July 2005. On the one hand, the statutes of the organization oblige the national broadcaster to retain editorial independence and the right to use air at its own discretion, on the other – the provisions of the RA NA Regulations (adopted on February 20, 2002) actually impede the implementation of these requirements. The letter of the PTRC Council Chairman was considered at the meeting of the Parliament Speaker with representatives of parliamentary factions and groups, where it was decided that no amendments would be introduced to the NA Regulations regarding the transmission of parliamentary programs. This issue was not reflected in any way in the package of amendments to the RA NA Regulations, adopted in the first hearing on October 3, 2006 (see YPC Weekly Newsletter, September 29 – October 5, 2006).
At the session of February 16 the Court recognized the following provisions of the “RA National Assembly Regulations” to be contradicting the RA Constitution: on mandatory broadcasting of the sessions of statements by the deputies and question-and-answer sessions with the Government at the parliament on specific days and hours on First Channel of Public Television of Armenia (clauses 3 and 4 of Article 35); on broadcasting of the open sessions of the NA on live air of the Public Radio of Armenia, on the obligatory transmission of “Parliamentary Week” TV program cycle on Sundays at 21.00 on the PTA First Channel, and on the production by the Public TV and Radio Company of the parliamentary programs to be broadcast (clauses 2, 4 and 5 of Article 112). Besides, clause “e” of Article 49 was recognized to be contradicting the Constitution. The clause lists the decision of broadcasting parliamentary sessions on live air or recorded among the decisions that the parliament is entitled to make for organizing its activities.
In the justification of the Court decision it is noted, in particular, that the amended RA Constitution (adopted in a referendum of November 27, 2005) “posed new demands to the guarantees of freedom and independent activities of the media”. Ensuring these guarantees imposes on the RA National Assembly the task of “reconsidering in a context and harmonizing with the Constitution” the RA Laws “On Television and Radio”, “On Mass Communication”, “RA NA Regulations”, and the relevant provisions of other laws, referring to this problem. According to the Constitutional Court, in the selection of any of the possible ways of solving the issue of covering the parliamentary activities, “legal guarantees should be created not to endanger the ensurance of transparency and political plurality in the practice of public service broadcasting”. The Court believes that in the solution of this issue, the NA should primarily be guided by Articles 27, 83.2 of the RA Constitution, as well as the stipulations of Recommendation R(96)10 of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, the Explanatory Memorandum to it, “Public Service Broadcasting” Recommendation 1641(2004)1 of Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
The decision of the Constitutional Court brought diverse comment from media and political forces. Thus, in an interview to “Aravot” daily (February 20, 2007), the RA NA Speaker Tigran Torosian called the solution proposed by the Court “debatable”, “not best”, “incomplete” and “unprepared”. “The coverage of the NA activities cannot be considered an infringement of freedom of press or media. Maybe the way of doing it – through an agreement or tender – can be debated”, Tigran Torosian said. In his opinion, the issue of incompliance with the Constitution is questionable, “because these are very specific broadcasts”. The situation formed as a result of Court decision, when a number of provisions of the NA Regulations are abolished, but the requirement of parliamentary program broadcasting remains in the RA Law “On Television and Radio”, was assessed by Tigran Torosian as “somewhat strange”.
In the opinion of the Chairman of the People’s Party of Armenia Stepan Demirchian, stated on February 20 in an interview to Radio “Free Europe”/Radio “Liberty” Armenian Service, the ruling of the Court and “the rise of tariffs for paid air primarily aim at restricting the promotion opportunities for opposition in a pre-election period, including the presidential elections”.
“It is not a secret that President Kocharian cannot hear any critical words to his address. If you remember, two days before “A1+” was shut down he had announced to the journalists that he hears unpleasant remarks about himself not only on this TV channel, but also in “Parliamentary Hour” program on the PTA First Channel, in the three-minute statements of the opposition. The biting phrases of the representatives of opposition factions apparently were getting on Mr. Kocharian’s nerves”, the Chief Editor of “Aravot” daily wrote in his article “Pocketed by the President As Always” (“Aravot”, February 20, 2007). George Bush and Jacques Chirac do not like to be publicly criticized either, Aram Abrahamian noted, however, in their countries there are state and public mechanisms, depriving the presidents of a chance to refuse air to their critics, and in particular, these countries do not have a Constitutional Court, so willing to grant every wish of the head of the state. But there is one in Armenia, the Chief Editor of “Aravot” continues, and when the President addresses this pocket court it gives a salute and follows the instruction. According to “Aravot”, the meaning of the Court ruling is that the National Assembly has no right to induce any media to broadcast certain material, because this allegedly restricts the freedom of expression. “This concern with freedom of expression is really very touching. It turns out that the First Channel (and in particular, “Haylur” newscast), eating taxpayers’ money, are absolutely free in glorifying Kocharian and denigrating his opponents, but it is the broadcasting of MPs’ statements that restricts their free thinking”, Aram Abrahamian believes.
7 OUT OF 9 SUITS OF “ASPAREZ” VERSUS COMMUNITIES OF SHIRAK REGION SECURED
On February 22 in Akhurian the court of primary jurisdiction of Shirak region completed hearing the suits of the “Asparez” Journalist’s Club of Gyumri versus the administrations of 7 regional communities – Azatan, Amasia, Ardenis, Voghji, Mets Sepasar, Pokr Sepasar, Shirak. As reported, the reason for the litigation were the refusals of the heads of these and two other communities (Lusaghbyur and Horom) to provide “Asparez” with
copies of its budgets for 2006 and the resolutions of the Councils of Senior Citizens, adopted from January 1, 2005 till September 30, 2006. Out of 119 communities of Shirak region, to which “Asparez” made such written inquiries on October 21-23, 2006, 51 made no reply. On January 25, 2007 ”Asparez” filed 9 similar suits demanding to restore its right to information (see YPC Weekly Newsletter, January 26 – February 1, 2007).
Seven out of these nine suits were territorially united into one case, the hearings on which started on February 15 in Akhurian. During the case consideration claims to heads of three communities were withdrawn: administrations of Azatan and Shirak provided the information requested to the plaintiff in full, and the administration of Pokr Sepasar – in part.
At the session of February 22 the court committed the administrations of the remaining communities (Amasia, Ardenis, Voghji, Mets Sepasar) to provide the information demanded to “Asparez”. Besides, by the court decision all seven communities must fully compensate the amount of state duty, paid for the suit filing and partly – the court expenses of the journalistic association.
As YPC was told by the Chairman of “Asparez” Board Levon Barseghian, the hearings on the suit versus Horom community administration started on February 21 in Artik at the court of primary jurisdiction of Shirak region, and the date when the litigation versus Lusaghbyur community administration would start is still indefinite.
According to Levon Barseghian, after January 25 (the day when the organization addressed the court) “Asparez” received answers from two more regional communities. It now intends to start litigation versus the remaining 40 administrations that have failed to answer the inquires to this day.
“PAKAGITS“ CHANGED FOUNDER, “IRAVUNK” CHANGED EDITOR
On February 21 at “Pakagits” Club, a joint press-conference of the Chief Editor of “Pakagits” daily Agapi Haikazuni and the Editor of “Iravunk” newspaper (party organ of “Constitutional Right” Union) Hovhannes Galajian was held. Both publications skipped their regular issues: “Iravunk” – on February 20, “Pakagits” – on February 21.
The reason for suspension of issuance of “Iravunk” was the inter-party situation in the “Constitutional Right” Union (CRU). The conflict between the Chairman of the CRU Board, the RA NA Deputy Hrant Khachatrian and the Vice-Chairman, the head of the Editorial Board of “Iravunk” Haik Babukhanian drew much public attention due to the 17th conference of the party in September 2006, when Hrant Khachatrian was elected to be the Honorable Chairman and Haik Babukhanian – the Chairman of the Board of CRU. Hrant Khachatrian at first announced he was giving up politics and then challenged the decisions of the conference in court. The court of primary jurisdiction did not secure the suit, and the RA Court of Appeals annulled the resolutions made at the conference on January 31, 2007. On February 8 Hrant Khachatrian tried to return to the party office (also hosting “Iravunk” newspaper) with representatives of the RA Service of Compulsory Execution of Court Acts, but encountered resistance from former party colleagues. During a repeated attempt on February 20 Hrant Khachatrian and the compulsory executors met with no resistance: the office was empty. On the same day, February 20, a number of “Iravunk” staff members, including Haik Babukhanian and Hovhannes Galajian, disseminated a statement, claiming, in particular, that: “At the direct order of oligarchic and criminal system, under the pretext of the court resolution of allegedly disputable issues, related to “Iravunk” founder, the CRU party, (…) the newspaper activities were actually disrupted.”
At the press-conference on February 21 Hovhannes Galajian announced, in particular, that he was going to continue the publication of the newspaper, possibly, with a different name. On his behalf, in an interview to “Hayots Ashkhar” daily on February 22, Hrant Khachatrian noted that the publication of “Iravunk” will be resumed as soon as possible, saying also that the Editor of the newspaper Hovhannes Galajian and Director Gegham Grigorian had resigned. On February 23 “Iravunk” was issued with a new Chief Editor, Piruza Meliksetian.
As to “Pakagits”, its publication was suspended because on February 20 representatives of the RA Service of Compulsory Execution took from the editorial office the property, owned by the daily founder, “Agap-Hrat” LLC. As reported, on December 14, 2006 the court of primary jurisdiction of Erebuni and Nubarashen communities of Yerevan obliged “Agap-Hrat” to repay the debt to Martun Ivanian, equal to 9.048 mln AMD (over $ 25,000), accumulated due to the failure to implement the contractual commitments (see details in YPC Weekly Newsletter, February 2-8, 2007).
At the press-conference of February 21 it was announced that “Pakagits” will continue being published, but with a new founder, “Agap-ARD” LLC. On February 22 the newspaper was issued.
OSCE/ODIHR MISSION ON MEDIA ACCESS
On February 15 the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights released the Needs Assessment Mission Report. The report was produced after the Mission’s visit to Armenia on January 30 – February 2, 2007. The purpose of the Mission was to assess the conditions and level of preparation in Armenia for the parliamentary elections upcoming on May 12, 2007, in line with OSCE commitments and to advise on the establishment of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission.
“While equal access to public and private media is guaranteed by law during the official campaign period, including free airtime on public TV and radio, the opposition claims very limited media access in the current period before the official campaign is due to begin. This is reportedly the result of administrative obstacles and self-censorship. Moreover, many NAM interlocutors expressed concerns that media access will remain unequal during the official campaign period”, the report of OSCE/ODIHR Mission sums up, in particular.
In the section of the report on media it is stressed that “television remains the main source of information and can be described as predominantly pro-government, despite the formal transformation of state TV into a public service broadcaster, and the existence of numerous private channels, many of which are de facto linked to political parties”. In the opinion of OSCE/ODIHR Mission, “the print media is seen as more pluralistic and news coverage is diverse and critical, however circulations are limited”. The report notes that despite the amendments to the Constitution, all members of broadcast regulatory bodies are directly appointed by the President of the country, and the situation may change after the National Assembly passes appropriate legislative amendments. “Public TV First Channel is the most influential media outlet in Armenia”, the report says. It also describes the situation with “A1+” and “Noyan Tapan” TV companies, who remain without a frequency to this day, “despite participation in numerous tenders and concerns expressed by the international community”: “Interlocutors and media experts described this denial of licenses as a clear message to other media outlets, which fear losing their licenses, and effectively creating an atmospheres of self-censorship. This has been compounded by a few cases of violence against journalists over the past years.”
During the previous elections, the report states, the media, especially the private ones, were criticized for not providing equal access to contestants and demonstrating bias. Noting the high rates of public and private TV companies for political advertising in 2003 elections, the Mission quotes many of its interlocutors, who fear that this can also be the case during the upcoming elections. “In addition, there were concerns expressed by many interlocutors about access to the media before the official start of the election campaign. Several opposition representatives alleged that obstacles exist for them to gain access to media in the current pre-campaign period, even for paid advertisements. Representatives of progovernmental parties, however, cited examples of opposition leaders’ appearance in the media”, – the media section of the OSCE/ODIHR Mission report notes.
“3 MILLIONS” ABOUT EVERYTHING, BESIDES POLITICS
On February 20 in Yerevan the presentation of an illustrated full-color magazine “3 Million” was held. The editorial staff leave it to the readers to interpret the name of the magazine: “3 Million” of residents of Armenia, or maybe – of friends, of soulmates and maybe even dollars or pounds. They also promise that one will be able to read everything in “3 Million” but for politics. The magazine will be published twice a month, with a print run of 2,500 copies. The founder and the publisher of “3 Million” is “168 Zham” LLC. The Chief Editor is Bagrat Tunian.
“AR” TAKES TIME OUT
For a few day already the programs of “AR” TV have not gone on air. The break is due to the move of the editorial staff to new premises. As YPC was told at “AR” TV company, the broadcasts are to resume on March 1.