Armenia: State Tightens Media Controls

Harassment of provincial television station coincides with start of election campaign.

Armenia: State Tightens Media Controls

Harassment of provincial television station coincides with start of election campaign.

Friday, 16 January, 2009
The most popular television station in Armenia’s second city, Gyumri, is facing closure as a result of what it says is officially orchestrated pressure, prompted by its favourable coverage of the leading opposition candidate in the presidential election campaign.

The crisis faced by Gala television station comes as the state tightens its overall control of television ahead of the February 19 poll, in which Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian is the officially-favoured candidate.

Gala, a privately-owned channel, has a big audience in Gyumri, which has a population of around 150,000. The station has been accused of tax evasion by the authorities, and its assets and bank accounts have been frozen.

However, the station’s owner Vahan Khachatrian, says its problems started after Gala broadcast the speech that former president Levon Ter-Petrosian made in September announcing his return to public politics. Ter-Petrosian has now registered as a candidate for the election.

Khachatrian told IWPR that he did not support any particular party and gave airtime to all politicians.

Because of the company’s problems, all 37 of its advertising clients have pulled out. “For over a month, we’ve had no advertisements,” said Khachatrian. “The tax bodies have imposed a fine of 26 million drams [86,000 US dollars] on us, but I am not going to pay it, and we have already lodged a counter-claim in court.”

Khachatrian said he had applied repeatedly to Gyumri’s municipal authorities to be allowed to buy or lease the television tower his company has been using for its broadcasts, but without success.

However, in November, the 100-metre TV tower, which for the last two decades had no official owner, was suddenly announced to be the property of the city hall.

“I had been told the tower belonged to no one and I could do whatever I pleased with it,” he said. “I repaired it, fitted it with equipment and opened the TVcompany - and now the city hall says it needs to privatise it. I declare that I am ready to buy or lease it at any moment.”

At a court hearing, Levon Barseghian, chairman of the Asparez journalists’ club, which has set up a support committee for the station, proposed that the city authorities cut a three-way deal with Asparez and Gala and allow the tower to be leased at a reasonable rate, to include back-payments for previous use.

The mayor of Gyumri later said a deal could be reached, but on December 18, an offer was made that Barseghian said was exorbitantly expensive. He said Gala was told to pay 200,000 drams for permission to mount antennas on the tower, instead of the 30-40,000 drams that is the going rate, and it was also asked for a back-payment of 5.4 million drams which, at 18,000 dollars, would be enough to build a new television tower.

Gala is a rarity in Armenia, where the electronic media are mostly controlled by government allies and do not step out of line. Around ten television stations generally give the authorities supportive news coverage. Two stations that did provide alternative voices, A1+ and Noyan Tapan, have lost their broadcasting licenses.

Referring to the tax claims made against Gala, Boris Navasardian, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, said, “Any television company – and especially one based in Yerevan – would find itself in big trouble if it was presented with a document like this concerning its tax payments on advertising income.”

Media monitoring carried out in October and November by the Team research centre, with assistance from the Yerevan Press Club, showed that pre-election news coverage on local television was dominated by information about two candidates – Prime Minister Sarkisian and ex-president Ter-Petrosian. While most of the coverage of the former was favourable, that of Ter-Petrosian was very negative.

“If the prime minister was mentioned by all the channels in a positive rather than negative context - 56 positive comments against two negative ones - ), it was the other way around with the first president, six positive comments against 111 negative ones,” said Team’s interim report on the monitoring exercise.

For example, on the day that Ter-Petrosian held a big rally in central Yerevan in November, the Armenian Channel Two headed its news bulletin with reports about visits made by the prime minister, the arrival of delegations in Armenia and other official news. Then came international news, including a report about a demonstration in Australia involving 200 protestors.

Ter-Petrosian’s rally, which attracted many thousands of protestors, was the penultimate news item and was less than one minute long. There were long-range shots of the rally but no recording of what the opposition candidate said. Then came three minutes of vox pops giving only negative views from members of the public, who said they did not like Ter-Petrosian and his 1991-98 presidency brought them nothing but misery.

“The Shant television company and the Armenian Channel Two paid particular attention to one political figure; they both assigned more than a half of their airtime to Serge Sarkisian,” said the report.

Both officials and the TV stations concerned deny there is a problem.

Eduard Sharmazanov, press secretary of the ruling Republican Party, said television companies covered whatever they had available, and reporting on the prime minister’s activities did not mean they were biased.

The media monitoring suggested that Armenia Television, which belongs to diaspora businessman Jerard Kafesjian, gave the least coverage to opposition candidates. But Gagik Mkrtchian, director of the station’s news programmes, assured IWPR that they were providing airtime to all candidates and were under no “pressure from above”.

Aleksan Harutyunian, chairman of the board of the Public Television and Radio Company – Armenia’s main television station – rejected accusations that the electronic media are merely obeying orders handed down from the presidential administration.

“I don’t think that any link in the chain, including the presidential administration, applies any pressure or issues orders,” he told IWPR.

“I give everyone airtime equally.”

Critics say Harutyunian himself is too close to government because he used to be head of President Robert Kocharian’s administration and secretary of the Security Council.

Opposition politicians say they are frustrated by their inability to get their message across. According to former foreign minister Alexander Arzumanian, “No serious opposition figure can express his views through these outlets. Our media serve a totalitarian, tyrannical regime.”

The monitoring revealed that there was only one TV station that provides relatively independent news coverage - Yerkir Media, which broadcasts mostly in the capital and belongs to the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party, a member of the ruling coalition.

Ter-Petrosian – who banned the Dashnaktsutiun party when he was in office – has nevertheless received extensive coverage from the channel, whose director Gegham Manukian says “pressure is put only on those who want it”.

“During all this time, our company has not received a single hint, threat or recommendation as to what we should air and what we shouldn’t,” Manukian told IWPR.
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