Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Government Control of Media in Armenia and Outlook for Upcoming Parliamentary Elections Slated for May 12, 2007

Extracts from the essey written in February 2007

99% of the Armenian people voted for independence of the country from the Soviet Union on September 21, 1991 in the popular referendum. The Constitution of the Republic was adopted on a popular referendum on July 5, 1995. Amendments to the Constitution were adopted on November 27, 2005. The fundamental document of the Republic of Armenia establishes the country as “a sovereign, democratic, social, rule of law state” (RA Constitution, 2005).

Armenia of today is a striving democratic Caucasian/East-European country, which has joined the Council of Europe on 25 January 2001 and, since its accession, has been subject to a Parliamentary Assembly monitoring procedure. The country is experiencing progress on the way of democratization in many respects, as was noted by the Resolution 1532 (2007) by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in regards to Honouring of obligations and commitments by Armenia, (4) With regard to Armenia's obligations and commitments in the field of pluralist democracy:

4.1. The Assembly welcomes the constitutional amendments which have improved the separation of, and balance between, the legislative, executive and judicial powers. The revised Constitution is now consistent with European standards and principles of democracy and the rule of law and offers a new foundation for developing the democratic functioning of Armenia's institutions.

However, there are certain key areas in the democratization processes of Armenia, where the incumbent authorities of Armenia, the President and the ruling Republican Party who have been in power since 1998 are actually pursuing such policies, which are introducing limitations and setbacks to the democracy for the country, rather than progress. In the same PACE Resolution 1532 there is a formulation, which states the disappointment of the PACE by the fact, that since Armenia's accession to the Council of Europe in 2001, not a single election held in the country has been deemed fully free and fair. On his January 23, 2007 speech, Anthony Godfrey, U.S. Charge d'Affaires in Armenia stated that “his government would revise the decision to allocate a hefty $236 million in extra aid to Armenia if its authorities fail to hold free and just parliamentary elections, slated for May"(ArmenPress, 2007).

The upcoming May 12, 2007 elections in the country are seen both inside Armenia and by the International Community as the point of no return, after which the country will head back to the authoritarian state, after the Russian model, or will do yet another step forward on the path of democratic development and thus set a course which will determine the progress of the country for the next 5-10 years. The upcoming elections in Armenia present three main challenges to the government and the society as a whole:

  1. How to insure the Political will of authorities to enforce truly fair and free elections;
  2. How to implement fair and free elections from the organizational point of view;
  3. How to provide the voter with the opportunity of making an informed and conscious choice when casting the ballot.

The first two issues are beyond the limited scope of this essay; hence we will be mostly focusing on the third point and will try to reveal some of the problem areas.

On January 23 PACE Resolution we read the following statement reflecting the essence of democratic problems in Armenia: “The Assembly expects Armenia to demonstrate its capacity to hold the parliamentary elections in 2007 and the presidential elections in 2008 in accordance with international standards, not least with regard to pluralist, impartial media coverage of the election campaign,”(PACE Resolution 1532, 2007) Further on clause 6.2 of the Resolution notes that “a few months away from forthcoming parliamentary elections, the Assembly attaches special importance to pluralism of the electronic media”, since “equitable access by all political parties” to them is “an absolute prerequisite for the holding of free and fair elections” (PACE Resolution 1532, 2007).

A number of widely recognized organizations have recently posted reports on the state of freedom and democracy in Armenia, in which the country repeatedly ranks among partly free, oppressive towards journalists, etc. (See recent reports by the: Freedom House; Reporters without Borders; Global Integrity).The following conclusion of the Freedom House is especially worth mentioning: “Systematic efforts to control media in countries of the former Soviet Union have intensified in 2006 indicating further erosion of civil liberties.” (Freedom House, 2006)

It is important to recognize at this point, that the Media in all modern societies has the power to make and break governments. The power of media in politics is very clearly stated in the “People in Society: Modern Studies for S1 and S2” book by Sinclair and Grant, where the authors elaborate on the power media has over the election processes in the UK. Speaking of 1992 election in UK the book looks at the case, when The Sun carried the headline 'It was the Sun wot won it' after the conservative victory, and contrasts it with the elections five yours later, after the Sun had switched it carried the headline 'It's my son wot won it', and draws conclusions from these strong manifestations of media role in the electoral and political processes in a strong democracy like the UK.

The media helps people to make decisions, so obviously the way in which news is reported is very important, especially during election time. Some people say that Labour won the election because of The Sun's support for the party! (Page 89, Sinclair, Grant, 2003)

However, the authors also warn, that the statements above should be viewed with a certain degree of reservation: “Others, though, would say that The Sun switched to support Labour because it was clear that Labour was going to win.” (Page 89, Sinclair, Grant, 2003)

While the media impact on the elections can be limited in the UK context, where strong party traditions and general understanding among the public of democratic processes and the importance of having a strong government and opposition serve as a limiting factor to the power of media, in Armenia the impact of media is enormous in comparison. This has much to do with the fact, that as any other post-Soviet country, the Armenian society is still very much a propaganda-led society. Media was the main force legitimizing power, and still is in many of the soviet/post-soviet societies. The enormous degree of media control over the post-soviet societies is especially well analyzed by former editor of the Russian Forbes Paul Klebnikov, in his book “Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia”. Klebnikov has summarized the overall influence of media on the Russian electorate during the reelection campaign of Russian’s first president B. Yeltsin, with the following quotation from Alex Levinson of the Russian centre of Public Opinion Studies: “Their brains were turned into a mash”, which resulted in an overwhelming victory of B. Yelstsin over the opposition candidate G. Zyuganov in the 1996 presidential elections in Russia.

The notion of comparing the Armenian media with that of UK or even Russia can seem rather artificial, as the Armenian media has neither the resources, nor the power and scale in any way comparable to that of the UK or Russian media. However, the influence of the Armenian media on the voting process is vast. In fact all the political forces coming to power since the declaration of Armenias independence in 1991, have only been able to retain power by controlling and ensuring the support of the media. The first president of the Republic of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan was elected president with the uniform support of all Armenian media in 1991, when he was already in position of power as the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Armenia, and then fully state owned media presented him as the only viable candidate for president to the country. Levon Ter-Petrosyan was re-elected on September 22, 1996. His re-election was marred by allegations of electoral fraud reported by the opposition and supported by some international observers. Interestingly, before heading into the reelection in a televised address on December 28, 1994, Levon Ter-Petrosyan “banned the nation's leading opposition party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), jailed its leadership, and shut down Yerkir, the country's largest daily newspaper.” (http://www.arf.am/English/history/004history.htm)

The lesson was learned by the successor of Levon Ter-Petrosyan, then-Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, who won a comfortable victory on March 30, 1998, defeating his main rival, Karen Demirchyan in early presidential marred by irregularities and violations as reported by the reported by international electoral observers. The media campaign around Kocharian’s campaign came to prove once again, that in Armenia the man who controls the media (Kocharian was the acting-president after Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s resignation), controls the results of the elections. The culmination of media control and the start of the current atmosphere of media conformity was the deprivation of broadcast license from A1plus in 2002. In April 2002, less than a year before he was due to seek re-election, Kocharian closed Armenia's main independent TV station, A1 Plus, and kept them off the air. This resulted in criticism from the Council of Europe and international media watchdogs, but as of now (2007) A1 Plus is still not allowed to broadcast.

Many would argue today, that the abovementioned historical developments happened, because the country is a young democracy, and the legislation, especially in the sphere of the media was imperfect and gave room for manipulations for those in position of power. Many important legislative initiatives and especially the adoption of Constitutional amendments on November 27, 2005 have been undertaken to improve the media related legislation in the country. In the opinion of the CoE Venice Commision the text of the new Constitution,

“…would constitute a good basis for ensuring the compliance of the Armenian Constitution with the European standards in the fields of respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and would pave the way to further European integration.” (Venice Commission, 2005)

One of the most important aspects of the amended Constitution was the creation of guarantees for the freedom, independence and plurality of the media, with newly suggested mechanism especially regarding the National Commission of Radio and TV(NCRT). The Venice Commission in fact welcomed the changes related to the NCRT, however, there are still aspects of media regulation on the constitutional level, which are problematic as of today:

“The Commission also wishes to refer to the need for the members of the boards of management of public service broadcasting organisations to be appointed so as to avoid the risk of “any political or other interference”.[2] In this respect, the appointment by the President of the Republic of all the members of the Council of the Public TV and Radio has been seen as problematic, and the need for the appointment process, if this power of the President is to be retained, to be open and transparent and not open to political abuse, has been underlined[3]. ” (Venice Commission, 2005)

Among other improvements to the media related legislated it is worth noting the RA Law on Freedom of Information, some positive aspects in the RA Law on Mass Communication like the provision about protection of sources and protection of journalists when performing their civil duties. Meanwhile, despite the mentioned legislative preconditions for media to improve towards becoming a real democracy watchdog and fulfilling its function of the “fourth state”, we have seen the Armenian media failing dramatically so far. The media situation today with the new Constitution and greatly improved media legislation is not much better then it was during the 2003 parliamentary and presidential elections.

This point is further supported by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights released the Needs Assessment Mission Report, released on February 15, 2007, which gives the following overview of the media situation in Armenia related to the upcoming parliamentary elections:

“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”(OSCE, 2007)

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 also describes the situation with “A1+” and “Noyan Tapan” TV companies, who remain without a frequency to this day, “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.” (OSCE, 2007)


Bibliography


  1. The Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, 2005, http://www.parliament.am/legislation.php?sel=show&ID=1&lang=eng
  2. Final Opinion on Constitutional Reform in the Republic of Armenia adopted by the Venice Commission at its 64th Plenary Session (Venice, 21-22 October 2005), http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2005/CDL-AD%282005%29025-e.asp
  3. Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Honouring of obligations and commitments by Armenia, Resolution 1532 (2007)1 http://assembly.coe.int/Main.asp?link=/Documents/AdoptedText/ta07/ERES1532.htm
  4. Armenpress,24/01/2007, U.S. Diplomat Warns That Fair Elections Key To Remaining Eligible For Hefty MCA Aid http://www.armenpress.am/armarch/archiveeng.php?year=2007&month=1&day=24
  5. Freedom House report, 2006, http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2007/01/EDDC2151-48C8-4FD0-939C-0F5517FFAF8A.html
  6. People in Society: Modern Studies for S1 and S2 By Stephen P. Sinclair, Helen Grant, Published 2003, Nelson Thornes, ISBN 0748771611
  7. Klebnikov, Paul, Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia (New York, Harcourt Brace, 2000); translated into Russian as Pavel Khlebnikov, Krestnyi otets Kremlya Boris Berezovskii ili Istoriya razgrableniya Rossii (Moscow, Detektiv-Press, 2001)
  8. Electronic democracy and the UK 2001 elections By Glen Segell, Published 2001 Glen Segell, ISBN 190141423X
  9. OSCE/ODIHR NEEDS ASSESSMENT MISSION REPORT, Warsaw, 17 February, 2007

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