During the meeting with Peter Semneby, the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, the Prime Minister of Armenia Serge Sargsian qualified the information about the situation in Armenian media ahead of presidential elections 20008 that “some European officials” take into account as not objective, as well as proposed that a “specialized organization” should undertake a “complete monitoring” that includes both broadcast and print media.

Because the day before this meeting critical remarks on Armenian media with a reference to Yerevan Press Club were made by the Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis in his interview to Radio “Liberty”, we think it reasonable to take that the RA Prime Minister implied the reports of “TEAM” Research Center and Yerevan Press Club about the monitoring of 8 broadcast channels in October and November 2007 to be the “unobjective information”. At least this was the interpretation that a number of media gave to the words of the head of the Government.

Assessments similar to the one made by the Prime Minister were also voiced by some other high-ranked officials; however, it is unclear what the basis for their statements is. If relevant research had been undertaken, it would be of public value to know what their findings are and what methodology was used. If the accusations of our “unobjectiveness” are not substantiated by specific facts we urge to abstain from such categorical statements.

With all due responsibility we announce that the doubts of our objectiveness are completely groundless. “TEAM” has been engaged in media research since 1996, and Yerevan Press Club since the same time monitored the coverage of all national elections or took part in similar researches in partnership with other local and foreign organizations. The technology of these researches was constantly improved and is currently as valid as possible. It is based on the methodology, developed by the leading international organizations, on our many-year experience, as well as profound knowledge of the subject due to our permanent focus on Armenian media. What else is necessary to be considered a “specialized organization”?

YPC and “TEAM” never gave any reason to be suspected of political bias.
Being independent non-governmental organizations with mission to support the free expression, we repeatedly criticized the official structures of Armenia, but in all cases this criticism followed from principled stance, commitments to democratic values, but not from bias. Neither through activities nor through public statements did our organizations ever support a certain candidate or political force. Unfortunately, in modern Armenia the responsible professional stance is not viewed as an advantage.

In this regard we on our behalf suggest that European structures, within their observation of RA presidential elections, make an assessment of the methodology and the findings of the monitoring implemented by “TEAM” and Yerevan Press Club. Our work has always been transparent, and its principles have invariably been explained to public at length: all reports are presented at press-conferences and are accompanied by a detailed description of the methodology of the study. Any independent expert, proposed by international organizations observing the elections, can step into the monitoring we implement and be convinced of the impartiality of our data and analysis.

We also support the idea of parallel media monitoring by a specialized international organization, selected by the structures, invited to observe the elections. Similar research was undertaken at all RA elections, starting from 1995, and their data never ran contrary to ours. If anything could have created certain technical difficulties of media monitoring this time, it is the rather belated – only a month before the start of the official pre-election promotion – invitation of the international observation missions by the RA National Assembly. If our authorities were truly interested in monitoring, it would have been reasonable to attend to the matter in advance, not waiting to be criticized by high-ranked international officials. The involvement of competent foreign partners in this work will allow eliminating all doubt regarding the objectiveness of this or that study.

The broader the coverage of media monitoring is, the fuller the picture to be obtained. In this regard the suggestion of the RA Prime Minister to include print media in monitoring effort is quite justified. At this stage “TEAM” and YPC restricted the scope of media studied by 8 broadcasters for several reasons: firstly, due to the limited resource and the appropriateness of focus on those media that pay the greatest attention to political process in the country and have the broadest audience; secondly, due to the need to guarantee the high quality of research that calls for availability of sufficient number of competent monitors; thirdly – and most importantly – due to the obvious circumstance that broadcast media, using a public resource, the frequency, have a certain commitment to the public to have impartial reporting. The approach lies at the heart of international documents and the national legislation of Armenia.

The appropriate principles of the Council of Europe are reflected in Recommendation No.R (99)15 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on Measures Concerning Media Coverage of Election Campaigns. “(…) Aware of the need to take account of the significant differences which exist between the print and the broadcast media”, the Committee of Ministers recommends:
“(…) Regulatory frameworks on media coverage of elections should not interfere with the editorial independence of newspapers or magazines or with their right to express any political preference (…).” At the same time,
“(…) with due respect for the editorial independence of broadcasters, regulatory frameworks should also provide for the obligation to cover electoral campaigns in a fair, balanced and impartial manner in the overall programme services of broadcasters. Such an obligation should apply to both public service broadcasters as well as private broadcasters in their relevant transmission areas”.
The RA legislation, even though not fully, reflects the provisions of this and other recommendations of the CoE Committee of Ministers, but also imposes on broadcast media far greater responsibility than on print press.
Firstly and foremostly, this refers to the public broadcaster, in the programs of which, according to the RA Law “On Television and Radio”, “it is prohibited to have a predominant political stance”. This prohibition is valid for all activities of the Public TV and Radio Company, and not only for the period that precedes the elections. The specifics of broadcast media and importance of overseeing their compliance with laws and license terms are emphasized by a setup of a special regulatory body, the National Commission on Television and Radio, whereas our legislation stipulates no licensing or special regulation of print media activities.

Hence, should monitoring of print – and hopefully also the online – media be undertaken, it is necessary to make a clear distinction between its results and the findings for broadcast media. The work of television and radio during elections, the level of their objectiveness are a direct characteristic of how compliant the state is with its political commitments to international partners. Apparently, this very circumstance shaped the opinion of the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby about the responsibility of the authorities for the pre-election tone of media that caused another dissatisfied comment from the official Yerevan.

In this regard we urge the RA authorities not to seek reasons of the criticism by international organizations in the monitoring we implement, which is purely a mirror, reflecting the extremely unfavorable media situation, but to take measures to improve it instead. Our distress with statements that negatively tell on the international image of Armenia is in no way inferior to that of the country authorities. Yet we are convinced that the best way of not having “one’s dirty linen washed in public” is to keep it clean.

Artur Papyan

Journalist, blogger, digital security and media consultant