A book, entitled “Armenian Broadcast Media Coverage of Parliamentary Elections in 2012, Presidential Elections in 2013 and Elections to the Yerevan Council of Elders in 2013”, is to be published. The book presents the results of the year and a half study (from November 2011 till May 2013), conducted by Yerevan Press Club within the framework of a project on strengthening electoral processes in Armenia in line with international standards, implemented by the OSCE Office in Yerevan and financed by the European Union.
The monitoring of coverage of the parliamentary, presidential and Yerevan municipal elections by Armenian TV and radio channels was administered stage-by-stage and covered not only the pre-election promotion per se, but also the periods, proceeding and preceding the elections.
The study of the period ahead of pre-election promotion was conditioned by the fact that traditionally non-official election campaign starts in Armenia significantly earlier than the one month period assigned for pre-election promotion. The behaviour of media, especially TV channels, which have the largest audience to a high extent, determines the mood of the electorate. Studies like these allow identifying the role of Armenian TV and radio broadcasters in the political processes, as well as problems existing in the sphere of regulation of the activities of broadcast media. The coverage of post-election situation is the best way to draw lessons not only regarding the political behaviour of candidates and parties, but also regarding the electoral process per se. Lack of such reassessment limits perspectives for further improvement of elections as an important democratic institution. Accordingly, the monitoring of the post-election situation allows revealing to what extent media contribute to the process.
Summing up the results of the study on media coverage of the 2012-2013 electoral cycle, the monitoring group has come to the following conclusions:
1. Balance of Coverage. In general, the broadcast media studied did not exhibit discrimination or openly biased attitude towards the candidates of parliamentary, presidential and Yerevan municipal elections. On the whole, equal conditions were provided for introducing the electorate to the programmes and views of the candidates and parties/blocs. Naturally, the voters did not receive equal amount of information about all actors, however this was a consequence of the capacity and the willingness of the political forces to wage their campaigns. In that respect, Armenian broadcasters demonstrated indisputable progress compared to previous national elections. If at the parliamentary elections balanced coverage was provided only during the official pre-election promotion, at the presidential elections the period preceding the official campaign can also be assessed in the same way. At the same time, the contrast, observed in some cases between the periods immediately before the pre-election promotion and the short-term pre-election promotion itself once again proves the necessity of regulation and monitoring of a more lengthy timeframe than the 4 weeks of pre-election promotion. Otherwise, it would be difficult to talk about equal information opportunities for candidates.
2. Connotationality of Coverage. Throughout the national elections a positive tendency was observed in terms of the tone of media coverage. Thus, during the pre-election promotion of the parliamentary elections the share of connotational coverage of parties, competing in the elections, comprised 3.5% of the aggregate number of references on all studied channels (which was a significant reduction compared to all previous national election campaigns). At the presidential elections this indicator decreased to 2.2%. Meanwhile, during the Yerevan Council of Elders elections the share of connotational references was almost two times higher than during the parliamentary and presidential campaigns (5.3%). This indicated an uncompromising struggle and confirmed the statements that Yerevan elections were decisive within the current electoral cycle. The intensity of the political competition was bound to influence the information component of the elections and it broke the tendency of mainly neutral coverage of the political life of the country. Moreover, the increase of connotationality took place mostly during the last 9 days of the pre-election promotion. Throughout these 9 days connotational references comprised 8%, significantly higher than in the 27-day election campaign as a whole.
3. Hidden Political Promotion. Current as well as the previous media monitoring show that both in the period preceding the pre-election promotion and during the official electoral campaign some TV broadcasters preserved the practice of using in their editorial coverage identical or almost identical stories (both in terms of video images and text) that contained indirect attributes of political promotion. These attributes allow suggesting that the stories are not editorial coverage of events, but hidden political promotion, which is carried out in conditions contradicting the RA legislation. Such cases were mostly observed in news pieces telling about charity acts, social initiatives and pre-election meetings of some parties. This circumstance is forcing to once again raise the issues of deliberate unequal opportunities for political parties and the necessity of clear normative-legal regulation and monitoring not only for the short period of pre-election promotion, but also for the period preceding it.
4. The Role of the Public and Private Broadcasters. Another worrying tendency is the reducing of the role of public service broadcasters in the coverage of elections and political life in general. This factor is particularly relevant in the context of growing politicization of several private TV channels, which, being associated with particular parties, are to some extent implementing a certain information agenda. The latter fact can be assessed in two ways. On the one hand, reflection of different political interests in the broadcast media is a guarantee of pluralism in covering election campaigns. On the other hand, a public resource (the frequency) is, as a matter of fact, used for narrow political purposes, which contradicts the essence of the Armenian legislation. In addition, such situation in Armenian broadcast media field limits the information capacity of the political forces that do not have leverage over broadcasters, while guarantees of a more or less balanced coverage (legislation and monitoring) are present only in the short periods of official pre-election promotion. The same restriction applies to a certain extent to the civil society and independent experts. These circumstances once again emphasize how problematic the existing Armenian practice of broadcast licensing is, since it allows the dominance of political interests in the content of the airtime, first of all, on television.
5. Coverage on “Days of Silence”. The monitoring on the days, when pre-election promotion is prohibited, has identified obvious legislative and regulatory gaps in the Armenian electoral system. There is a lack of both clear definitions and explaining commentaries as to what constitutes pre-election promotion. It is rather an exception than the rule to hold the media accountable for violations taking place in this short, but crucial period immediately preceding the voting. In various TV and radio programmes appear episodes that can directly influence the citizens’ choice. Meanwhile, both “days of silence” and processes, taking place immediately after the voting, are in a certain sense no less important than the period of pre-election promotion. In reality, voters need 1-2 days on their own to “digest” that intensive flow of information, which falls on them during the previous days of campaigning. Any elements of pre-election promotion can disturb that process of reflection and making a final decision. The largest number of such episodes directing the voter was recorded during the elections to Yerevan Council of Elders: in total 60 pieces, which the monitoring team indicated as “provisional violations” or “provisional promotion”. In other words, without a specific definition of the term “promotion” in the electoral legislation, problems related to compliance with the rules of “the day of silence” cannot be solved.
6. Assessment of Yerevan Municipal Elections. The study of the post-election situation showed that the assessment of elections to Yerevan Council of Elders, expressed on the air of the studied broadcasters by various categories of Armenian society, was mostly negative. The largest share of negative statements about the elections was made by journalists, who noted numerous deficiencies and violations. Political opposition intensively criticized the elections (more than half of the statements by its representatives contained negative attitude to the campaign), and roughly less than half were negative assessments by local observers. On a whole, assessments referred to bribing the voters, use of administrative resource, various forms of pressure on citizens.
7. Absence of Political Debates. The lack of willingness of Armenian politicians to participate in debates and open discussions on air remains a major obstacle. Perhaps the absence of political debates is the main problem in coverage of the elections by the broadcasting media of Armenia. This is equally true for the lack of an effective post-election discourse in the broadcast media, which impedes drawing lessons for the future.
The book “Monitoring of the Armenian Broadcast Media Coverage of Parliamentary Elections in 2012, Presidential Elections in 2013 and Elections to the Yerevan Council of Elders in 2013” can be found on YPC website. The hard copy of the book will also be available soon in three languages (Armenian, English and Russian).