Interview with Armen Mkrtchyan, a member of the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR)
Does the NCTR carry out a pre-electoral campaign monitoring for the first time this year?
We always do monitoring but the new thing is that we are entitled by the Electoral Code to develop an evaluation methodology and to be guided by it. The monitors must be guided by that methodology during the pre-electoral campaign from April 8 to May 4.
What is the aim of the monitoring?
As a state body NCTR has one requirement that is to maintain equality and impartiality. Have the Mass Media allocated equal time to the candidates and isn’t there interference by a journalist - was the coverage unbiased, are there positive or negative assessments or not?
We do not have the right to criticize the statements and speeches of the candidates, how they will use their paid or free airtime, what assessments they will address to each other or what evaluations they will give to others are out of our competence. They must only refrain from the calls advocating national, racial discrimination and hate.
On May 5 we’ll keep the “Day of Silence” principle and on May 6 we’ll follow that the Mass Media do not publish the citizens’ opinions who they have voted for.
How is monitoring carried out and by whom?
Monitoring is carried out by the department of the staff supervision with about 15 employees. We’ll monitor the whole airtime 24 hours a day. Almost all programs are recorded in the Department of supervision and our employees are watching at this moment and they will record the violations in case of disclosing them.
It will be a very hard work. At this moment the number of candidates is about 900, now imagine the condition of employees of our department. We asked all our bodies be it NGOs, state institutions, international organizations or candidates to apply to us in case of disclosing any violation. We’ll monitor on the basis of any appeal.
Will you have a hot line?
There will not be a hot line. There is a feedback section in our web-site www.tvradio.am they can write by e-mail. NCTR has a state address and a telephone number. We asked them to apply to us in a written form because it is forbidden by the RA law to give process to anonymous and unsigned applications and it is impossible to verify the identity of a person who gives information by phone.
That is they can apply any time and you can watch the record and check?
Mainly yes. But our opportunities do not allow us to fully record the airtime of all channels. Suppose one can escape our attention and if we receive an appeal we can apply to the mass media, demand the records and check the authenticity of the appeal. The law imposes the most stringent requirement that all the TV and Radio stations must keep all the records of official campaign period for 3 months. In case of not keeping or not giving the record the penalty of 1 ml AMD is stipulated.
Which programs are mostly monitored?
We’ll monitor not only the political programs, news but also feature films. It is possible that an ideology of a party is embellished in a film. We’ll consider it as an advertisement and demand from the TV station to give the same time to others. And vice versa we have films in which a party is picked on, for example «Նվագախմբի տղաները» (The boys of orchestra). During the pre-electoral campaign we’ll consider the screening of such films as anti-propaganda against one party and propaganda for another party.
The law forbids the candidates to conduct programs and appear on television during the pre-electoral campaign period. The screening of Shushan Petrosyan’s videos and the TV serial with Yervand Manaryan’s participation set up a big clamor. During the pre-electoral period we’ll consider them as propaganda and demand equality. Let the photos of other candidates be shown for a few minutes.
If one of the candidates is relatively passive during the campaign
The law clearly says that if one candidate does not carry out a campaign it cannot prevent the coverage of the other. That is if one party decides to stay at home and not carry out a campaign or invites only one press conference in 20 days then it will be on a low scale and there will be no equality. If an equal opportunity has been given to the candidate to take part in debate but the candidate hasn’t used that opportunity we’ll consider it normal because the equality right has been kept. And if they haven’t been invited and the invitation has been sent late then it will be considered as a violation.
If the equality is not kept and the petition of NCTR on restoration of the violation is ignored what steps can you take, what measures of punishment are there?
Our authority is limited we have no “switch” to switch off the airtime in case of violation. Our measures of punishments are the penalties up to revocation of license. We took strict steps and determined the highest penalties one million AMD for any violation. After April 8 every 10 days we’ll give information to the Central Electoral Commission on our monitoring. We open administrative proceedings on the basis of appeals, we make a decision on penalties which can be appealed in the court, pass three instances of courts and so on.
That is we do not have a level of operative intervention. We’ll record any violation and punish it and the law says that in case of 3 violations we have a right to apply to the court and demand to hold up the license of mass media. But here the positive thing is that it has a preventive function. We conduct seminars for TV and Radio stations and explain everything very clearly which one we’ll consider as a violation and which one no. It is not as if they are inexperienced and finally the lack of knowledge of law doesn’t exonerate from responsibility.
The appearing of any candidate in a shot except the bought or free time will be considered as an advertisement and will be calculated. But NCTR has competences only in the field of Television and Radio. And the printed and online mass media are not within our jurisdiction.
Aren’t you concerned that the TV and Radio stations can make a profitable agreement with the candidates and broadcast an advertising material on the day of silence?
I understood what you mean but there is a very good point in the Electoral Code. In case of such a violation during the campaign which can have a significant impact on the results of voting the CEC has the right to apply to the court and withdraw the candidacy of the candidate. And whether it had an impact or not only the court is competent to decide studying all the circumstances, the conclusion of experts and listening to the opinions of both sides.
How will the question of party officials be regulated who are more often seen on the screen and touch upon the party’s name, wear an emblem or the party’s flag is seen on the screen?
Article 22 of the Electoral Code defines in which cases it will be considered as propaganda and in which cases no. If one carries out his or her powers given by the Constitution and it is covered and it is not mentioned if he is a member of the party or are nominated for elections, do not wear an emblem it cannot be considered as a campaign.
Moreover, the law defines if even a shooting is done in the street in which an emblem on an ordinary citizen, a flag, shirts containing propaganda are seen which will be associated with a party the mass media must close that part otherwise we consider it a propaganda and they must give equal time to other candidates.
“I know” campaign has lately started which “advertises” the work done by the Government. Taking into account that in recent years the Government has been consisted of three political powers led by ARP aren’t you concerned that it will be considered as propaganda?
You know I share your concern. Frankly speaking I wasn’t attentive because how strange it may seem I do not watch TV much. During the period of official campaign if we see a material which can be estimated as an advertisement of the work of the Government we’ll evaluate it as an advertisement of 3 parties of coalition and we’ll demand from the channel to compensate other candidates as well.
We monitor not only the news but even the commercial advertisement. It is not excluded that a candidate is shot in an advertisement which raises a lot of positive emotions in viewers. However, I think the candidates shouldn’t make violations because the law clearly says if “you overdo it” the strict punishments will follow.
Interview by Mery Alexanyan