By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
Tax officials raided on Wednesday the offices of a rare Armenian TV station that broadcast former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s September 21 speech in which he subjected the government to harsh criticism.
The Gyumri-based GALA TV was one of only two regional broadcasters that agreed to air the speech as a paid advertisement on October 14. Just over a week later, officials from the State Tax Service (STS) visited its offices and notified its owner, Vahan Khachatrian, about a thorough inspection of GALA’s financial operations ordered by an STS division charged with combating tax evasion.
The visit came the day after Khachatrian publicly said that the National Commission on Television and Radio, a government-controlled body issuing and revoking broadcasting licenses, had warned him against airing Ter-Petrosian’s verbal attacks on President Robert Kocharian. The commission denied the claim. Khachatrian also claimed that officers of the Gyumri branch of the National Security Service (NSS) told GALA stop covering the ex-president’s political activities.
Three STS officials sent from Yerevan began inspecting the company’s books on Monday and again raided its offices two days later. Khachatrian challenged them to state if they have already uncovered any evidence of tax fraud. “I will answer your question after the inspection is over,” replied one of the officials, Gagik Ohanian.
Khachatrian cited a Wednesday report in an Armenian pro-government newspaper which said tax authorities have already found violations at GALA. “The report was published before you began the inspection. Where did they get that information from?” he asked.
“Maybe you gave them this information about your illegal business activity,” said Ohanian.
The tax officials had to leave the premises moments later after Ohanian showed an expired passport to prove his identity. Khachatrian insisted that he produce a valid ID.
One of the GALA reporters, Armenuhi Vartanian, claimed that she was verbally abused and intimidated last week by Martin Zilfimian, head of the regional branch of the STS, after authoring a TV report on his role in the apparent government crackdown. “He wanted to make sure that I don’t cover the tax department’s activities anymore,” Vartanian told RFE/RL.
The GALA owner insisted that his company is being driven out of business for defying government directives, a view essentially endorsed by the Asparez Journalists’ Club, a Gyumri-based media association. “We believe that these developments constitute direct pressure on a free media outlet,” Asparez said in a statement on Tuesday.
Virtually all Armenian TV channels are loyal to the Kocharian administration and rarely air opposition criticism of its policies. The only national broadcaster not controlled by the authorities was controversially pulled off the air in 2002.
Ter-Petrosian allies say this is the reason for what they see as a biased and hostile coverage of the ex-president’s political comeback by the Armenian electronic media. They say the alleged harassment of GALA is part of broader “repressions” unleashed by the government ahead of next year’s presidential election. Ter-Petrosian is increasingly emerging as its main opposition contender.
Meanwhile, GALA, which broadcasts to Gyumri and nearby towns and villages, will face an uncertain future even if it avoids accusations of tax evasion. According to Khachatrian, the station’s modest advertising revenues have been rapidly falling since October 14.
“The number of our advertisers has shrunk three-fold,” he told RFE/RL. “The remaining ones will probably stop placing ads in the coming days.”