By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
Hundreds of people rallied in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri on Wednesday in support of a local television station that has been facing uncertain future ever since providing airtime to former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The demonstration was organized by local and Yerevan-based civic groups amid ongoing judicial proceedings that could result in GALA TV being taken off the air. The station was raided by tax inspectors in late October. Its parent company, Chap, was subsequently charged with evading more than 25 million drams ($82,000) in taxes.
The State Tax Service (STS) also alleged that the small broadcaster has been illegally using the local television tower to air its programs to Gyumri and surrounding areas. Earlier this month, the Gyumri municipality asked Armenia’s Economic Court to force GALA to remove its transmitter from the facility. The court already ruled on November 26 to freeze Chap’s bank accounts and other assets worth the alleged tax shortfall.
GALA’s owner and staff reject the criminal case as baseless and link it to their decision to air, as a paid advertisement, Ter-Petrosian’s September 21 that contained harsh criticism of Armenia’s leadership. Organizers of the demonstration echoed the claim in their speeches.
“All those infringing on our freedom of speech will be punished by law, God and your contempt. That day will come,” said Levon Barseghian, chairman of Gyumri’s Asparez Press Club.
Artur Sakunts, a human rights campaigner from the nearby town of Vanadzor, expressed hope that the GALA affair will give rise to a broader pro-democracy movement ahead of next February’s presidential election. “We won’t allow the regime and its lackeys to trample on our right to free speech,” he said. “Hands off GALA!”
Not surprisingly, opposition activists were also on hand to address the crowd and express their solidarity with GALA. “Today Gyumri has proved that it is the most freedom-loving city in the Republic of Armenia,” declared Nikol Pashinian of the pro-Ter-Petrosian Aylentrank movement. “No other city in Armenia has a TV station like GALA,” he said, referring to the fact virtually all other Armenian broadcasters are loyal to the government.
“What is being done to GALA has a political, legal and moral subtext,” said Hovannes Markarian, a Gyumri-based parliamentarian affiliated with the opposition Orinats Yerkir Party.
The STS and the regulatory National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR) deny any political motives behind the crackdown on GALA. But Gyumri residents who braved a cold weather to attend a rare anti-government rally in their city were unconvinced.
“I have come here to think about the my and my children’s future,” said one 72-year-old woman. “Isn’t it shameful to close down our only TV channel telling the truth?”
“We want GALA to stay on air so that we can feel free,” said another protester.