By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
A cash-strapped independent television station looked set to avoid an immediate closure on Monday thanks to an unprecedented fund-raising campaign that has enabled it to pay the bulk of a hefty fine imposed by the Armenian government.
The Gyumri-based GALA TV, the rare Armenian broadcaster defying the government, was controversially fined more than 25 million drams ($81,000) for alleged tax evasion last Wednesday. Its inability to immediately pay up automatically raised the sum to almost 27 million drams.
The private channel immediately began a non-stop telethon, asking viewers and sympathizers for donations. Thousands of them have since responded to the appeal, bringing cash to its Gyumri offices and making wire transfers from Yerevan and other parts of Armenia as well as abroad. GALA collected a total of 23.4 million drams as of Monday evening and must raise the remaining 3.5 million drams by late Tuesday.
“I expected the public to react to our appeal but not on this scale,” GALA’s owner, Vahan Khachatrian, told RFE/RL. “We are getting donations not only from Gyumri and Shirak region but all over Armenia. We also get many phone calls from abroad.”
“I no longer feel like the owner of this TV company,” Khachatrian said. “It has belonged to the public for the past several months.”
The Gyumri-based GALA has been facing uncertain future ever since it broke ranks to air a September speech by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian which contained harsh criticism of Armenia’s government. The speech marked the start of Ter-Petrosian’s dramatic political comeback.
Tax officials raided the offices of the small station and inspected its books in late October. They claimed to have found more than 25 million drams in unpaid taxes, asking a local court to force GALA’s parent company, Chap, to pay the sum. The company denied the fraud allegations, endorsed by the court on Wednesday, and said they were fabricated in retaliation for its decision to provide airtime to Ter-Petrosian.
“I have experienced very emotional moments in the past few days,” said Karine Harutiunian, GALA’s executive director who personally accepts the donations. “I was moved by the solidarity and kindness of our people. It was hard to watch disabled grannies come here with tears in eyes, and donate parts of their modest pensions.”
Nazik Hakobian, a pensioner from another major Armenian town, Vanadzor, was among them. “What brought me here is GALA’s love for freedom,” she told viewers during the live telethon. “True, I can’t watch GALA, but I listen to Radio Liberty and I know what’s going on in our country.”
“Let our people always hear GALA’s voice,” said another pensioner who donated 5,000 drams ($16) or one fifth of his monthly pension.
He was not the poorest of the contributors. One unemployed woman, who lives in a village close to Gyumri, could only give 1,000 drams. “I have come here on foot,” she told RFE/RL. “I and four other members of my family are jobless. I would give 10,000 drams if I had a job.”
“GALA is the only Armenian TV station that had the courage to be independent of the government,” explained another telethon participant. “I want my kids to grow up in a free country and to be able to freely express their views.”
Local and Yerevan-based civic groups have also rallied to GALA’s cause, denouncing the tax fraud case as politically motivated and forming a committee to support the embattled broadcaster. One of those groups, the Gyumri-based Asparez Journalists Club, is also actively involved in the fund-raising campaign.
A car used by the chairman of Asparez, Levon Barseghian, was set on fire and seriously damaged by unknown assailants on Friday. The incident occurred just hours after he denounced Gyumri’s controversial Mayor Vartan Ghukasian for pouring scorn on GALA and urging local residents not to help the TV station. Barseghian was quick to point the finger at Ghukasian.
The Yerevan Press Club (YPC), another independent watchdog, also effectively implicated the mayor in the apparent arson attack. In a weekend statement, the YPC pointed to his repeated “insults and threats” against both GALA and Asparez.