By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
A provincial television station that has crossed swords with the Armenian authorities announced on Tuesday the successful end of a week-long fund-raising campaign that has enabled it to pay a heavy government fine and avoid immediate closure.
The private GALA channel, which is based in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri, began a non-stop telethon last Wednesday as it was controversially fined almost 27 million drams ($87.700) for allegedly evading taxes. It has since managed to raise 26.5 million drams from viewers and other sympathizers and pay the bulk of the fine in several installments.
Justice Ministry bailiffs visited the GALA office late in the afternoon to collect the final major installment. They said the TV station still owes the state about 442,000 drams and pledged pay the remainder on Wednesday.
According to telethon organizers’ estimates, about 10,000 residents of Gyumri and other parts of Armenia have contributed cash to the embattled broadcaster. “Participation has been incredible. It has gone beyond our expectations,” said Levon Barseghian, the chairman of Gyumri’s Asparez Journalists Club who has been actively involved in the fund-raiser.
“Twenty-five percent of people and organizations who have taken part in the fund raising have never watched GALA,” Barseghian told RFE/RL. “We have taught Armenia’s ruling regime a lesson. At least, I hope we have. And I hope they will reconsider their behavior vis-à-vis mass media,” he said.
Like GALA’s owner, Asparez and other Armenia media and civil rights groups believe that the tax fraud case was brought against the small broadcaster in retaliation for its decision last October to provide airtime to Levon Ter-Petrosian, the country’s former president and top opposition leader. But local authorities and the State Tax Service deny any political motives behind the punitive action.
Virtually all other TV stations, including the Yerevan-based major networks, are loyal to or controlled by the country’s leadership. The only national station that regularly aired criticism of the government was controversially pulled off the air in 2002.
Despite the payment of the fine, GALA’s continued broadcasts remain in question. Its owner, Vahan Khachatrian, claims to have received no advertising orders since last fall.
GALA has also been accused by the Gyumri mayor’s office of illegally using the local television tower to air its programs to the city and surrounding areas. Late last month a Gyumri court allowed the local government to remove GALA’s transmitter from the facility. The ruling was not immediately enforced because the TV company challenged it at Armenia’s Court of Appeals. The latter has yet to start hearings on the appeal.
(Photolur photo: Levon Barseghian.)