By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
An independent television station based in Armenia’s second city of Gyumri was on Thursday allowed to resume broadcasts suspended the previous day as a result of its politically charged dispute with the local authorities.
The GALA channel fell foul of the local and central governments last fall after breaking ranks to provide paid airtime to former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. It was raided and subsequently fined by tax officials for tax evasion and other alleged violations. In a separate move, the Gyumri mayor’s office accused GALA of illegally using the city’s old TV tower and asked a local court to force it to remove its transmitter from there.
The court granted the request earlier this year. The verdict was upheld by an appeals court on Monday. The small broadcaster was forced off the air two days later as the local branch of the Justice Ministry’s Service for Mandatory Execution of Judicial Acts (SME) had electricity supplies to its offices cut off. The supplies were restored late on Wednesday after GALA’s owner, Vahan Khachatrian, signed a written pledge to dismantle its broadcasting equipment within the next ten days.
The popular channel will thus remain on air until April 26. It has so far failed to find alternative ways of broadcasting its programs to Gyumri and surrounding areas. GALA applied last December for permission to install its transmitter on another, bigger, tower used by local TV stations loyal to the government. The Armenian Ministry of Transport and Communication, which owns the facility, has still not responded to the request.
GALA is facing closure less than a month after a weeklong fund-raising telethon that allowed it pay almost 27 million drams ($88,000) in fines imposed by tax authorities. According to telethon organizers’ estimates, about 10,000 residents of Gyumri and other parts of Armenia contributed cash to the embattled broadcaster.
GALA, backed by leading media and civil rights groups, says that the tax fraud case was brought in retaliation against its decision to air a September speech by Ter-Petrosian that marked the start of his political comeback. But the local authorities and the State Tax Service deny any political motives behind the punitive action.
However, Joseph Pennington, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Armenia, questioned the credibility of the government assurances as he visited Gyumri on Thursday. Pennington met with the GALA staff there and expressed hope that the TV station will continue its work.