An independent television station based in Armenia’s second city of Gyumri claimed on Thursday that the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian will go to great lengths to take it off the air in the next few years.
Vahan Khachatrian, the owner of the GALA TV channel, sounded very skeptical about its chances of winning a new license in one of the nationwide tenders to be held by the National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH) later this year. “I think that the presidential administration will do everything to bar our TV company from the airwaves,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The HRAH put virtually all TV and radio frequencies available in Armenia’s up for grabs this week, in accordance with the country’s unfolding transition to mandatory digital broadcasting. The tenders for those frequencies will be held under controversial legal amendments which the Armenian government pushed through parliament last month.
One of the amendments to the Armenian law on broadcasting stipulates that there can be no more than one TV channel in each of Armenia’s ten provinces outside Yerevan after 2015.
There are presently four such stations operating in the northwestern Shirak region, of which Gyumri is the capital. All of them except GALA are loyal to the government.
“We must do everything to win and broadcast in the digital format,” said Khachatrian. But he claimed at the same time that the bidding for the regional license will not be fair.
“What is happening around the company now -- the fact that our advertisers are bullied and we get no advertisements, the fact that state structures avoid dealing with the company -- gives me reason to think that the presidential administration will do everything to make sure that we don’t win that contest,” he said.
GALA has been at loggerheads with the Armenian authorities ever since it broke ranks in September 2007 to provide airtime to opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian. It has since been the country’s sole TV channel that regularly airs criticism of the government.
Later in 2007, GALA was raided by tax officials and accused of tax evasion, a charge it strongly denied. A fund-raising telethon in early 2008 allowed the small TV station pay almost 27 million drams ($74,000) in fines imposed by tax authorities and avoid closure.
The State Revenue Committee claimed earlier this year that GALA still owes it 822,000 drams in unpaid taxes and took legal action against the company. A Gyumri court recently opened hearings on the suit.
The HRAH chairman, Grigor Amalian, said on Thursday that the dispute will not reflect negatively on GALA’s chances in the upcoming bidding. “As yet, the commission has not issued any reprimands to the GALA company,” he told RFE/RL.
Also planning to contest one of the tenders is A1+, a Yerevan-based TV station controversially taken off the air eight years ago. Its owner and executive director, Mesrop Movsesian, predicted last week that A1+ will not be allowed to resume broadcasts anytime soon.