A rare Armenian TV station at loggerheads with the government pleaded for financial support from viewers and sympathizers on Wednesday as it scrambled to pay a hefty fine imposed by tax authorities.
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 ($81,000) in unpaid taxes, asking a local court to force GALA’s parent company, Chap, to pay the sum.
The company denied the fraud allegations and said they were fabricated in retaliation for its decision to provide airtime to Ter-Petrosian. Local and Yerevan-based civic group also denounced the case as politically motivated, rallying hundreds of Gyumri residents in support of the embattled broadcaster in December.
However, the Gyumri division of Armenia’s Administrative Court ruled on Wednesday that GALA did evade taxes and must pay the fine.
The cash-strapped channel clearly anticipated such a decision, having decided on Monday to try to raise the required sum from the public and hold a telethon for that purpose. The televised fund-raiser began several hours before the announcement of the court ruling and appears to have attracted strong interest from Gyumri residents. Hundreds of them visited GALA’s offices and donated cash throughout the day.
GALA’s owner and chief executive, Vahan Khachatrian, told RFE/RL that he has also received donations from Armenians living in other parts of the country as well as abroad. The TV station raised a total of 6 million drams, or roughly one quarter of the required sum, as of 6 p.m. local time.
“I personally was against such fund-raising,” said Khachatrian. “But given the fact that GALA’s problem has long ceased to be my problem and is now the public’s, I bowed to pressure from the public, my staff, residents of Gyumri, Yerevan and entire Armenia.”
Khachatrian claimed that the authorities hope that the financial penalty will force GALA into bankruptcy. “We’ve told them right from the beginning that this is not going to work and that they should think of other ways of taking GALA off the air,” he said.
Virtually all other Armenian TV stations, including the Yerevan-based national networks, are controlled by or loyal to the government. The only major private network that regularly aired criticism of the government was controversially forced off the air in 2002.