by Ani Hakobyan
A new kind of civic action in Armenia grew out of the turmoil of March 1, with the viewer-supported rescue of a Gyumri television station.
March 17-25, supporters of GALA TV—schoolchildren to pensioners to human rights advocates to unknown fans abroad—rallied to "loan" the station 26,458,500 drams ($88,195) to keep it on air and out of trouble with Armenia's tax collectors.
The action is the first of its kind in Armenia—similar to the popular worldwide telethon held in support of the Armenia Fund each November and broadcast from cities abroad.
While some are praising the event as declaring true "public" television in Armenia, the success of the fundraiser is also seen as a mass statement that audiences here want a choice in broadcasting—which is almost entirely controlled or influenced by the state.
Locally owned, GALA (Gyumri Alternative News Channel, by Armenian translation) claims an audience of about 50,000 in the Shirak province. It was founded in 2005 by Chap Limited and soon became an alternative source of information for its viewers who otherwise—like others even in the capital—would have largely relied on state channels H1 or "independent" channels, all supportive of the government.
Last October, though, GALA ran afoul of the government, after it broadcast a speech given by Levon Ter-Petrosian at the convention of his political party. Neither the state channel nor any other private stations aired footage of the ex-president-turned-oppositionist's return to politics. GALA, itself, was warned that giving air time to Ter-Petrosian would not be welcomed by the ruling regime.
Government reaction to GALA's defiance was swift and came in a common manner: tax audit.
In a six-day investigation of its accounting, tax authorities determined that GALA was in arrears by $85,550. Practically in tandem with the tax fines, the Gyumri Municipality—which had never taken issue with the TV station in its two-year existence—filed a lawsuit alleging that GALA was illegally using the city's TV tower to host its satellite receiver.
"Before October 14, GALA was both a very good tax payer and a very good TV company, and it was considered to be the only broadcast that proved able to present Gyumri on a broad scale," says executive director Karine Harutyunian. "And all of a sudden GALA turned into the most terrible lawbreaker. Every authority except the fire department showed up with inspections or warnings."
According to the director, she was visited by the National Security Service (KGB), the President's Office, and the State Commission for Television and Radio, in addition to the tax inspectors and the municipality.
All administrative offices deny any charges that pressure on GALA was politically motivated. Defenders of the station, though, say that the timing of the sudden negative attention it received was hardly coincidental.
The station's editor-in-chief Eduard Mkhitarian says the pressure solidified the resolve of his staff (about 30) to serve the public.
"We just did our normal work; we gave objective two-sided information and did not confine ourselves within the limits of the official point of view or the version advantageous to the authorities. Information is information showing all sides, unbiased in all spheres, independent of whether it fits the officials or not," says Mkhitarian.
With court cases pending, GALA aggressively reported the February 19 presidential election, gaining both praise and condemnation particularly for recording (via cell phone cameras) scenes outside Gyumri polling stations where voters were being handed money, presumably for having voted in favor of Serge Sargsyan.
After the election, GALA turned its cameras on Liberty Square, where opposition rallies were being held, but not reported by television—except for bits of footage on state-controlled TV that were generally negative. The government channel, for example, focused on the amount of trash that was left after each rally.
GALA's coverage gave images and reports to viewers in Gyumri and 30 Shirak communities that were not even seen by viewers in Yerevan.
Armenuhi Vardanian, a GALA reporter, worked in the capital during most of the days and nights between February 20-March 1.
"It was very hard for us to cover the events of those days. There were technically no means to provide live reports. We were forced to report by phone, we were forced to spend two hours to go to Gyumri and another two to get back [to Yerevan] and give the information with some delay," the reporter says. "The journalists and the mass media in the capital did not have that problem. GALA with its limited capacities managed to somehow show the people what really took place in Yerevan and Liberty Square."
On February 29, the court found in favor of the municipality concerning the tower dispute. And on March 19, the court ruled in favor of the tax inspectorate, putting GALA at risk of going off air. It likely would have, except for the unexpected response to its plea for support. (The telethon started before the court ruling, in anticipation of a negative verdict.)
GALA has appealed both court cases.
While the GALA telethon response could surely be seen as a public endorsement of its election coverage, GALA staff hope that it is more a reflection of the station's status earned since it first went on air.
The results of the fund-raising exceeded the station's expectations, as thousands of residents and Diaspora Armenians reached out to help pay off the tax debt. Other media also donated, including murdered journalist Hrant Dink's Turkish- and Armenian–language newspaper Agos published in Turkey.
Yerjanik Hakobian, a pensioner in Gyumri, came to the company's office on March 26, when the fund-raising was over, but the staff at the company failed to convince him to take back his donation.
"My coming late had its reasons. First, I could not imagine the money would be gathered so soon, and I was ill, but I have brought it from the bottom of my heart and won't take it back," he said.
Telman Hovhannisian, 11, came to the GALA office from school in the company of his parents bringing 3,000 drams (about $10).
As GALA appeals its cases, station officials have said they are confident that if an Armenian court does not overturn the verdict, then the European Court of Human Rights will. If that happens, the station has said it has kept records of who gave what, and will return supporters' donations.
Harutyunian says her company "is not a unique thing. I believe we did our job as any of the citizens, the journalists, would do in a normal democratic country."