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South Caucasus


Levon Barseghyan

Levon Barseghyan
the head of the Gyumri Press-Club "Asparez"

What is your appraisal of the level of freedom of speech in Armenia, where as a private TV company “GALA” (Gyumri Independent Informational Channel) in a separate city of Gyumri, by disregarding the acts of protest from authorities stood up for its right to inform?

Freedom of speech in Armenia is in a critical condition; we could even say that the press agencies are grieving about freedom yet they’re showing a happy face so no one would know… All press agencies, except a few, are under strict, government control. It was with the help of the owner of a private TV station “GALA”, Vahan Khachatryan , that we were able to defend the freedom of speech in Gyumri. So it turns out that the only well informed inhabitant today lives in the Gyumri, Shirak Valley.

The TV station not only broadcasts the official news, it also informs of the activities of the opposition, prepares shows about the political prisoners and court processes. We have four T.V stations, one of which is a public station and the three are private. The private TV station “GALA” Broadcasted information about the opposition from the very beginning, so the viewer could get a much wider informational spectrum. Eventually the rest of the TV stations started to broaden their informational blocks, even started showing bits and pieces from the life of the opposition and etc. We fought a long time for television to obtain the same level of freedom at least as the newspapers posses. Up until now only Gyumri has been successful. We let the authorities know that we are not prepared to give up the positions we’ve conquered. During our stand off with the authorities our motto was «No passaran!» And with that we wanted to say that we don’t have “any place” for backing off. Meaning if they shut down “GALA” that would be the end for freedom of speech.

A few times in the city there were mass actions of protest, demonstrations, pickets during which on December 19 close to 3000 people for three ours stood outside in the cold measuring up to 19 degrees Celsius. We established “GALA” defense headquarters. We were joined by close to 20 public organizations, 50 private individuals, and even a few members of the council of the elders of the city. The elders didn’t want to be seen with us but they helped us in deed. Many businessmen also supported us while staying in the shadows. We had three coordinators – Arthur Aslanyan, Vahan Toomasyan, and me. We organized pickets not only in the courtrooms but also outside of the courtroom buildings while “GALA” stayed on the air and continued informing. A lot of times we tried to prolong the court processes, it was a special tactic, because starting January 1, 2008 certain reforms in the court system came into power. And court processes were in session from November 2007. Karen Tumanyan an attorney from Vanadzor began to present different judges with petitions for rejection and this way we were able to extend the processes until January. Afterwards the court processes started migrating form one instance to another and that way we stalled more until March. When it became clear to us that the judge was going to support fining “GALA» we started a fundraising campaign, an unprecedented marathon through television and the Internet to raise enough money to pay the fine.

We were surprised, because even state officials were sending us money through their confidants. When court officials would come to the TV Station to collect the money, they would first stop in a room where they would make their donations, only then they would start counting the money and filling out the paperwork on what amount they would be collecting for the fine. And simultaneous with that we were actively working on air in “GALA». We explained to people that all four TV Companies are our churches, where we practice our freedom of speech and no one has the right to punish them for speaking freely.


What do you think, why did the authorities allow for “GALA” to go on with the announcement, why was it possible to defend that right?

The authorities did everything possible to close the TV Company down; there was a huge war over it. The owner of the company among other determined people let the authorities know that they were prepared to loose everything but go all the way in order to defend “GALA”. The amount, which the authorities demanded, was approximately as much as the company’s worth around 100,000 dollars. The authorities, until the very end, expected for the owner to compromise or give up.

We undertook variety of different steps to predict their next step. For example we suspected the authorities would take down the antenna on the city tower, which came into their Municipal possession in the very beginning of the conflict based on another decision made by the court. We were ready to organize a live chain around the tower with the antenna. We were ready to do anything so they would not take down the antenna, greasing up the tower with tar or even (excuse the expression) crap so the court executor would refuse to climb up it on arrival (it’s the first time I’m expressing these ideas). But it didn’t come to that.

And most importantly, the government never faced this type of resistance. The entire city, the entire region, activists from Yerevan and other regions protected «GALA» TV Company. The authorities could not penetrate the defense shield (the word ”protection” is weak in this context). The methods they used were too blunt, they were shocked, and they had a wild desire to shut down the company. Until the official audit in “Chap” LTD, the founder of “Gala”, the tax inspectors force assent out to publicity clients to declare that they didn’t receive any fiscal papers from company. When business men – publicity customers gave a refusal they began to receive threats from our operatives of the Tax bureau.

I must mention the operative team (consisting of six individuals 3 from Yerevan and 3 from Gyumri) usually knows how to make any company submit. The president of “GALA” asked them to show some identification, when they came to check out “GALA”. Due to the lack of I.D. one of them had to leave. They were very surprised by such a welcome, later they demanded not to be filmed, to which the journalists replied by asking them to show a law that prohibits government officials from being filmed on the grounds of the TV station. Afterwards all that was filmed went on air they showed how a notorious Tax collector is being thrown out of a television studio for the lack of I.D. that’s when the audience understood that resistance is not futile.

The authorities wanted to use an experimented method of threatening and forcing into paying a huge fine by forcing the owner to a mutual agreement. Perhaps forcing to sign a petition about a write off about some mythological debts is in fact equivalent to forcing to sign a pardon. After that the TV Company or at least the political information of the channel would be under full government control. The authorities were able to deprive a Yerevan TV channel A1+ by violating competition rules in the competition of 2002.

Owner of “GALA” refused to play the game that was offered by the authorities and started a game of his own by putting at stake everything he owns. Authorities commented above-mentioned «tantrum» as such – the owner of “GALA” TV Station has money from the opposition, which is the reason explaining his behavior. But that comment did not add up to reality! He wasn’t bluffing he decided to really go all the way and he didn’t have any Money from the opposition”. Society supported him and the TV Company rewarded him generously.


Authorities decided to shut down “GALA” because of its support of the opposition?

We can’t say that “GALA” was supporting the opposition. I once compared the situation of the Armenian mass media with the Japanese flag. If our media-space represents a white background, then anything slightly of a different color jumps into the eyes right away. All sources announce alike – they speak pretty and smooth about the authorities, and they speak dirty and ugly about the opposition and its leaders, it doesn’t matter who the authorities are or who is the opposition and its leaders.... When after a 10 years of political silence Levon Ter-Petrosyan gave a speech, you could see in the chronicles that there were around 20 microphones near him and at the end there were only a few left as I recall it was “GALA” TV, A1+, and Radio Freedom. The mass media didn’t know of the contents of his speech they just decided that he was going to give such a stuffed-velvet opposition speech this is why everyone came. The speech lasted 21 minutes during which the microphones began to slowly disappear. The journalists understood that no one was going to allow the speech to be broadcasted on air and I didn’t notice any news reports of Levon Ter-Petrosyans first speech. On the same day ”GALA” TV showed a 7-minute report on the speech, and on the next day more information in an analytical show. Three weeks later “GALA” decided to show the complete speech because of the high interest to it. There is an announcement going on by television and almost right after it “GALA” gets a phone call from the presidential administration. The president’s speaker Victor Sogomonian relentlessly tries to persuade the director not to air the announcement. After receiving a final rejection he promises the owner will regret about it…

After receiving orders from above the local officials displayed extremely active involvement. The next morning the first attack was made on “GALA” after that phone call. The owner of the T.V Company was invited to the office of National Security Service for a talk. The conversation lasted 40 minutes, in which he was asked not to air Теr-Petrosyan and his colleagues, verbally. They promised not to create any problems for him if he agrees also reminded him about his family, children, etc. The next day he is invited for a talk by the head of the local tax inspection and the same thing is repeated. Further the President of National television and radio commission Grigor Amalyan invites him, once again the same thing. Someone even suggested as a “compromise”: to temporarily stop the announcement based on technical difficulties or prophylactic reasons, so he could save face. When Vahan rejected everyone the authorities understood that its time to start their own “movie” that’s when the mass tax inspections began, etc.

It can be said that “GALA” won this battle with the authorities. Do you think this was final battle or are there more up ahead to be expected. Will there be more attempts to shut down the TV Company like for example it happened with A1+ TV?

We were actively resisting because “GALA” ‘s announcement license wasn’t to expire for another four and half years. If there had been a half a year then events could have gone in a different direction. During the whole process we kept actively informing our partners such as Yerevan press club, Freedom of speech protection committee, InterNews Armenia, also OSCE, Freedom House, U.S. State Department, Europarliament, U.S. Embassy as well as the British Embassy etc, about the development of events. International institutions took part in influencing the government as well. I think the authorities grew tired from the battle with “GALA”. The Government has enough problems already and it realized that attempts to close down the TV Station would put their situation in a more difficult position.

We collected a huge archive of compromising evidence against the officials during the period of the resistance, because people would come to the studio and provide us with it. People saw that “GALA” was criticizing corrupt officials. They began to believe that there is actually a way to get rid of them. People came from Spitak and Vanadzor where those officials used to be employed. And if before people tried to address government structures and it didn’t work out, then in this instance people began to have some faith.

3-4 Months ago “GALA” TV complained twice to the Cassation Court about 2 court decisions. One concerning the Tax fine, and the other about freeing the city tower. We are waiting for the beginning of the hearing. I think the Cassation Court realizes the precedent of A1+ TV, who won in the European court of Human Rights. And in regards to “GALA” the same might repeat. Authorities realize that if the tension continues, people, who fought during the year, will continue to fight further. The total of the fine with the extra percentages is a 100000 dollars that was collected by over 10000 people. Considering all that we counted around 25% of people who supported us with finances for the fine that never even watched “GALA” TV yet they supported us in a fight for freedom of speech. The government backed down because it understood it could not conquer “GALA”. I promised on the air that if we loose our right to announce on the next day I would close the Gyumri press club “Asbarez”. It just does not make sense to have a press club if it cannot sustain one of its local TV Company’s right to announce! It says in our handbook that we defend the freedom of speech, freedom of mass media … In case of failure it turns out that elementarily we are not doing our job and we cannot defend journalists and mass media. Some officials were happy about my announcement and decided they were going to get rid of two organizations with one blow, and increased the pressure on “GALA”. But at the same time the support from the population grew as well.


As we know Armenia was not informed very well about the late august events in Georgia. What was the level of news release on “GALA” and “Asparez” press club?

Yes, during the broadcasting of the news in Georgia a lot of the Armenian mass media used the production of Russian television channels mostly ORT and RTR. Only a few including “GALA» used the information provided by Euronews. Unfortunately not many TV channels in Armenia made any serious analysis about the events in Georgia; there weren’t any serious analytical shows or multi polar interviews dedicated to them. The profit of Armenian mass media‘s does not depend on ratings. Our television has turned into a means for propaganda, an instrument of show business and publicity a long time ago. The analytical programs keep fading away as the entertainment grows on TV We put links of Georgian sites in Russian and English on the official site of “Asparez” press-club, and sorted materials from Georgia and sent them to Armenian mass media. But I’d like to say that if Russian troops attacked Tbilisi I would have gone to Georgia personally. Georgia is very close to me, I have a lot of friends there. And besides that a family from Metehi Village of the Caspian region in 1915 saved my grandfather.

I began to write an article called “The silence of complimentary lambs”, after the events in Georgia. It’s about the silence of politics in Armenia. After Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence I wanted to write an article with a title “Dmitry Medvedev - careful the doors are closing!” Meaning for those who stay in Russia the doors to the rest of the world seize to exist. I can also add that our mass media in South Caucasus practically don’t say anything.


Did relations change between Armenia and Georgia after the war in August? What do you think, will Russia attempt to jeopardize relations between our countries? Will there be attempts to destabilize the situation in Javakheti?

Of course. Moscow is busy reconstructing the Great Russian Empire today. And it’s impossible to make an exception for its new and bloody tactics with its neighbors. But I think that Moscow will not be successful in reconstructing the Empire or making us quarrel with each other. Yet I believe the provocations are inevitable, but physically it’s impossible to create a quarrel between Armenia and Georgia. It doesn’t matter how illegitimate the government is in Armenia it cant’ blow the line of communication with Georgia even if the order came from the Kremlin. I think that in a few years Armenia and Georgia will be able to create an agreement about a universal partnership alliance.

I don’t agree with Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who supported the actions of the Russians in Georgia in august. I expected him to give another speech after that, one where he would interpret his words differently, also I thought he had a lack of information and it couldn’t have been serious. Only one explanation left, he dislikes Sahakashvili for the fact that Sahakashvili was one of the first to congratulate Serge Sarksyan with his victory in the presidential race. But with that type of vengeance towards Sahakashvili he damaged the Armenian-Georgian relations in the whole! I side with the principals of self-determination of nations and don’t always approve of actions of the Georgian government. But that’s up to Abkhazian and Ossetian people to decide with whom and how to live, it’s not up to Moscow to decide on what their fate should be.

Perhaps after such a wave of provocations in the region in august I would have reacted the same way as Sahakashvili did in South Ossetia, I don’t know. Many consider the best solution would have been the blossoming of Georgia, then the Abkhazians an Ossetians would have come to them on their own, they would have realized that that’s where home is. But when you analyze and understand on what scale the provocations were, it’s difficult to imagine how you yourself would react in a similar situation. Perhaps entering troops into Tskhinvali was an emotional decision; also maybe it was the adequate answer to the provocations. To this day it’s unclear who bombed Tskhinvali and where did such numbers as 2000 dead from the peaceful population come from. And why was the entire information coming from Russia.

When we start discussions and disputes about corruption, I always use the Georgian Highway patrol as an example, and I always say that we can solve that problem as simple as they did in Georgia. I myself drive a lot in Georgia and have dealt with the patrol on more than one occasion I have to say I’m very satisfied with them. Before it was impossible to switch to second gear … you’d get pulled over on every kilometer and they’d demand money, now even if they stop you they don’t let you get out of the car, they respectfully ask you for your documents, they even ask you if they can be of any assistance. I apologize, but I think it would be worth to commit the revolution of the roses just for that reason alone!

Does the Gyumri Press-Club “Asparez” cooperate with its Georgian partners?

I get from Gyumri to Tbilisi in a matter of 3 hours and 15 minutes; I travel to Georgia quite often I have many friends there. Unfortunately nowadays we work a lot more with Kars (Turkey), than with Georgia. I’d only be happy to work with more Georgian colleagues. We have many ideas. I wish for our colleagues in Georgia to know they have partners in Gyumri. We are prepared to make our entire base available for them and we are also ready to work in many different directions, “I think so”.

Made by Irakli Chikhladze
Gyumri, Armenia
September 2008

Published: 27-01-09
This interview is made during the South Caucasus Film Festival of Peace and Human Rights in Armenia implemented by Caucasus Center of Peace-Making Initiative by support of the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)