YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Tigran Karapetian, an Armenian politician, businessman and television commentator, rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan on Friday to protest against state regulators’ decision to take his ALM channel off the air.
ALM lost its broadcasting license last month in a supposedly competitive tender administered by the National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH). The decision means that ALM will have to discontinue broadcasts by the end of this month.
The tender was organized as part of Armenia’s ongoing controversial transition to digital broadcasting which will significantly reduce the number of frequencies available to local TV and radio stations. Government critics say the Armenian authorities are using the process to retain and tighten their grip on the news political coverage of virtually all broadcasters.
Karapetian condemned the HRAH’s decision not to give him a new, digital frequency as he addressed several thousand supporters who gathered in central Yerevan. “ALM is not mine, it’s yours,” he told the unexpectedly large crowd. “They want to silence your voice.”
“The ALM TV channel is not a beer kiosk, it’s a popular value, a channel accessible to the people,” he said.
Karapetian also denounced the HRAH for not renewing the license of the Gyumri-based outspoken GALA channel and again refusing to let A1+, Armenia’s leading independent TV station pulled off the air in 2002, resume broadcasts.
ALM has been popular with working-class and rural Armenians throughout its nearly decade-long existence. Karapetian founded it after living and making a fortune in Russia in the 1990s. He has been the station’s most recognizable face since then, hosting political talk shows and phone-ins on a virtually daily basis. He also played host on folksy entertainment programs aired by ALM in the years leading up to the May 2007 parliamentary elections.
Karapetian cried foul when his People’s Party failed to win a single parliament seat in those elections. He went on to contest the February 2008 presidential election, official results of which gave him less than 1 percent of the vote.
Unlike GALA and A1+, ALM has generally avoided airing criticism of Armenia’s current and previous presidents.
Speaking at the rally, Karapetian refrained from directly attacking President Serzh Sarkisian and other key government figures or holding them personally responsible for the impending closure of ALM. He instead decried what he called widespread “injustice” and the “plunder of the people.”
“At issue is injustice in general, the way they treat us at our own home,” he said without naming names. “Let’s say no to it.”
The flamboyant businessman, long accused of populism by his critics, announced that he will hold another, “more powerful” rally in Yerevan on January 19. But he did not say what he and his party will do if the authorities pull the plug on ALM.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service earlier on Friday, Karapetian indicated that he is unlikely to seek to join forces with the Armenian National Congress of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. He argued that they have never voiced support for his embattled TV company.
“If they change their wrong behavior, we will change ours,” said the ALM owner.