The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about recent closures of independent media outlets in Ukraine. We believe that these closures are part of a sweeping campaign to eliminate voices that are critical of the government and to block public access to independent sources of information in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for October.
The campaign started in January when the Shevchenkivskyy District Court ordered the closure of the opposition daily Silski Visti, which is based in the capital, Kyiv, allegedly for publishing two advertisements in September 2003 for a book that was widely considered anti-Semitic. Local and international reports, however, suggest that the issue of anti-Semitism was used as a pretext to close Silski Visti, which was widely read, critical of the government, and supportive of the opposition Socialist Party of Ukraine (SPU), in an election year.
While some Ukrainians found the advertisements offensive, they said that closing the paper was unjust. Yevhen Chervonenko, vice president of the Eurasian Jewish Congress–which represents Jewish communities in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine–and a member of the Ukraine’s Parliament, called the closure a “calculated provocation by the presidential administration against the media.” Chervonenko said that while Silski Visti should apologize for the advertisements, the ads themselves were not sufficient reasons for closing the publication. He cited other instances of publishing ethnically sensitive materials in Ukraine media that went unnoticed by authorities, and called Silski Visti “a victim of double standards,” the Kyiv based Ukrainian news agency UNIAN reported.
Soon after Silski Visti’s closure, the private Kyiv radio station Dovira decided to discontinue its rebroadcasts of the Ukraine Service news bulletins of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) as of February 17. The decision came one month after the appointment of presidential ally Serhiy Kychyhyn as Dovira’s general producer. Dovira had carried RFE/RL rebroadcasts on its FM frequencies for five years prior to February 2004.
On February 27 the independent Kyiv radio station Kontinent added a daily two-hour rebroadcast of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service programming on its 100.9 FM frequency. But five days later, Kontinent was raided by police and taken off the air. The police confiscated the station’s radio transmitter and broadcasting equipment, and sealed its offices. According to local and international reports, the raid was ordered by the Ukrainian State Center of Radio Frequencies and Supervision for Telecommunication (Ukrchastotnaglyad), the regulatory body responsible for assigning radio frequencies, allegedly because of Kontinent’s expired broadcasting license. However, as many local reports noted, Kontinent’s broadcasting license had expired in 2001, raising questions as to why the station was closed three years later.
That same day, March 3, hours before the police raided Kontinent, Heorhiy Chechyk, the director of the private radio and television company Yuta, which owns FM Radio Poltava Plus, was killed when his car collided with another vehicle in the Pyryatin District, 215 miles (344 kilometers) east of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Chechyk was driving to a meeting with executives from the Ukrainian service of RFE/RL to discuss rebroadcasting their news bulletin.
Local journalists say that RFE/RL is one of the few sources of independent news in the country where your government has successfully managed to control most of the country’s broadcasting media. The March 3 raid of radio Kontinent left Kyiv without an FM carrier of RFE/RL news at a time when a variety of news sources is most needed. The fact that Kontinent’s broadcasting license expired in 2001 but the station was pulled off the air just recently, combined with Dovira’s refusal to carry RFE/RL programming strongly suggests that there are political motives behind these actions. In this context, Chechyk’s death warrants a thorough investigation, the findings of which should be made public.
Your Excellency, denying opposition voices media access, as well as limiting the number of news sources available to Ukrainian audiences in the run-up to the October presidential elections is a violation of press freedom and a blatant act of censorship. As people prepare to vote in the presidential elections, they need as much access as possible to news that will allow them to make informed decisions about their country’s future. As an independent, nonprofit organization committed to defending press freedom worldwide, CPJ urges you to do everything within your power to allow radio Kontinent to resume broadcasting, including its rebroadcasts of RFE/RL news.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.