Threatened radio director gets refugee status in the U.S.

New York, August 12, 2004—
The director of the shuttered Kyiv radio station Kontinent has arrived in Washington, D.C., after gaining refugee status from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

In a telephone interview with CPJ, Sergey Sholokh said he fled Ukraine five months ago and applied for refugee status through the U.S. Embassy in Poland. He arrived in Washington on August 6.

One human rights expert said asylum is not easily granted, and is based on demonstrable persecution in the applicant’s homeland. The U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, who oversees immigration services, has discretion to admit any refugee who “is determined to be of special humanitarian concern,” according to the services’ Web site.

Sholokh told CPJ he feared for his safety, in part because of what he considered to be an attempted abduction in February. He said he fears the attempt was related to his testimony in the investigation into the murder of independent journalist Georgy Gongadze four years ago.

On February 21, two men who identified themselves as investigators from the Pechesky Interior Ministry Department in Kyiv came to Sholokh’s home, purportedly to take him to the police for an interrogation on the Gongadze case, Sholokh said in an interview for the independent Web site Ukrainska Pravda. Sholokh resisted, then left for Poland on February 28.

Police raided the independent station and took it off the air on March 3, less than a week after Kontinent began airing a two-hour daily broadcast of the Ukrainian Service of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. (See CPJ’s letter of March 11 protesting closures of independent media outlets in the run-up to presidential elections.)

Police confiscated the station’s radio transmitter and broadcasting equipment, and sealed the offices. Officials with the Ukrainian State Center of Radio Frequencies and Supervision for Telecommunications said they closed the station because Kontinent’s broadcast license had expired. But press freedom advocates noted the license had expired three years before, and said the action was subjective and retaliatory.

Sholokh said he learned that authorities were preparing to sue him for running a business without a license.

Candidates for U.S. asylum must meet a number of strict criteria, said Eleanor Acer, director of the asylum program for the U.S.-based Human Rights First. Acer, who spoke generally about the criteria and not about this specific case, said candidates must prove they have faced persecution in their homeland based on their political opinions or position.

Sholokh said he is writing a book on press repression in Ukraine, including the troubles that prompted him to leave his homeland. He intends to work closely with international non-governmental organizations, particularly media groups.