Prague, 4 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian police this week entered the Kyiv building of Radio Kontynent and, while the station was on the air, confiscated its transmitter, thus shutting down its broadcasts.
Radio Kontynent was often critical of the government of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. It also broadcast Ukrainian-language programs by the BBC, the Voice of America, Germany's Deutsche Welle, and, since last week, Radio Liberty.
The Ukrainian agency that allots radio frequencies to broadcasters, Ukrchastnotnahlyad, says Radio Kontynent's license to broadcast on its FM frequency had expired. The agency's deputy director, Pavlo Slobodyanyuk, said Radio Kontynent has been in violation of statutes for more than a year for broadcasting on its bandwidth without a license. Contacted today, an employee at the agency said anyone able to comment on the matter was on holiday.
"They could not stand the fact that Radio Liberty was able to broadcast in Kyiv again."
Opposition politicians say the move appears to be yet another attempt to stifle free media ahead of presidential elections in October. One of those is Socialist deputy Yuriy Lutsenko, who secured the release of three Radio Kontynent staff who were detained on 3 March without being charged.
"Today, we're witnessing the final destruction of freedom of speech. They are shutting not just the opposition, I emphasize, but any independent forms of mass media. We must understand that the Ukrainian government is preparing not for elections but for the appointment of the next president of Ukraine, the next Kuchma, and to this end, they are closing down all independent media," Lutsenko said.
The closure comes a month after another Ukrainian station, Radio Dovira, announced it was stopping broadcasts of Radio Liberty programs on its FM channels, shortly after a Kuchma supporter took control of the station. The government also last month shut down a widely read opposition newspaper, "Silski visti."
Some of the mass media in Ukraine is directly owned by the state; most outlets are owned by private entrepreneurs loyal to Kuchma or by those seen as too intimidated to annoy the government. Opposition politicians thus have little chance to voice their opinions.
Western broadcasters have contracts with Ukrainian FM stations to use their channels for an agreed number of hours each day, due to FM's clearer signal and accessibility. Because of the Radio Dovira episode, Radio Liberty had been looking for FM broadcasters to transmit its programs. It began using Radio Kontynent's FM channel on 28 February. Radio Liberty and the BBC are still broadcasting to Ukraine using AM and shortwave signals.
RFE/RL President Thomas Dine issued a statement in which he sharply criticized the closure of Radio Kontynent. "We at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are angry and outraged by this blatant act in suppressing factual news and information from a variety of high-quality journalists. Ukraine's name and its people are badly damaged; the first freedom -- free expression -- is harmed," the statement said.
BBC spokeswoman Katie Byrne says the British broadcaster also regrets the closure. "We were sorry to hear that Radio Kontynent, a partner of the BBC for many years, has been taken off air," she said. "Many BBC listeners in Kyiv have been tuning into our programs through Radio Kontynent, and we are sad that they will now be deprived of this option." She said the BBC is making alternative arrangements for broadcasting on FM and will advertise in Ukrainian newspapers to tell listeners on which channels they can find BBC programs.
She said the BBC had been aware of Radio Kontynent's long-standing disputes with the government. "We're fully aware of the disputes in the background and the situation with Radio Kontynent, which we have widely reported in our news broadcasts, including interviewing the director yesterday to give his side of the story," she said. "And we have supported them all the way. But we can't comment on whether or not it's political."
Radio Kontynent station director Serhiy Sholokh called the closure illegal. He said his company has been in prolonged court proceedings over the license dispute and that those proceedings, in Ukraine and at the European Court of Human Rights, have not finished. Under Ukrainian law, says Sholokh, the authorities have no right to take action against his station until the court procedures were completed.
Lutsenko also says the action is illegal. "For three years, Radio Kontynent has been fighting attempts to cancel its broadcast license, and as long as court proceedings are still ongoing they should not have been touched," he said. "But the Ukrainian government treated this matter in more or less a reasonable way for three years until, on top of everything else, Radio Liberty started its broadcasts. They could not stand the fact that Radio Liberty was able to broadcast in Kyiv again."
Sholokh said he was summoned last week for a meeting with people connected to Kuchma's presidential administration and warned that his station would be shut down if he cooperated with Radio Liberty. "The first thing they told me was that if I put Radio Liberty on air, that would be the end for me and the end of the radio station," he said. "They proposed that I work with them but without publicizing the fact so that nobody else would know they promised that all my legal problems would end, all the proceedings against Radio Kontynent, and that I'd be like a fish in butter [well looked-after] -- that I'd have money and everything else."
Sholokh fled Ukraine before the 3 March raid on his offices. He says he fears for his life and will only return to Ukraine if Kuchma guarantees his safety.
Viktor Yushchenko is the head of the country's largest opposition bloc, Our Ukraine. Yushchenko says he has no doubt the closure of Radio Kontynent is politically motivated. "In the run-up to the presidential election, the authorities are seeking totalitarian influence on information sources -- that is why they resort to such blatant actions," he said.