KYIV -- The supervisory board of Ukraine's public broadcaster has fired the operator's director without explanation in a closed-door decision just two months before a potentially divisive presidential election.
The timing of the National Public Broadcasting Company decision to dismiss Zurab Alasania -- after an unscheduled vote two years before his contract was due to expire -- has raised fears of political interference as the field of President Petro Poroshenko's likely challengers swells to around two dozen.
Alasania said the move was "not unexpected" but called it "imprudent."
He vowed to appeal the decision in court.
Alasania has been described as a "maverick" for his outspokenness and fiercely independent management style. Alasania previously came under pressure over programs that investigated possible corruption and suspect dealings by top Ukrainian officials and oligarchs, including Poroshenko.
Commenting on Facebook after the vote, Alasania said, "The authorities' allergy to [the National Public Broadcasting Company, known as UA:Pershy] has reached the stage of intoxication."
Alasania said he was given no specific reason for his dismissal but that UA:Pershiy would provide an explanation in five days' time.
Svitlana Ostapa, a deputy head of the broadcaster's board, wrote on Facebook that nine board members had voted to fire Alasania while three voted against.
In comments to the Kyiv Post, Ostapa, who said she opposed Alasania's dismissal, said the move was not linked to censorship but conceded that his successor could be someone less independent.
Dozens of independent Ukrainian journalists, including some whose programs air on UA:Pershiy, banded together under the name "Initiative 34" to object to the move.
Initiative 34 is a reference to Article 34 of the Ukrainian Constitution, which guarantees the rights to freedom of thought, speech, and expression, published an open letter to the public broadcaster's board on February 1.
"We, the undersigned, consider the actions of the Supervisory Board of [UA:Pershiy] a direct manifestation of censorship and an extremely dangerous precedent for the country," began the group's open letter, which was shared on Facebook by former Hromadske TV CEO Katya Gorchinskaya.
It goes on to say that while many of the details surrounding Alasania's dismissal remain unclear, the public information so far "leave[s] no doubt that this decision is political and was approved by the authorities."
The group demanded that Alasania's dismissal be overturned immediately.
Alasania criticized the timing of the move but suggested he'd seen it coming. "They've tried [to fire me] for a long time, but they did it in such an in-your-face manner before the election," he said, "and this is imprudent."
He accused the board of violating procedures and said the issue of his dismissal had not been included beforehand on the meeting's agenda.
Alasania was appointed director of the state-funded broadcaster in 2014, before it was rebranded in 2015 as UA:Pershy. The channel was previously known as Pershiy Natsionalniy, or First National.
With Alasania at the helm, UA:Pershiy, which reaches 93 percent of Ukrainian households, was said to have set out to reinvent itself as a Ukrainian version of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) -- a public broadcaster independent from the government.
Tetyana Popova, a former Information Ministry official who quit in 2016 to protest perceived government inaction following attacks on journalists, told RFE/RL that Alasania was fighting an uphill battle from the start.
Popova, who now heads the media communication working group at the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, called Alasania's firing a big step back "for freedom of speech and the public broadcaster" that appeared to be "political."
"It's about elections and politics and anticorruption programming," Popova said.
She pointed to investigative programs Our Money (Nashi Groshi) and Schemes (Skhemy), an RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service project, both of which aired on UA:Pershiy and were often critical of Poroshenko or members of his government.
In November, Schemes aired a program revealing secret meetings between Poroshenko and Viktor Medvedchuk, a shadowy Ukrainian political operative with close personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, raising questions of backdoor deals.
A January 2018 Schemes program that exposed a $500,000 New Year's vacation by Poroshenko to the Maldives, in particular, caused a public uproar that forced the president's team to conduct damage control.
Poroshenko was one of Ukraine's richest businessmen -- with an empire that spanned the confectionery, agriculture, and car industries -- as well as being a lawmaker and foreign minister before he emerged to replace ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, with the country battling Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
He announced his reelection bid on January 29.
Dmytro Gnap, a former journalist whose Slidstvo.info investigative program aired weekly on UA:Pershiy and who is now running for president, said on Facebook that he believed Alasania's firing was political and he suggested Poroshenko's government had grown tired of the unfavorable coverage.
"This is undoubtedly the introduction of censorship ahead of the election," he wrote.
In July, a popular morning program called Good Morning, Country was shuttered after it aired an interview with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whom polls suggest is among Poroshenko's strongest competitors in the March 31 vote.
The morning show's host at the time, Tetiana Terekhova, accused the channel of censorship, while UA:Pershiy said she had violated their standards.