Mr. President, several weeks ago, I addressed the Senate, in my capacity as Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, on critical Presidential elections scheduled to be held later this year in Ukraine. In the latest twist in the lead up to those elections, yesterday Radio Liberty was abruptly informed that its Ukrainian Service programming would be removed from its major radio broadcaster’s FM schedule, beginning February 17. In a press release, RFE/RL President Tom Dine said, “This is a political act against liberal democracy, against free speech and press, against RFE/RL, and shows, once again, that Ukraine’s political leadership is unable to live in an open society and is compelled to ‘control’ the media as if it were the good old days of the Soviet Union.”
This is not the first time that there has been official Ukrainian pressure to drop RFE/RL broadcasting since September 2001, shortly after the murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and the release of secretly-recorded tapes in Ukrainian President Kuchma’s office implicating him and other high-ranking officials in the disappearance, corruption, and other dubious actions. Radio Liberty covers these and many issues about life in Ukraine, serving as an objective source of information in a media environment increasingly dominated by these authorities.
In the past I have spoken out about Ukraine’s troubled pre-election environment, including its media environment. This latest move, together with repressive measures against the democratic opposition and independent media over the course of the last few months, raise profound questions as to whether the October presidential elections will be free, fair, open, and transparent, in a manner consistent with Ukraine’s freely undertaken OSCE and other international commitments. Effectively unplugging an important independent source of information does not bode well for democracy in Ukraine.