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US Officials Concerned Over Ukrainian Limits on Independent Media - 2004-03-04

The United States is expressing concern about what it says are efforts by Ukrainian authorities to limit public access to independent news and information. The statement followed the shutdown Wednesday of a Kiev radio station that had said it would begin carrying U.S.-funded Radio Liberty broadcasts.

The State Department says it has "grave concern" about the closure of Radio Kontynent in Kiev, which it termed an "assault on democracy", one that is especially serious in an election year in Ukraine when the need for news from many sources is at its greatest.

The independent broadcaster was taken off the air Wednesday, with police seizing its transmitter. Government officials said it had not been authorized to broadcast in the widely used FM band.

The action by Ukrainian authorities followed an announcement by Radio Kontynent that it would begin carrying Radio Liberty programs. The station, which has supported opposition parties in Ukraine, has also rebroadcast programs of other Western stations including VOA, the BBC and Deutsche Welle.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is calling on Ukrainian leaders to act immediately to put Radio Kontynent back on the air and to refrain from erecting further obstacles to the rebroadcast of international radios.

"Ukrainian authorities must cease their ongoing campaign against independent media, which directly contradicts Ukraine's stated desire to democratize and move closer to Euro-Atlantic institutions," he said.

Mr. Boucher said the closure of Radio Kontynent came several weeks after Radio Liberty's previous carrier in Ukraine, Radio Dovira, cancelled its contract with the U.S.-funded station after its chief was replaced by a supporter of President Leonid Kuchma.

The director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Thomas Dine, condemned the closure of Radio Kontynent as a "blatant act" of suppression of factual news and information.

The Kuchma administration has come under frequent criticism from Western governments, human rights groups and journalists, who accuse it of muzzling the news media. Critics have accused it of stepping up those efforts with the approach of the October presidential election.

Mr. Kuchma has said he will not seek a third five-year term in office, but is expected to back the candidacy of a close political ally, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, against opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.