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Radio Station Yanks BBC Programming

The new owners of a Moscow radio station abruptly pulled the plug on the BBC Russian Service on Friday, raising new fears about media freedom. Finam, an investment company that acquired the BBC's host station, Bolshoye Radio, in early August, said the BBC's broadcasts had been removed because they violated the terms of the FM station's license. 

"According to the terms of the license, we cannot retransmit content," said Igor Yermachenko, a spokesman for Finam. He said the station would now start broadcasting original content. Andrei Ostalski, editor of the BBC Russian Service, disputed the claim. "All the documents we have in our possession say that 18 percent of the content aired can be produced by the BBC," he said by telephone from London. Ostalski said the BBC was appealing the decision to the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage, which deals with radio station licenses. The BBC said it only learned about the decision Friday afternoon.

Until last week, the BBC Russian Service had aired daily on Bolshoye Radio, at 99.6 FM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Sunday, the station played pop music in the slot that had previously belonged to the BBC. Reporters Without Borders condemned the development as censorship. 

"There is absolutely no justification, either political or technical, for this censorship," the media watchdog said in a statement. "Is Russia taking the lead from China or Zimbabwe, where the BBC is jammed? We hope a rapid solution will be found to this problem and that the BBC will soon be available on FM again."

Yermachenko denied that the removal of BBC content had political motivations, noting that Finam had also taken Voice of Russia, a state radio broadcaster, off Bolshoye Radio for the same reason. A woman who answered the telephone at Voice of Russia on Friday said she had not heard about the decision.

British-Russian relations are at their lowest point in years following Moscow's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, who British prosecutors have accused in the radioactive polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in November. The countries exchanged tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions last month. 

The British Embassy is supporting the BBC's efforts to get back on the air, an embassy spokesman said Friday. "We view the World Service as a very important information resource, and we're supporting them in everything they do and working with them to try to resolve the situation, " he said, speaking anonymously in accordance with embassy policy.

The BBC Russian Service has been taken off the FM airwaves in Russia twice before in the past year. In November, Moscow's Radio Arsenal stopped broadcasting BBC content due to what the BBC said were technical problems. In early 2007, St. Petersburg's Radio Leningrad also stopped airing BBC content. The station's representatives to the BBC said they had made the decision under pressure from regional regulatory bodies, the BBC said in a statement.

The BBC Russian Service is still available in medium and shortwave broadcasts, as well as on the Internet.

(The Moscow Times 20.viii.07)

 
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