Russia halts BBC's FM broadcasts in Moscow

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The BBC’s Russian-language Service was taken off the FM frequency it had been using to broadcast to Moscow on Friday, the second such stoppage in nine months.

A BBC satellite dish in an undated file photo. The BBC's Russian-language Service was taken off the FM frequency it had been using to broadcast to Moscow on Friday, the second such stoppage in nine months. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The BBC said in a statement the Russian FM radio station that had been re-broadcasting its Russian Service programmes had been told by licensing authorities to stop or risk being taken off the air itself.

The move comes two months after a round of diplomatic expulsions brought relations between London and Moscow to their lowest point in years.

Almost all of Russia’s broadcast media is deferential in its coverage of the Kremlin. Critics of President Vladimir Putin say his officials have sidelined dissenting voices on radio and television, though he denies this.

BBC Russian Service programmes have since May been broadcast on Bolshoye Radio, which is owned by financial group Finam.

In a statement, the BBC said Finam had been told by the licensing authorities that Bolshoye Radio’s licence barred it from airing material supplied by third parties. The BBC said this was not true.

“We are extremely disappointed that listeners to Bolshoye Radio in Moscow will be unable to listen to our impartial and independent news programming,” said Richard Sambrook, director of BBC Global News.

He said the BBC will be appealing to the Russian licensing authorities. “We will ask for the decision to be reviewed and for the original concept of the station to be respected.”

Boris Boyarskov, head of Russia’s Federal Service for Mass Media Supervision, said the BBC’s local partner should re-submit its licence application for approval, or the BBC itself should apply for its own frequency.

“The BBC always has the possibility to return to the FM frequency,” Interfax news agency quoted Boyarskov as saying.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders condemned the move which it described as censorship.

“There is absolutely no justification, either political or technical, for this censorship,” the media rights group said. “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.”

The BBC Russian Service previously used another local radio station to broadcast on an FM frequency. That ended last November when BBC broadcasts were taken off the air due to unexplained “technical difficulties.”

Britain expelled four Russian diplomats in July in response to Russia’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect in the poisoning murder of London-based Russian emigre Alexander Litvinenko. Moscow hit back by ejecting four British diplomats.

Most listeners to the BBC’s Russian service tune in on the FM frequency. The BBC’s Russian service can still be heard on the Internet and on medium and short wave.