On 31st January 2019, during a regular board meeting at Ukraine’s public broadcaster – National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (UA:PBC) – Director Zurab Alasania was removed from his post.

The decision, passed with nine votes in favour and three against, comes just two months before the country’s presidential elections, which have the potential to be highly divisive.

The motives for his firing are not yet clear and the decision was taken despite a number of procedural violations, namely the issue of discussing his position not being featured in the approved agenda of the meeting.

Alasania said the move was not ‘unexpected’ but that he would appeal the decision in court. “They’ve tried [to fire me] for a long time, but they did it in such an in-your-face manner before the election and this is imprudent,” he said.

Alasania was appointed as the director of Ukraine’s public broadcaster in 2014 and his contract was valid until 2021. He was criticised for UA:PBC’s low rating and the overall lack of the broadcaster’s influence and strategy.

Ukraine’s public broadcaster was already suffering from a series of funding issues and lack of government support. In October last year, the government had in fact planned to cut funding for the public broadcaster by 43% over the following year. This influenced the Council of Europe to begin work on a report exploring alternative financing models for UA:PBC in order to strengthen media freedom and access to information in Ukraine.

Additionally, Alasania had reportedly been outspoken about the government and under his leadership UA:PBC aired investigative programmes such as ‘Our Money’ (Nashi Groshi), which investigated alleged corruption by Ukrainian officials, including President Petro Poroshenko.

Alasania’s sudden firing has prompted concerns among local and international press organisations and professionals as an indicator of censorship and a violation of freedom of expression.

“It’s about elections and politics and anticorruption programming,” said Tetyana Popova to RFERL. Popova was a former Information Ministry official and is now heading the media communication working group at the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine.

Independent Ukrainian journalists gathered together under the name “Initiative 34” to object the decision and, more widely, to protect freedom of speech.

Deputy head of UA:PBC, Svitlana Ostapa, said she opposed Alasania’s dismissal. Even though she denied links to censorship, she admitted that his successor might be someone less outspoken and independent.

The public broadcaster is expected to provide an explanation within a week after the board meeting, as the minutes should be published on the broadcaster’s website. PMA will continue to monitor and report on the developments whenever available.