Ukraine: Defamation Law Won’t Pass Without an Uproar

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s parliament approved on first reading legislation which would criminalize defamation.  The bill, which was introduced by Regions Party member Vitaliy Zhuravsky in July and revised in September, represents the latest divot in Ukraine’s bumpy road to press freedom. The bill goes against the international trend of making libel a civil rather than criminal case.

Under the bill, defamation would be returned to the national criminal code and would be punishable by fine, correctional labor, or restraint of freedom for up to two years. Additionally, members of the media, investigators, prosecutors and judges could be suspended for 1-3 years, the Kiev Post reports.

According to Igor Rozkladaj of Kiev’s Media Law Institute, the proposed law is almost identical to a law passed in Russia this year. And it’s a “copy-and-paste” of legal provisions on slander and insult Ukraine had on the books until 2001.

Reporters without Borders released an official statement Wednesday to the same effect, condemning the parliamentary vote.

"Such a return to the past would have a major impact on freedom of information in Ukraine,” it says. “Journalists already have to confront many dangers…inside news organizations. Now they would have to fear judicial harassment as well. The resulting intimidatory effect would threaten the very existence of independent journalism."

Since 2010, Ukraine’s press freedom has been increasingly threatened. The Washington-based NGO Freedom House rates developing countries on their progress toward democracy and gave Ukraine a declining media score in its 2011 report. Contributing factors included a pro-government bias in its coverage of politically sensitive topics and evident self-censorship.

Furthermore, “media watchdogs warned of physical attacks against journalists, and digital broadcasting frequencies were distributed in a way that favored media owners with government connections,” Freedom House reported.

The European Federation of Journalists also censured Ukraine’s media restrictions, responding in particular to a bill which proposed a government council for the “protection of public morals,” in 2011.

“The Ukrainian authorities refer to values imposed unilaterally on media in order to control the content and to threaten journalists with disproportionate measures,” said EFJ president Arne Honig in a 2011 press report.

The public morals bill, originally proposed in October, 2011, is still under debate. But according to parliamentary statute, the defamation bill could pass in as early as two weeks. It must first undergo two further (concurrent) readings and must then be signed into law by President Viktor Yanukovich. It would take effect on December 1, 2012.

Igor Rozkladaj says the law presents the gravest danger to those journalists who report on corruption, “especially those who work in small towns. It could also strongly influence bloggers and NGOs who [engage in] anti-corruption activity,” he says.