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Ukraine: Protesting the Controversial Defamation Bill

A draft law [uk] that calls for penalties of up to five years in jail for defamation passed a first reading in the Ukrainian Parliament on Sep. 18, with 244 MPs from the ruling Party of Regions and their allies voting in its favor.

Ukrainian citizens and media outlets launched an online campaign against the adoption of the bill, forcing its author, MP Vitaly Zhuravsky, to submit a request to recall the law on Sep. 25 [uk].

Below are excerpts from the July 31 Reporters Without Borders’ appeal to the Ukrainian Parliament regarding plans to “recriminalize defamation” in Ukraine:

[...] It is more than 10 years since the Ukrainian Parliament decriminalized defamation. When it adopted its new criminal code in January 2001, Ukraine took an encouraging first step towards greater protection for freedom of expression, which is indispensible for democratic debate.

Draft law 11013, presented by Vitaly Zhuravskiy, a member of the Party of Regions, and aiming to recriminalize defamation, is a dangerous backward step. We believe its adoption would be a serious blow to freedom of the press.

[...]

The lack of clarity surrounding the definition of defamation, which the bill describes as “disseminating false information, insulting the honour and dignity of a person or damaging his or her reputation”, arouses fears of abuse resulting from varying interpretations.

Criminal proceedings could be taken against journalists for publishing articles on the activities of politicians or influential businessmen. Where journalists face imprisonment for publishing investigative stories, this puts the very operation of an independent media under threat.

[...]

Mr. Zhuravskiy says he took his inspiration for drafting the bill from neighbouring Russia, which approved a law on 13 July recriminalizing defamation. We should like to remind members of Parliament that this was condemned by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and that it seriously damaged that country’s international reputation.

Reporters Without Borders urges you to abandon this bill, which appears to us to be repressive, punitive and counter-productive. [...]

And here is an explanation of why the bill should not be adopted, published [uk] in the “Say ‘No’ to Defamation Law” Facebook group (7,334 members):

[...] Ukrainian journalists believe that this law would be used selectively against those who are publishing critical stories targeting the regime. It would eliminate the freedom of speech in Ukraine, as many journalists would be forced to stop criticizing the regime in any way that might later be deemed defamatory.

This law concerns not only the journalists but all citizens – because any public statement or commentary published in the mass media might be counted as defamation if a court rules it damaging to a person's honor and dignity. Taking into account the state of the judicial system in Ukraine, this law presents a significant threat to the civil society as a whole. Say no to the defamation law!

On Sep. 25, many Ukrainian news websites placed this banner in order to draw attention to the defamation bill and the ongoing protest against it:

“Defend your right to know. Say ‘no’ to the defamation law.”

The banner linked [ru, uk] to a page with work email addresses and phone numbers [uk] of the MPs who had voted in favor of the defamation law; netizens were urged to contact these MPs and ask them to explain their decision to vote for the adoption of the controversial bill.

On Facebook, journalist Mustafa Nayyem wrote this [ru] about the effect that the “banner protest” had on the Ukrainian lawmakers – and made a mock proposal on how to keep them within legal boundaries in the future:

[MP] Vitaly Zhuravsky recalled the defamation bill after the very first day of the banner protest… Listen, maybe next time we shouldn't waste our time on trifles – let's make a truly large banner and put the texts of the Constitution, the Ten Commandments and the Convention on Human Rights on it?

It appears that the defamation bill isn't history yet, however.

Natalka Zubar, executive editor of Maidan.org.ua, wrote this [en] in the “Say ‘No’ to Defamation Law” Facebook group:

According to Ukrainian law bills cannot be recalled by the author. Parliament should vote to reject the bill.

Facebook user Yuriy Loginov added [en]:

lets hope Rada votes to reject the bill… it is interesting that the recall came right before [President Victor Yanukovych] visit to the US, it seems that the current administration is just trying to score points with the US

In response to “numerous messages” that were sent to politicians as part of the “banner protest,” Oleksiy Kunchenko, one of the Party of Regions’ MPs, quoted the defamation bill's author on his Facebook page [ru]; among other things, MP Zhuravsky mentioned the upcoming parliamentary vote as the reason to reverse his position:

[...] “Having considered [the current situation] and acting in the interest of the state, I have decided to recall my draft law. I understand that on the eve of the [Oct. 28 parliamentary election] any initiative is perceived with suspicion and distrust” [...].

Serhiy Petrov, member of the Board at Wikimedia Ukraine, wrote this [uk] in the “Say ‘No’ to Defamation Law” Facebook group:

The defamation law “will definitely be adopted after the election.” This is yet another confirmation that the [protest] action has to go on until the Parliament has rejected this draft law.

If they try to push it through once again, alarms should be sounded right away and banners should return. One option is to announce a blackout before and on the day of the vote. Of course, this would mean the loss of money [for the media], but it looks like there's no other way out… By the way, [...] various language segments of Wikipedia resorted to such measures on three occasions…

And so the protest against the defamation bill continues.

A rally is scheduled to take place in Kyiv on Monday, Oct. 1, at 10 AM. The newest rendition of the black-and-white banner that many Ukrainian websites are carrying now (e.g., here and here) urges citizens to gather in front of the Parliament with white (blank) posters, to “defend their right to know”:

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