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In the Fight Against Russia, Ukraine Flirts with Kremlinesque Internet Censorship

A new Ukrainian law might allow the government to shut down media and block websites without a court order. Images mixed by author.

A new Ukrainian law was supposed to allow the government to shut down media and block websites without a court order. Images mixed by author.

A new draft law in Ukraine threatened to empower the government to shut down media outlets and block websites in the name of national security. The law, which passed its first reading in parliament yesterday, has exasperated local journalists, civil society figures, and the international community. The outrage grew so loud that today deputies agreed to remove and soften most of the censorship measures, but proposed moving some of them to existing media laws to achieve some measure of control over dissenting media outlets.

Russia's relentless campaign to restrict media freedom and introduce extensive controls on the Internet is well publicized, but it looks like Ukraine will soon be catching up. The Ukrainian government, which has endured Russia's domination of the media landscape in the east, intended to use the new law “On Sanctions” to crack down on rogue news outlets and websites that supposedly undermine national defense efforts.

The law (in its initial form) gave the president and the National Security and Defense Council extraordinary powers to protect Ukraine’s interests and security. Under the law, authorities would be allowed to block or shut down any television or radio station, or any website, without a court order. Any kind of media or business activity, including Internet activity, would be vulnerable to restrictions or termination. The law would permit the state to sanction both organizations and individuals, domestic or foreign.

Responding to the parliament's approval of the law's first reading, journalists were among the first to express their outrage and shock. Hromadske TV reporter Nastya Stanko immediately drew a comparison with former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych:

Law 4553a [sic]. Even Yanukovych hadn't managed to pull stuff like this.

Ian Bateson, a newly minted journalist of the Ukrainian English-language outlet KyivPost, was one of many who saw eery parallels with what Russia has been doing to its own media:

International press freedom organizations have called the draft law “draconian” and a “major setback for freedom of information in Ukraine,” and local media activists have echoed these criticisms. Ukrainian journalist unions have condemned the initiative, accusing the government of exploiting concerns about national security, in order to introduce censorship. Oksana Romanyuk, director of the Institute of Mass Information, argued the law was well-intentioned, but could have dangerous consequences:

У ВР щойно прийняли у першому читанні відверто сирий законопроект 4453а – стосовно санкцій. Мета благородна, давно пора була, так? АЛЕ, прикриваючись цією метою нам навязують ту ж саму януковську диктатуру – згідно цього законопроекту, президент або РНБО можуть просто своїм рішенням обмежити або заборонити діяльність будь-якого ЗМІ в Україні. Ось так, без рішення суду, без визначення якихось рамок чи чітких категорій.

The Parliament has just passed in first reading a frankly unfinished draft of bill 4453a—regarding the sanctions. The aim seems noble, [they] should have done this sooner, right? BUT, by hiding behind this aim, they are imposing on us a Yanukovych-style dictatorship—according to the law, the President or NSDC can just decide to limit the activity of any media in Ukraine. Just like that—no court order, no defined limits or clear categories.

Others complained that the sanctions, which are ostensibly aimed at silencing hostile voices based outside Ukraine, instead limited the rights and freedoms of Ukraine's own citizens. Viktoria Syumar, former deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, said the law grants excessive powers and would make Ukraine more like Russia:

Это приведет, к сожалению, к плохим последствиям. Если принять формулу, что мы любого, кто посмеет критиковать власть, будем закрывать, простите, нас это приведет в Россию.

This will, unfortunately, lead to bad consequences. If we accept the formula that we can shut down anyone who dares to criticize the authorities, I'm sorry, but that will lead us into Russia.

Syumar conceded that officials would be unlikely to enforce the law widely, if it is eventually adopted. Authorities would probably impose the new regulations selectively, flaunting targeted cases to scare the larger public.

Принятие такой нормы совершенно не означает ее использование, но означает вполне конкретный намек собственникам СМИ в случае их неподдержки государственной линии в тяжелый для страны период.

Adopting such a norm does not necessarily mean it will be used, but it does mean quite a heavy hint to mass media owners about what might happen to them if they choose not to support the state line during a difficult period for the country.

Ukraine has struggled, to put it mildly, in the information war against Russia, leaving little mystery about Kyiv's motivation for boosting control over the country's media outlets and opinion-makers. Does this excuse the country's apparent decision to duplicate Russia's crackdown on Internet and media freedom? Blacklisting media websites, blocking critical bloggers and whistleblower accounts on the grounds of “extremism,” and closing independent TV shows—all of this is old news in Russia. It might be coming to Ukraine, soon.

Ukraine, for its part, boasts a far more vibrant civil society than Russia, with many of the activists still raw and angry after the Euromaidan protests and the slow-moving anti-corruption investigations that followed.

Ukraine's new draft law brought to mind the ill-advised anti-protest law that Yanukovych and his parliament adopted in January 2014, which also mimicked oppressive legal restrictions and regulations devised in Russia. Officials rolled back the anti-protest law less than two weeks after passing it, but the political damage to the Yanukovych regime proved irreparable. 

Evidently in quick reaction to the indignation of media and civil society, parliamentary deputy Mykola Tomenko, head of the parliament's committee on freedom of speech, told the press this morning that they were working to exclude the media censorship norms from the draft law. Recognizing the measures as undemocratic, the committee instead proposed to amend the existing dedicated media laws to allow for sanctions against newsrooms propagating separatism and terrorism.

Amendments to those laws would still simplify imposing bans or limiting media activity. For TV channels, the National Security and Defense Council would consider the case for three days, then block the broadcaster temporarily while they took the case to court. The court would then also take up to three days to make a decision about the final ban. For press, a similar process would apply, but the State Committee on TV and Radio or the Justice Ministry would take offenders to court.

Later this morning Ukrainian parliament voted to adopt the national security law that has lost some its teeth. But although these amendments seem like improvements, the slightly less offending parts have been reshuffled to other laws, and they are still aimed at making it easier to shut down media outlets with inconvenient agendas.

With Ukraine in turmoil and many Ukrainians skeptical of the new government's ability to act on its promises of transparency and democratic governance, the government will face increasing scrutiny any time it tries to push through restrictive Internet and media regulations. The authorities in Kyiv are caught trying to appease Western demands for greater media freedom, while simultaneously resisting Russia's onslaught in the east and on the airwaves.

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