International Media Rights Organizations express concern over Public Morality Bill
European Journalists Warn of Threat to Press Freedom in Ukraine ahead of Key Debate on Protection of ‘Public Morals Bill
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has joined its European group, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) in urging the Ukrainian Parliament to strike out the bill on the protection of "public morals" which represents a serious threat to press freedom.
The Ukrainian Parliament is poised to debate a bill on the protection of public morals which journalists fear will allow the authorities to intimidate journalists under the cloak of protecting morality. The bill gives that the National Commission of Ukraine for Protection of Public Morals the power to shut down, without a court order, any media outlet it deems to have violated public morals.
"This draft law is a way to muzzle or to push journalists to self-censorship, " said EFJ President Arne König. "The Ukrainian authorities refer to values imposed unilaterally on media in order to control the content and to threaten journalists with disproportionate measures. The EFJ is extremely worried over this law proposal that might lead to the same situation as in Hungary, where also a governmental body from unclear criteria can impose severe punishment on the media."
The Ukrainian Parliament is due to debate in the second reading the draft law on "Protection of Public Morals. The bill was passed in the first reading on 14 October when the Parliament adopted a draft text proposing the creation of a single and powerful regulatory body, the National Commission of Ukraine for Protection of Public Morals, which will have powers to close any printed or electronic mass media on the grounds of the yet undefined "public morals".
Ukrainian media and journalists union are opposed to this text, saying it contains serious flaws such as the unclear definition of "public morals", the disproportionate powers to close down media outlets as well as the unclear legal procedure foreseen by the draft law. Under the bill, printed media may be closed, electronic media can lose their license and access to websites may be cut for alleged promotion of "war, terrorism, other manifestations of criminal activity", "ukrainophobia", "humiliation or offence to the nation or personality on national grounds" or "disrespect for national and religious shrines".
Moreover, this new supervisory body will have powers to take measures against media without proper judicial supervision or any preliminary assessment of these "morals".
The IFJ warns that the draft law puts press freedom in jeopardy as the discourse of public interest issues in media will be stifled out of fear of breaching ‘ public morals and the swift sanctions of the Commission. The Federation supports the EFJ criticism that arbitrary powers given to political supervisory bodies represent a serious threat to free press. The EFJ says that several countries of the CIS, but also recently Hungary in the EU, have resorted to control of media which they attempt to disguise as the protection of "morals" or "national values".
"This draft legislation leaves press freedom in the balance and suggests that Ukrainian authorities are pursuing less than high minded intentions of gagging media, " added Jim Boumelha, IFJ President. "We urge Parliament to strike this bill out and work with the media in exposing prejudice and hatred. Journalists should be left to police their profession through self -regulation and existing civil laws can address any press offences."
Reporters Without Borders
Appeal to parliament about dangers of “Public Decency” Bill
Dear Members of Parliament,
Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that defends freedom of information, would like to share with you its concern about Bill No. 7132 proposing amendments to the Protection of Public Decency Law.
This bill, which you approved on first reading on 18 October, aims to ban pornography and the use of words or images of an “obscene, vulgar and brutal” nature in the print and broadcast media and on the Internet. It also aims to penalize extremist and offensive content and the defence of violence. While we understand your goals, we are extremely concerned about the methods being used to achieve them. We think that the very vague definition of banned content, the possibility of blocking websites without a court order and the failure to take account of the public’s right to information pose a great danger to freedom of information in Ukraine.
This bill’s defence of “public decency” covers a very wide range of subjects, including not only pornography but also defence of fascism, appeals for war, “Ukrainophobia, ” humiliation of handicapped persons and promotion of cigarette smoking. The response is nonetheless the same for all these “crimes.” The lack of clear definition leaves a disturbing degree of room for varying interpretations. Who will decide what “promoting (...) terrorism and other forms of criminal activity” covers? There have unfortunately been many examples in neighbouring countries of this kind of provision being used to crack down on every form of criticism. Our concern is increased by the fact that the bill applies to a very wide range of media.
By default, the National Commission for Protecting Public Decency is granted excessive powers. There is no provision for supervising the committee and no mechanism for appealing against its decisions. It alone has the power to determine the degree to which any content comes under a banned category. It will be able to require Internet Service Providers to “restrict free access” to content deemed to be indecent within 24 hours and without need for a court order. Since not only content creators but also editors and hosting companies could be held responsible, overblocking will be likely, threatening the free flow of information.
Ukrainian NGOs that defend the media are worried that acts of provocation, such as the posting of hate comments, could be deliberately used to get critical websites closed down. We share their concern. As in very closed countries, Internet Service Providers will be reduced to playing the role of “Internet policemen” without any autonomy. Whenever required, they will moreover be forced to immediately hand over a user’s private data to the police in order to “prevent” banned content from circulating online.
We regret that this bill does not weigh the legitimate need to combat terrorism and pornography against the public’s right to information about subjects of general interest. This principle nonetheless lies at the heart of all the rulings that have been handed down by the European Court of Human Rights. The United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recently recognized in a joint report that this principle also applies to the Internet.
The news is unfortunately often dominated by violence or by disgraceful statements. Will these news events be censored because they fall within the definitions of the Protection of Public Decency Law? As international practice has often shown, there is a great danger that the bearers of bad news will be confused with those who were responsible for them. Journalists and bloggers are not responsible for the events they have a duty to report.
We are of the view that, if implemented as its stands, this proposed law would violate article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which have been ratified by your country. We therefore think there it would redound to your credit it you were to reject this bill on second reading.
I thank you for the attention you give to this letter.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general