Government prepares for elections: an offensive on all fronts
On September 17 the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine issued a directive assigning several ministries and central bodies of executive power to take informational explanatory measures regarding the fight against terrorism and calls to a violent overthrow of the government. On September 18 the Verkhovna Rada approved in its first reading amendments to the Criminal and Criminal Process codes stipulating criminal liability for libel, specifically deliberate dissemination of false information, which was withdrawn from the acts regarding criminal legislation in 2001. On the other hand, over the past week the decision regarding the bill “On Freedom of Peaceful Gatherings”, which was on the agenda for consideration, was postponed under the pressure of members of opposition parties and certain NGOs and as a result was not passed.
What do such legislative initiatives of the ruling power testify to?
To what extent are they associated with the upcoming parliamentary elections?
Libel as a crime
Journalists and civil activists began immediately voicing the danger of the legislative initiative of member of the Party of Regions Vitaliy Zhuravskiy this past July. The objective of attributing libel to criminal legislation with the appropriate tough forms of punishment in the basis of the bill was concise and glaringly obvious.
On the one hand, this was an attempt of members of the ruling party to scare independent journalists, not only by threatening a fine, but also imprisonment. On the other hand, there were hopes of cleansing the information field of articles criticizing the ruling authority that could have been a direct consequence of the accomplishment of the first task.
Legal experts working in the parliament also gave a negative assessment of the bill. The Central Expert Administration of the Verkhovna Rada deemed the criminalization of libel inexpedient given the low level of its danger to society and the international obligations of Ukraine, which it directly contradicts. However, the interests of the Party of Regions once again became the top priority among all possible interests.
Such interests are becoming more obvious in light of the approaching parliamentary elections. Even if the bill is not passed in the second reading in the foreseeable future, the possibility of this which is fully in the hands of members of the parliamentary majority will hang over the heads of representatives of the mass media like the sword of Damocles.
While the bill does not contain specific references to journalists, clearly the latter have the most reasons for concern as the legislative document poses a tangible threat to the popularity the current ruling authority. Moreover, given the full control of the ruling power over Ukrainian judges, the probability that the “new-old” articles of the Criminal Code will be applied to critical journalists will be quite high. Accordingly, the emergence of such a fear factor in the media environment leading up to the elections will play into the hands of the Party of Regions, meaning the tone of the media in disseminating information will become more loyal to the party.
All for the sake of victory
A very similar picture is being painted from two other legislative acts that were vehemently debated over the past week. Reopening of consideration of the bill “On the Freedom of Peaceful Demonstrations” passed in its first reading under a different heading and with certain distinct content on June 3 2009 incited an extremely ambiguous reaction among the people. Some pointed to its repressive norms that could put a spanner in the notion of people exercising their rights to peaceful demonstration, for example a ban on holding peaceful demonstrations in certain places, the indefinite conditions of restrictions of such gatherings, etc.
Representatives of a different party of civil society pointed to the progressive clauses in the bill to which they attributed the leniency of punishment for violating the procedure of organizing and holding peaceful demonstrations and the overall legislative order of this process.
Be that as it may, the fact that the Party of Regions decided to review this bill during the heat of the election campaign most certainly sends out an alarming signal. Such a coincidence has no explanation other than the desire of the ruling power to give itself access to additional legislative instruments to limit the rights of citizens to peaceful demonstrations that given the dirty nature of the election campaign could with a high degree of probability be manifested the day after the voting.
In this context detailed legislative regulation in this sphere could backfire against citizens as it will most likely be exploited to the benefit of the ruling top brass with the help of the judges and law enforcers under its control.
This was clearly the objective of the government’s aforementioned directive. Deliberate accentuation of the Cabinet on the need to counteract calls for subversion of constitutional order that the executive bodies of power must engage in a priori is clearly aimed at provoking its addressees to a tougher and more active fight against different manifestations of political dissension.
In the wake of the elections this could become a way of squeezing out certain candidates whose canvassing can be evaluated as a call to overtaking state power. What is quite telling is that the directive was addressed to the State Television and Radio Broadcasting Committee, which most likely has the task of coordinating the broadcasting of the denunciatory activity of the law enforcement bodies from the proper angle.
Accordingly, this initiative of the Cabinet of Ministers could become yet another element of unfair rivalry with political opponents that on the eve of the elections seriously activated the current leadership.
So, the activation of the lawmaking activity of members of the Party of Regions this past week can be very prosaically explained: gradual approach to voting day. Moreover, all three documents that were either adopted or are being debated have a certain fear factor and should be strictly controlled. The bill on criminalization of libel passed in the first reading will clearly affect journalists that are expected to be more loyal to the ruling party.
The bill “On Peaceful Demonstrations” could serve as an additional instrument of restricting the rights of citizens to peaceful demonstration if it is passed in its second reading.
The directive of the Cabinet of Ministers on the information war against terrorism and violent subversion of state order is primarily aimed at opposition candidates for seats in parliament who may pay the price for the disagreeable content of their canvassing. In short, the electoral battle is at risk of becoming more distorted in favor of the ruling power and the voting rights of citizens will become even more limited.