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13.08.2014

Sweeping power to crush freedom of speech for reasons of national security?

   

Ukrainian journalist unions have condemned a bill on sanctions, saying that national security concerns are being used to bring in censorship.  Their concerns have been echoed by Reporters without Borders and the OSCE Media Representative.

The draft law on sanctions is supposed to target companies and individuals that support separatists and terrorists, however media watchdogs believes that the powers to restrict the media and block websites are far too sweeping and likely to be abused.

Draft Law No. 4453a would make it possible, without a court ruling, for RNBO to:

ban or restrict the broadcasting of television or radio stations and / or the use of Ukrainian radio frequencies;

restrict or suspend media and other information sources, including on the Internet;

restrict or ban the production or circulation of printed matter or other information material;

restrict or suspend telecommunication services and the use of telecommunication networks. 

The sanctions would be imposed, or so the theory goes, in order to protect security and national interests, Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and its economic independence and prevent violation of the rights, freedoms and interests of Ukrainian citizens.  The RNBO’s decisions would come into force via a presidential decree.  

Oksana Romanyuk, director of the Institute for Mass Information considers the bill to be very dangerous.  The aim may be good, she writes, but the document would impose dictatorship, enabling the President or RNBO to restrict or ban any media in Ukraine.

The National Union of Journalists, the Independent Media Trade Union and the Commission on Journalist Ethics have issued a statement expressing outrage over the planned moves.  They say that the powers envisaged to restrict fundamental constitutional rights without a court order are in breach of Ukraine’s intenational obligations, the Ukrainian Constitution and are against the country’s move towards European integration.   They also point out that it does not fulfil the stated aim of the bill.  Instead of introducing sanctions which will restrict the activities and rights of foreign nationals and business of the aggressor state, the bill seeks to restrict the rights and freedoms of Ukrainians. 

This is perhaps the most galling point about a hopeless ill-considered bill.  There is indeed a problem.  It is no accident that as soon as Kremlin-backed militants have seized control of any city or town, they immediately organize the disconnection of Ukrainian TV channels and their replacement by Russian channels whose distortion and lies have actually made world headlines. 

Attempts to combat channels which are openly war-mongering and present a version of events that bears little or more often no relation to reality have often come in for criticism from the OSCE Media Representative.  Such criticism has often seemed divorced from the bitter reality of conditions of undeclared war.  It is interesting in this respect to note that the Baltic States, and in particular, Latvia have also taken measures against Russian TV channels in recent months.  Latvia’s measures were over warmongering, in particular with respect to the Russian channels’ coverage of the situation in Ukraine.

Instead of clearly presenting their reasons for proportionate measures to restrict uncontrolled broadcasting of lies and deliberate warmongering at a time of crisis, the cabinet of ministers has come up with a draft bill with grave implications for freedom of speech.  The expressions of outrage have been swift and blunt.  Let’s hope they’re heeded.

Halya Coynash

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