Selective Morality and Other Means of Influence
A few days after sentence was passed on former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s MPs suddenly recalled the dire state of public morality and hurtled to the rescue. Reaction to the bill passed in its first reading on 18 October which propose amendments to the Public Morality Act was swift. Whereas condemnation of selective justice with the politically motivated prosecution of opposition figures was unequivocal mainly abroad, there seemed general consensus that the draft Morality Act amendments gave dangerous scope for selective “morality”. Even the National Broadcasting Council warned that it could lead to censorship.
The dangers are indeed real, with threats to freedom of speech in both the draft bill, and the Law on the Protection of Public Morality from 2004. The proposed changes would give more scope for restrictions, closure of websites, for example, and more power to officials of the morality brigade - the National Commission for the Protection of Public Morality. The essence of the problem, however, remains the same as in 2004. As well as the dubious need for such a law at all, the woolly nature of the terms used makes unclear, unforeseeable and dangerously open to subjective interpretation what precisely “harms public morality”. Clear warning of this was given in the original Council of Europe assessment by Professor Dirk Voorhoof: “Leaving the interpretation of the above provisions to the evaluation of the National Committee on the Protection of Public Morals does not offer the minimum degree of protection against arbitrariness required by the rule of law in a democratic society”
The vagueness has been retained in the draft law passed, only the scope for interpretation and powers increased. In fact, one other term has been added: “products demonstrating various forms of anti-social and criminal activities”. There is an unpleasant echo here from Soviet times when people served serious labour camp sentences for “anti-Soviet” behaviour. Now, as back then, the meaning and scope of the anti-social behaviour can be determined by those who want to use the law for their own purposes.
The present regime balks at no means for consolidating its power. That is what has now changed. And the knowledge that given the appropriate instructions from above, any draft law will receive the necessary number of votes. This is why the alarm over this law cannot be sounded too forcefully.
Yet for those very same reasons it would be dangerous to concentrate only on fighting this one law. In her commentary on the draft bill, MP from the ruling Party of the Regions, Olena Bondarenko said that “any law can be used for bad purposes”. We can assume she has her own sources of information, yet one would need to be blind not to see the highly specific use now rampant in the country of the Criminal Code, the tax inspectorate, traffic police, and, most worryingly, judges.
Why should the country’s leaders lay themselves open to accusations of direct censorship when they can rely on the police, the SBU [Security Service] or tax inspectorate to achieve the same results? When an inconvenient television channel can be removed from air as in Kharkiv due to “the lack of a sanitary hygiene passport”? Who even cares whether it has one or not, if the relevant bodies know how to “check” the outraged complaints over shenanigans from the channel? With regard to the Morality Act, the Verkhovna Rada may radically change the draft bill, or the President may decide to gain brownie points by upholding constitutional rights and veto the law. Obsequious television channels will provide the needed coverage and the actual methods of influence will in no way be diminished
There is another reason why concentration solely on fighting the “defenders of public morality” is dangerous. It is far from evident to a lot of people why the term is inconceivable without inverted commas. Many of us are whole-heartedly in favour of immediate closure of any website containing child pornography. It is no accident that the draft bill gained the support of various factions, not only those in the ruling majority. They know that religious bodies which enjoy much more public trust than politicians, law enforcement bodies or the courts, have untiringly called for the retention and extension of the powers of this same Commission.
There can surely be no better time to highlight and give maximum support to the vital initiative from the Ukrainian Internet community to set up a self-regulating body. It is equally important to establish constructive dialogue between various religious, media, human rights and other organizations.
Full consensus may be an unrealistic pipe dream, but the first steps need to be made. So that all sides understand that this is not a battle of morality vs. freedom, or respect for moral values vs. anarchy. Concise and understandable explanation is needed as to why this draft law and the current Morality Act in no way protect children, fight child pornography, xenophobia etc.
Real moral values do not depend on the political situation in the country. It is easy enough to demonstrate how the decisions of the National Morality Commission have changed in accordance with the views and interests of those in power. On 24 June 2009 the Commission issued a decision banning a Russian programme about Holodomor 1932-1933, finding in it “elements suggesting propaganda of ethnic and religious enmity”. On 31 March 2011, it considered a book with presumably similar content to that film. Its decision was to “take into account” the letter from the Academy of Sciences History Institute and “agree with” the view of the Kostyuk Psychology Institute. Here as in an ever-increasing number of cases the Commission prefers not to broadcast the way it arrives at its decisions (or what they are!), however the contrast with two years ago is marked. There are also a number of cases where they are clearly stalling on issuing opinions which could irritate those in power.
Such considerations presumably also prompted the morality police to stay silent for the last 18 months about more than noticeable “elements suggesting propaganda of ethnic enmity” in one article by Anatoly Mohylyov and several by Dmytro Tabachnyk? What was the thinking anyway when these two men were appointed Ministers of Internal Affairs and Education, respectively? And what was President Yanukovych thinking of last week when he appointed Mohylyov, author of a thoroughly libellous article inciting enmity towards the Crimean Tatar people, Prime Minister of the Crimea? Anything you like only not moral principles.
Selective application of any law is a direct threat to everyone. This includes, but is in no way confined, to the use of “morality” norms as a means of stifling freedom of speech. When those in power demonstrate total contempt for the rules of play, there cannot, by definition, be violations which don’t affect us or victims of lawlessness who can be ignored.