Ukraine’s Security Service plans laws to criminalize ‘propaganda’ & fight pro-Russian fifth column
Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] has set up a special page on Facebook where citizens can effectively denounce their fellow Ukrainians for lack of patriotism. This is all supposed to be part of civic involvement in drawing up amendments to legislation to ensure liability for those involvement in “hybrid warfare serving the Russian aggressor”. Media specialists and rights activists believe that Ukrainian legislation already provides such mechanisms, and that the SBU would be better carrying out its own work on protecting national security, rather than putting forward plans to impose unnecessary restrictions on freedom of speech.
The Head of the SBU, Vasyl Hrytsak, has come out with two statements over the last week or so. The first, on June 15, was a call to “all patriots to share responsibility for the future of Ukraine” and to fight the ‘fifth column’ which Russia began cultivating, he stresses, long before its open attack on Ukraine.
After assurances of the Security Service’s commitment to democratic values and true patriotism, Hrytsak goes on to speak of the alleged need to draw up legislation on criminal liability and the SBU’s willingness to take part in this. He says that their aim is “to provide a legal assessment in the Criminal Code of all forms and methods of hybrid warfare. <> In conditions of aggression, it is not only military statutes that are written in blood, but also laws for traitors and accomplices to the aggressor. That is the force of law”.
The force of law is in its precision and clarity, making it easy to foresee what actions make a person a traitor or accomplice. So far, there is none.
The media widely reported Hrytsak as proposing criminal liability for propaganda. Once again, what does this mean? When does the manipulative use of material and / or downright lies to create a negative view of the government, Ukraine’s ‘anti-terrorist operation’ (or war effort) in Donbas, or of the country’s right to exist become a criminal offence?
Hrytsak also calls for a covenant of “information unity drawn up with Ukrainian journalists for countering the enemy”. He calls Russian propaganda a weapon which Russia uses to try to destroy our faith in freedom of speech and democracy. The response, he says, should be “a boycott of all representatives of the fifth column of the Russian Federation in the Ukrainian information realm. They should become persona non-grata, with this, he explains, being “the force of public opinion”.
This sounds rather better, though the question also arises of what one does about those unwilling to make such a pact, or to observe it. Would they face ostracism or criminal liability?
A second statement on June 20 was somewhat mellower in its tone. Hrytsak is initiating “the creation of a public platform for joint transparent discussion on countering Russian information aggression”. He invites specialists, lawyers, journalists and civic activists to take part in “dialogue and cooperation on safeguarding Ukraine’s national security”.
This would, however, still result in the same: legislation on all forms and methods of hybrid warfare, and criminal liability for those individuals and legal entities “who knowingly take part in it, serving the interests of the Russian aggressor”.
“Each patriot of Ukraine can leave their proposals regarding the list of actions posing a threat to Ukraine’s national interests and demanding legal response on the Facebook page here or send them to [email protected].
After processing these proposals, Hrytsak says, and taking into account both SBU experience and “leading law practice of EU countries and the USA on countering hybrid warfare”, the SBU will initiate public discussion on the proposed amendments to legislation.
Olha Chervakova, Deputy Chair of the parliamentary committee on freedom of speech, told Radio Svoboda that she believes a draft law with amendments to legislation on information security is needed, as are any efforts on countering Russian aggression. She has no problem with the involvement in this of the SBU, since it is they who can provide information about people who pose an immediate danger. She does, however, think that a working group must be drawn up.
Dmytro Zolotukhin, Deputy Minister of Information Policy, says that most prosecutions for public calls on the social network VKontakte to overthrow the constitutional order have resulted in suspended sentences. He notes that law enforcement bodies have “a certain deficit of norms which can be applied, however for a democratic country that is absolutely normal. It is abnormal that we are building a democratic state in conditions of effective war”.
Tetyana Popova, a media lawyer, believes that the first statement from the SBU “startled international journalist organizations” and that the second has made a move towards meeting civic concerns. Whether that is at declaration, or comes to something, remains to be seen. She does not believe that anybody, including the SBU, should interfere with freedom of speech.
The Director of the Institute for Mass Information is even more blunt. Oksana Romanyuk sees no need for such a move since there are sufficient laws in the information sphere.
“I think that the SBU should spend a bit more time on its own tasks and not encroach upon regulation of the flow of information”. She believes that the situation in Ukraine both with legislation, and with self-regulating bodies is OK as it is. Her position was shared by Mykhailo Chaplyha from the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson.
Although the first question must relate to how genuine the calls for public debate are, this is an emotive subject on which views are very strongly divided, as was seen over the recent blocking of Russian-based social media. The SBU’s recent history in this field and especially its most prominent prosecution, that of Ruslan Kotsaba, have not inspired confidence. While Kotsaba’s views and his willingness to spread a highly distorted picture on Russian media are repugnant to most of us, the SBU’s continuing attempt to call this treason aroused concern in Ukraine and prompted Amnesty International to declare Kotsaba a prisoner of conscience.
Perhaps the above-mentioned deficit of norms is partly to blame for obviously flawed prosecutions like that of Kotsaba. For the moment, statements full of emotive rhetoric and short on specifics and legal clarity do not necessarily inspire confidence.