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Proposed Media Bill is Threat to Freedom of Expression in Ukraine

WAN-IFRA, the World Association of News Publishers, urges broader consultation for Ukraine's proposed disinformation bill to avoid risks for freedom of expression.

Proposed Media Bill is Threat to Freedom of Expression in Ukraine
Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine Photograph: Адміністрація Президента України / CC 4.0

WAN-IFRA has written to Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, to express concern over a new bill before parliament that would criminalise the dissemination of misinformation and potentially target legitimate news sources.

The bill was unveiled by Culture Minister Volodymyr Borodyanskyi on 20 January 2020. The draft law could lead to broad state interference in media and journalism activities "at the expense of media freedom,” and may not be efficient to counter disinformation. It is ostensibly to help protect against Russian disinformation, which is a significant problem in Ukraine.

However, many local and international organisations have protested that it represents a significant threat to freedom of expression, and it was described by the Association of Independent Regional Publishers of Ukraine as “a clear step towards censorship instead of workable tools for countering the influence of Russian disinformation”

Key points, according to WAN-IFRA:

  • The definition of disinformation is unclear, which leaves journalists vulnerable to accusations of spreading disinformation.
  • It criminalises “the dissemination of disinformation” - the purposeful spread of disinformation could be punished by up to seven years in prison and hefty fines (up to $380,000). These two points could have a chilling effect, particularly on investigative journalism.
  • It foresees the nomination of a state commissioner – an ‘ombudsman for information’ who would decide what statements are false and dispute them in court.
  • It proposes the establishment of a single new state-sponsored journalistic association which journalists would have to join in order to be considered "professional" and be invited to government events etc. This is unconstitutional, according to Ukrainian NGO Detector Media.

Global relevance, according to WAN-IFRA:

Various countries have enacted or are considering similar legislation to control the flow of disinformation, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. Some notable examples include:

  • Singapore: passed a law to tackle ‘fake news’ in May 2019 that allows authorities to order the removal of content. Punishment includes jail terms of up to 10 years and significant fines. It was described by Poynter as one of the most ‘comprehensive’ anti-misinformation laws in the world. According to the Washington Post, Singaporean officials are using the coronavirus outbreak to justify the law and the sweeping power that it grants ministers to decide what constitutes a breach.
  • France: the ‘law against the manipulation of information’ was approved in November 2018. It targets the dissemination of ‘fake news’ particularly during election campaign periods, which are seen as the riskiest times. It was criticised by members of the French parliament, as well as by news publishers.
  • South Africa: in mid-March 2020 the government enacted new regulations criminalizing statements intended to deceive any person about COVID-19 or the government's response to the pandemic. According to CPJ, “passing laws that emphasize criminalizing disinformation over educating the public and encouraging fact-checking present a slippery slope and send the wrong message to other countries that may be less measured in drafting such laws.”
  • Hungary: at the end of March 2020, parliament passed measures aimed at tackling the coronavirus that include jail terms for spreading misinformation. According to Amnesty, classifying the spreading of false of distorted facts as a crime is “inconsistent with international human rights law and standards.”