It would be great to live in Ukraine without having to maintain eternal vigilance against attacks on basic liberties and freedoms. But that is simply not possible, especially with President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions in charge.
The sad spectacle of the libel law that lawmakers tried to enact is the latest attempt by a budding authoritarian regime to roll back democracy. To borrow one of the president’s favorite phrases, “it is no accident” that 244 members, or 54 percent, of parliament on Sept. 18 voted for a law that could imprison journalists and other citizens for insulting the dignity and honor of an individual.
With the courts and prosecutors used as political tools by the administration to attack rivals and critics, there is no doubt that such a libel law would be used to threaten any news organization that dared to investigate corruption or criticize officials or powerful businesspeople. It would keep media and regular citizens in a constant state of fear over saying or writing the wrong thing.
But Ukrainian journalists and others showed they will not let free speech die without a fight. News organizations coordinated their response with meetings, black website banners and white front pages, including today’s edition of the Kyiv Post. Journalists rang the alarm bells with the "white & black" protest. The website banner urged citizens to "Stand up for your right to know. Say no to the libel law." Fortunately, Yanukovych was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly this week. He listened and responded correctly.
Yanukovych sent word to pro-presidential lawmaker Vitaliy Zhuravsky, the author of the libel law, to withdraw the legislation. “It was no accident that Zhuravsky decided so, as he heard my opinion and the opinions of his party colleagues … parliamentarians must have not understood the documents when they voted for them,” Yanukovych told journalists in New York on Sept. 25.
At best, the claim that lawmakers from the Party of Regions, Communist Party and Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn’s bloc simply didn’t know what they were voting for is somewhat dubious. If true, it’s because of parliament’s habitual flouting of the law that requires lawmakers to vote in person, rather than have colleagues cast ballots for them, allowing laws to be rammed through without public disclosure or debate.
But there’s no reason to relax just yet. The resolution to kill the law still hasn't been passed by parliament. Thus, a protest will be held on Monday, Oct. 1 at 10 a.m. on 18/2 Hrushevskoho St., across the street from the Verkhovna Rada.Even in backing down Zhuravsky showed contempt for democracy and free speech. “I continue to adhere to the same political opinions and beliefs: the necessity to strengthen the responsibility for an attack on the honor and dignity of every person, not only politicians, is long overdue in a society,” he said. In other words, he’s not sorry and will try to reintroduce similar legislation after the Oct. 28 parliamentary election, when criticism no longer matters.
“Ukraine should stick to European standards in all spheres,” Yanukovych also said in New York. If he believes what he says, he will have a lot of work to do upon returning from the United States, and not only in the area of free speech.