Ukrainian opposition parties sounded the alarm on Wednesday over a move by President Viktor Yanukovich's allies in parliament to reinstate defamation as a crime, saying it was aimed at further curbing the free press ahead of an election next month.
The draft law, which would provide for prison terms of up to
five years for offenders, was rushed through its first reading
on Tuesday by deputies of Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions and
their allies who hold the majority in parliament.
It would apply to anyone, including the media, who spread
“deliberately untrustworthy information” which denigrated a
person, hurt their honour and dignity or undermined their
The proposal to return the old Soviet law to the statute
books 11 years after it was removed came as opposition parties
marshalled their forces for an Oct. 28 parliamentary election
which – with key opposition figures such as former prime
minister Yulia Tymoshenko in jail – promises to be an
The United States and other Western governments say moves to
curb media criticism inside the country form part of a gradual
back-sliding on democracy and a trend towards greater
authoritarianism in the country since Yanukovich came to power
in February 2010.
Opposition parties said the proposed law, which has to clear
a second reading and then be signed by Yanukovich to become
effective, was directed at the activities of the few remaining
free media outlets in the former Soviet republic.
“It is crystal clear that the authorities will use the law
to suppress the remnants of democracy in the Ukrainian media,”
said a statement by the united opposition, which includes
Tymoshenko’s party, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland).
“This is the death of Ukrainian journalism and President
Viktor Yanukovich with his paranoid fear and thirst for power is
personally responsible for this,” it said.
“If this rule goes through, it would lead to a third of the
journalists going to jail and part of the opposition too,”
Mykola Tomenko, a deputy from Tymoshenko’s party, told
Apart from potentially shielding politicians, the law could
put Ukraine’s super-wealthy entrepreneurs further beyond the
reach of media criticism. Many Ukrainian oligarchs, some of whom
bankroll political parties but rarely give press interviews,
have shown themselves quick to threaten legal action or file
lawsuits in foreign courts.
WBC world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, who
heads the opposition Udar (Punch) party, said the move was an
attempt to “shut journalists’ mouths and force them to work in
conditions where the authorities are either doing well, or doing
very well or great, and all the rest is slander.”
“If today’s compromised and degraded parliament supports it
(the law) we will change this shameful act in the first session
of the newly-elected parliament,” Klitschko said.
The Party of the Regions, defending the move, said criminal
liability for defamation was provided for in the legislation of
many Western countries. It added that it was following the
example of Russia, which has also returned defamation to the
statute books as a criminal offence.
Independent media outlets say they are facing increased
harassment from the authorities in the run-up to the October
The independent TVi station, which is often critical of the
Yanukovich leadership, says it was the subject of a raid by tax
police last July.
A tax evasion case against TVi’s chief executive has since
been dropped. But the station says local cable companies have
come under pressure to either give it up or move it to more
expensive packages, significantly cutting its viewer base.