President Volodymyr Zelensky came under fire from the National Union of Journalists on Dec. 29 for signing into law a controversial media bill. It was submitted to parliament in 2020 and approved on Dec. 13, 2022. The adoption of this bill was seen as one of the criteria for Ukraine's accession to the European Union.

Some journalists are concerned that the law could lead to censorship as a result of increased government control of previously unregulated media, such as internet publications.

The EU Delegation to Ukraine, on the other hand, supported parliament's plans to approve the bill. “The draft law should ensure a competitive media market with rules for all, an independent regulator, and comply with the EU audiovisual directive,” the EU Delegation said on Twitter.

The bill covers media that is currently not regulated in Ukraine and does not have media status – in particular, online publications. The legislation is intended to help strengthen government control over Russian propaganda and activity of pro-Russian media in Ukraine.

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The law gives more powers to the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council (NTRBC), which worries some Ukrainian journalists. It also provides the regulator with the right to fine media outlets, revoke their licenses, temporarily block certain publications without a court ruling, and demand that social media platforms and search engines, such as Google, remove content that violates the law.

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A strong and independent regulator is a common practice in developed EU countries. The Council of Europe, on its website, explicitly “recognizes that to guarantee a wide range of independent and autonomous media in the audiovisual media sector, it is essential to provide for its adequate regulation,” The Council adds, “A regulation framework must guarantee freedom of expression whilst at the same time ensuring a balance between this freedom and other legitimate rights and interests.”

The risks of regulator dependence 

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The NTRBC is a constitutional body, half of whose members are appointed by the p resident, and half by the parliament. In the current conditions of the pro-presidential majority, the regulator obviously falls under the authorities' control.

This problem of regulator independence is apparent, but it is a challenging one to solve during wartime because the subjects of appointment of the National Council members are prescribed in the Constitution. Under martial law, it would be unrealistic to amend the Constitution.

According to some Ukrainian journalists, the new law goes far beyond the requirements of the EU. They accuse the authorities of using the commitment to EU membership as a pretext to increase control over the press.

The NUJ’s position is that the new bill triggers the introduction of censorship tools and provides broad opportunities for the state to interfere in media activities. According to Lina Kushch, first secretary of the NUJ, this law was created without discussing it with media representatives.

The Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy of the parliament considered the bill for two days at its closed-door meeting. The press service of the NUJ tried to get a video recording of the meeting but didn't receive it.

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"We do not know what lawmakers discussed and what arguments they used. On Dec. 12, we were given a comparison table of the previous version of the bill and the new one. There are 950 amendments. Next day, the bill was passed. How lawmakers processed 950 amendments in 24 hours is unclear to us." Lina Kushch said.

The European Federation of Journalists has criticized the law. General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez said, “Media regulation should be implemented by a body independent of the government and its objective should be media independence, not media control.”

But the Zelensky government has made a point of going after media outlets suspected of serving as a fifth column to Russian interests. In 2021 he shut down TV stations controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s close friend in Ukraine.

Zelensky's spokeswoman at that time, Iuliia Mendel, said: "These media have become one of the tools of war against Ukraine, so they are blocked in order to protect national security," adding that evidence had emerged of their being funded from Russia.

Clearly the Zelensky government is using the same rationale today, with the added benefit of helping facilitate EU accession.

And, as we know, in wartime, controls over the media are traditionally tightened in the name of national security.

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