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Print media are struggling to survive around the world. But in Ukraine, they are now threatened by more than shrinking advertising budgets and falling subscription numbers.

New legislation has been proposed in parliament that, if passed, would force all media published in languages other than Ukrainian to produce an identical Ukrainian version, both in print and online. The extra costs could kill off many non-Ukrainian-language media, including the Kyiv Post.

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One of the authors of the bill, member of parliament Iryna Podolyak from the 25-member Samopomich Party, and MP Svitlana Zalishchuk from President Petro Poroshenko’s 135-member faction, told the Kyiv Post they would submit amendments to exempt English-language media from the bill’s provisions.

There are no guarantees, however, that these English-language exemptions will be adopted by the Verkhovna Rada. The amendments to the law must be submitted by Oct. 24.

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What’s the law about?

Passed in its first reading on Oct. 4, the new language bill garnered cross-factional support, with 261 MPs voting in favor.

The law declares Ukrainian, which is the state language, as the main language in all spheres of public life, from education and culture to telecommunications, the service sector, tourism, and book publishing. Every Ukrainian national must know the state language, and anyone who wants o obtain Ukrainian citizenship must prove their proficiency in the language by presenting a certificate from a Ukrainian language testing center.

The bill states that attempts to introduce multilingualism in Ukraine go against the constitution and deems them “incitement to linguistic division of the country and inter-ethnic hatred and conflict, with the aim of forcibly overturning the constitutional order.”

The bill also creates a new public post: the Ombudsman for the Protection of the State Language, whose job it will be to ensure that every Ukrainian citizen has the right to obtain any information or service in the Ukrainian language. Those who feel this right has been violated will be able to file a complaint to the ombudsman, who can order a language inspection.

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Failure to comply with the language law is an administrative offence punishable by fines ranging from Hr 3,400 to 10,200 ($120-$365).

Language in media

According to the new bill, newspapers and magazines published in languages other than Ukrainian must have a Ukrainian version of the same size and content. The copies must be published simultaneously and distributed together.

News websites may write in multiple languages, as long as the Ukrainian version is the default one.
Television and radio also must be in Ukrainian, with shows and programs in other languages being dubbed. Programming in other languages is still allowed to meet the needs of national minorities and foreigners, and for educational purposes, but this can take up no more that 20 percent of total airtime each day.

Rising costs for print

Print media in other languages are particularly at risk. To comply with the new law they would have to produce another issue in Ukrainian, at least doubling their expenses. In the financially struggling media market, that means many smaller publications will have to shut down.

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Billionaire oligarchs, who own most of the major media outlets and use them as political levers, are well-positioned to absorb extra costs.

The Kyiv Post’s deputy chief editor, Olga Rudenko, wrote that it would be extremely hard to produce two issues of the newspaper in two languages simultaneously.

“We don’t have the resources to publish another newspaper: pay for print, and hire people who will have to, very quickly, rewrite articles in Ukrainian. Finally, it’s impossible from a logistical point of view.”

If passed in its current version, the bill will directly affect English-language publications such as the Kyiv Post, Business Ukraine, Lviv Today, the Odessa Review, What’s On, and Ukrainian Weekly.

“I think it’s potentially dangerous in the sense that it could isolate Ukraine by preventing foreign language media coverage within the country,” said Peter Dickinson, the publisher of Business Ukraine magazine.

Participants of the Kyiv Post’s ”Bringing Peace to Syria & Ukraine” conference read the newspaper on June 18, 2018, in Kyiv. The Kyiv Post may be closed due if a language bill requiring an identical Ukrainian-language version is passed into law by parliament. (Volodymyr Petrov)

But even if there is a chance that English-language media are exempted from the bill, as members of parliament Podolyak and Zalishchuk told the Kyiv Post, the future of media in minority languages — Russian, Crimean Tatar, Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian — is still at risk.

“I would like to see some sort of protection included for other languages as well as English. Ukraine is a very multi-ethnic and multicultural state, and its legislation should reflect that,” Dickinson said.

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The bill’s primary target is obviously Russian. But in its attempt to boost Ukrainian over the second most widely used language in Ukraine could backfire.

“People will either turn to other Russian-language news sources, which Ukraine has no control over, or simply stop reading newspapers,” said Oksana Bogdanova, the chief editor of the Russian-language newspaper KP in Ukraine. Formerly known as Komsomolska Pravda, the Ukrainian newspaper changed its name under the 2015 decommunization law, and claims to have no affiliation with its Russian namesake.

“Today, our weekly print run is 120,000 copies. If the draft bill becomes the law, we would either have to find a huge amount of resources to publish another 120,000 copies in Ukrainian, or halve our current circulation (in Russian). Prices for paper and the cost of Ukrposhta’s distribution services are going up too,” Bogdanova said. “It will be painful and costly.”

Dickinson of Business Ukraine believes it would make more sense for the government to promote better quality Ukrainian-language media, making them more competitive.

Adnan Kivan, who owns the Kyiv Post and Odesa’s most popular television station, Channel 7, said such restrictions are not wise. He said that most viewers of his Odesa TV station prefer the Russian language, but that the station has switched to Ukrainian-language programming in anticipation that the new language law will be passed.

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“We don’t want to be closed down,” Kivan said.

But he said such a forced switch may prompt viewers who prefer Russian-language news to go onto YouTube or get their news from Russia, where independent journalism barely exists because of incessant Kremlin propaganda.

Elections

The language issue has often been used in Ukraine by politicians to distract voters’ attention from more serious problems.

For instance, in 2010, former President Viktor Yanukovych ran on the platform of making Russian a state language, although he failed to deliver on the promise.

President Petro Poroshenko, who is running for a second five-year term, has chosen “Language. Faith. Army” as his election campaign slogan.

Political analysts say Poroshenko, his party, and the People’s Front party are trying to shift the focus of the election campaign away from topics such as the failure to combat corruption and the lack of the rule of law in Ukraine to politically safer issues like language and religion.

It makes more sense for Poroshenko to focus on faith, language and the army because “the majority of voters are not happy with the reforms carried out in recent years,” political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told the Kyiv Post.

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Raising the issues of language and religion may also help Poroshenko portray himself as the leading pro-Ukrainian candidate. The ideal scenario for Poroshenko would be to make through to the second round of the election to face a pro-Russian candidate, political analyst Oleksiy Kovzhun said.

Paul Niland, who publishes the English-language monthly What’s On with his wife Lana Nicole Niland, said “what we are seeing now is (yet another) law being rushed through without the consequences being thought through.”

“The issue of language in Ukraine has been used to divide, not unite, because of political opportunism, and there is an election coming.”

“The language law, as it stands today, would put an end to many important publications,” Niland added. “The motto of the Kyiv Post is ‘Ukraine’s Global Voice’ and that title is well deserved. The publication I have been involved with since 2008, What’s On magazine, is not so serious, but it is still an essential part of the fabric of Kyiv’s community.”

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