Reporters Without Borders is appalled by the Ukrainian parliament’s hasty adoption today of Law 3879, a legislative package that copies some of the most repressive provisions of recent Russian legislation.
Among other things, the 130-page law criminalizes defamation, facilitates the blocking of websites without referring to the courts and defines human rights NGOs that receive international funding as “foreign agents.”
It contains many other provisions restricting freedom of expression and assembly. Reporters Without Borders will continue to analyse this law and will update this press release soon.
“We urge President Viktor Yakukovych not to promulgate this law, which would represent a decisive step back from democracy,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“Designed to halt the wave of opposition protests that began in early December, it increases abusive restrictions on freedom of information and other fundamental freedoms. The way it was adopted in parliament, in violation of voting procedure, reinforces the clear impression that it constitutes a major attack on civil society.”
Law 3879 “amending the law on the judicial apparatus and the status of judges and establishing additional measures to protect the safety of citizens” was submitted to parliament just two days ago by two representatives of the ruling Party of the Regions and was adopted today, without any debate, on a show of hands instead of the usual electronic vote.
It reintroduces an article on defamation (article 151-1) into the criminal code. When the media or Internet is used to defame, the penalty is a fine of between 50 and 300 times the minimum wage, 150 to 240 hours of public service work, or salary deductions for one year. If there are “aggravating circumstances,” the penalty can be up to two years in prison.
Such penalties are clearly disproportionate and contrary to article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as interpreted by the European Court in Strasbourg.
International experience has shown that criminalizing media offences and, even more so, making them punishable by imprisonment, helps to create a climate of intimidation that discourages journalists from tackling sensitive subjects.
“The return of defamation to the penal code constitutes a 13-year backward step for Ukraine,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Moving in the opposition direction to the worldwide trend, Ukraine is blatantly violating international agreements that is has signed, starting with the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Ukraine decriminalized defamation in January 2001. A first attempt to roll back this victory for democracy was narrowly averted in October 2012 following concerted protests by civil society and the international community. In response to the concerns that Reporters Without Borders expressed at the time, the foreign ministry reiterated Ukraine’s commitment to freedom of information and European standards.
Law 3879 also introduces prison sentences for “extremist content” without providing a clear definition of this concept. It makes gathering and disseminating personal information (including names and photos) about judges, policemen and members of the special forces punishable by up to three years in prison. It regulates online news agencies more closely and empowers the authorities to close a website without a court order.
It imports the controversial provisions that Russia has applied to human rights NGOs since 2012. Those that aim to “influence state decisions, change government policy and shape public opinion” and receive international funding will now have to register as “foreign agents.”
This disgraceful label, a synonym of spying in former Soviet republics, is accompanied by very strict rules and financial requirements that result in severe sanctions if violated. Also, NGOs that are “foreign agents” as not recognized as non-profits and must pay the same taxes as businesses.