Two new Ukrainian laws causes outcry, raise fears of crackdown

By bne IntelliNews September 20, 2012

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Two bills introduced into the Ukrainian parliament have caused international outcry and suggest the government is prepared to crack down on the opposition if it does badly in the general election slated for the end of October.

A draft defamation bill passed its first reading in the Rada on September 18, but has been condemned by international press freedom groups as a return to Soviet-era controls. The bill makes defamation a criminal, not civil, offence that carries jail sentences.

Another bill imposes tight controls on public rallies, requiring organisers to apply for permission two days in advance and making them personal responsible of the conduct of the crowd. The law is also vague about where sanctioned rallies can be held, allowing courts freedom to choose what is "appropriate".

Both bills have drawn heavy criticism. Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders said the defamation bill could quash media freedoms completely in the run-up to the general elections at the end of October and called on Rada deputies to reject the bill. The group said the bill would re-impose Soviet-era controls over the press and "threaten the very existence of independent journalism," Bloomberg reported.

If the bill passes, then defamation becomes a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison, the same punishment that existed in Soviet times. Currently, defamation is a civil offence and punishable only by fines.

The draft law comes only a week after Ukraine hosted the World Press conference where editors and publishers from around the world came to Kyiv to discuss the industry. Protestors held up signs during the event to protest against rapidly decaying press freedoms in the country.

The law also follows the authorities' move earlier this year to investigate TVi, the only television channel reporting on government corruption. Many regional cable operators have since dropped the channel.

Alexander Akymenko, an editor at Forbes Ukraine said on his Facebook page that journalists need to have "an already packed bag at home," referring to a practice common amongst Russians during Stalin's Terror in the 1930s.

The demonstrations bill is less advanced, but the Rada is due to vote on it on September 20. The government claims that it will improve public safety, but Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst, said the government was reacting because it has a "Maidan complex," referring to the square in central Kyiv that was the venue for mass protests during the Orange Revolution from late November 2004 to January 2005. The current president, Viktor Yanukovych, had just won a disputed presidential election at that time, but lost the subsequent reheld election to Viktor Yushchenko, who remained president from 2005-2010.

Political tensions are rising fast again as opinion polls show that President Yanukovych's Party of Regions running neck-and-neck with the rival Fatherland Party of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Following changes to the election laws already pushed through by the government earlier this year, the ruling party is in a position to fix the vote, accuse observers, and if the fix is too blatant, then protestors could well take to the streets. As such, the government appears to be anticipating this possibility and is putting tools into place to deal with any unrest, while giving it a veneer of legality.

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