Ukraine’s Media Weigh Powers of New Law

Ukraine’s new media law has divided critics, with journalists warning it gives the government new, expansive powers, and Kyiv arguing that it brings the country closer to the European Union and will help fight propaganda.

Signed into law by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and set to take effect in April, the bill was developed in line with the EU directive on audiovisual media services’ requirements and Council of Europe standards.

While it includes most of the provisions recommended by the EU, the law goes much further and will replace six previous laws related to media. It also increases the government’s regulatory power over TV, radio, and news websites.

Media rights groups are wary, with Gulnoza Said of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) telling Voice of America she sees it as “an attempt to establish an even stricter control of the government over the free flow of information.”

In July and September, the CPJ issued two statements calling on Ukrainian lawmakers to drop the bill over concerns it will restrict press freedom.

Authorities came under criticism in November after journalists had their accreditation revoked for reporting on the liberation of the city of Kherson before government officials arrived. 

The new law will not govern media access, but it will empower the regulatory body, the National Сouncil of Television and Radio Broadcasting, to issue licenses for media companies and impose sanctions on outlets deemed to be in violation of the law.

For registered media, any action would be court approved, but experts have said that the law will make it easier to take action, including fines and temporary suspensions, against unregistered news outlets and without court approval.

“We don’t believe that the framework proposed by this law is that of a totally independent national regulator,” Ricardo Gutierrez, secretary general of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), told VOA.

He expressed concern about the expansion of the broadcasting council’s ability to impose sanctions and fines without independent judicial review.

The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine also voiced concern that the council could act at the behest of the government.

“The key aspects that are fundamental for media legislation include the political independence of the national media regulator. We want the regulator in this case to be independent,” said union director Sergiy Tomilenko.

Government officials defended the law, saying that until recently, media were able to broadcast whatever they wanted, including pro-Russian propaganda.

For a long time, the regulator’s authority was limited, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Culture and Information Policy Taras Shevchenko told VOA.

“The Ukrainian regulator has been completely impotent for most of its existence. You can see that on the example of the pro-Russian TV channels that no one could do anything about,” Shevchenko said. “The expansion of regulator’s powers is a necessary step to guarantee independence.”

Made up of eight people from media, culture, science and legal sectors, the broadcasting council has four members appointed by the president and four from parliament. But a majority party rule has raised flags among media.

Maksym Dvorovyi, who is part of the task force that started drafting the new media law in 2019, said that his working group worked to include safeguards.

“Two authorities that nominate candidates to the broadcasting council represent one political power. Among the legislation’s provisions, we established as many safeguards as possible to offset the political influence,” said Dvorovyi.

Balancing act

Natalia Ligachova, head of Detector Media, a group founded by Ukrainian journalists to raise national media literacy, agrees the council will probably be more pro-presidential but noted that lawmakers amended the legislation around concerns.

“The latest version of the law has been considerably softened,” she told VOA. “Before, any blogger who posted something online or had a YouTube channel or a Facebook, Instagram or TikTok page could fall under the new regulation. This has been changed, and it’s important.”

Lawmakers made almost 1,000 pages of amendments based on concerns by media groups. They removed highly criticized provisions, such as mandatory registration of media, blocking of some outlets without court decisions, and a proposal that would define bloggers and social media users as media.

But some critics still are concerned it could limit Ukraine from having a truly free press.

“Today, our position is less radical than it was in July, but we still believe that this law is not sufficient to guarantee media freedom,” said Gutierrez of the EFJ.

His organization laid out its remaining concerns in a letter to the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

She replied that the European Commission is following the issue closely and that the EU delegation in Ukraine is working with the Ukrainian government and parliament.

Media reform is one of the European Union’s conditions for negotiations on Ukraine’s membership, and Ukrainian officials say the new law is just one of several statutes passed as part of efforts toward EU membership.

This article originated in VOA’s Ukraine service.

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