President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has ordered officials to swiftly draft a bill regulating media activity in Ukraine, in an effort to increase media accountability and prohibit Russian ownership and financing of news outlets.
The new decree comes after disgruntled journalists staged a fake attack right in the middle of a live TV show in order to denounce the government’s pressure on their work.
Zelenskiy signed a decree “on urgent measures to reform and strengthen the state,” calling upon the Cabinet of Ministers to draft and submit a media bill by end of 2019.
The bill will regulate “media activity in Ukraine, stipulating, inter alia: provisions on news requirements and standards; mechanisms for preventing the dissemination of inaccurate, distorted information, its refutation; prohibition of natural persons and legal entities of the aggressor state from owning or financing media in Ukraine; and providing for increased responsibility for violation of legislation on information.”
The new law has caused uproar among journalists, especially around the definition of “news standards” put forward in the draft bill.
“There is a certain mistake in the formulation,” admits Oleksandr Tkachenko, an MP from Zelenskiy’s “Servant of the People” party. According to the lawmaker, the decree aims to tackle disinformation and fake news and the way to define these categories. This, he added, is particularly relevant when it comes to “the aggressor state” and its policy in Ukraine.
Ukraine has declared Russia to be an aggressor state in 2018.
Tkachenko was previously the CEO of a TV channel linked to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, with whom the current president had business ties, and allegedly aligned the editorial policy of the media outlet with the political interests of the billionaire.
“It is a terminological misunderstanding,” echoes Ukraine’s culture, youth and sports minister Volodymyr Borodianskiy in a Facebook post. Ukraine plans to introduce the concepts of dangerous information, disinformation and inaccurate information, which is very important in the context of the information war with Russia, he explained.
Previous comments made by lawmakers however question the assurance that the new media law will not incorporate standards of reporting.
At a special hearing on freedom of speech in Ukraine’s parliament on 6 November, Tkachenko suggested sanctioning Ukrainian media outlets that were not profitable for three consecutive years. The absence of profits may indicate that these news outlets are mere political tools in the hands of their owner, he argued.
Speaking at the hearing, Borodiansky announced that the bill may include civil and criminal liability for journalists who spread false or manipulative information.
“In Ukraine, there is a very subtle line between protecting the right of citizens to information and an assault on freedom of expression,” said Olena Kondratiuk, vice-speaker of the the country’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.
Kondratiuk called on the relevant parliamentary committees to initiate a dialogue with the media community and give careful and balanced consideration to their views.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Frédéric Simon]