Ukrainian Journalists to Government: Don’t Meddle
24 January, 2020

The Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports has published the text of their draft bill “on disinformation.” Hromadske has asked journalists and media legal experts to weigh in on the proposed law, the punishments for "spreading disinformation" and on the introduction of new government bodies responsible for regulating the issue.

We’ve asked them about the creation of the Association of Professional Journalists which is supposed to set ethical and legal standards for the professional, and about the legal status of “professional journalist” as a whole, as well as the risks for journalism now.

Serhii Shcherbyna, Chief Editor of RBK-Ukraine:

"I don’t know the goals that the Ministry of Culture is aiming for (in dividing journalists into professional and amateur – ed.) What I see in the actions, in what they’re trying to force through – is what I consider to be an attempt by the government to increase government regulation of the media sphere, which can’t end well. In my view, the best thing the government could do to develop Ukrainian media would be to not meddle.

Why should someone judge which journalist is professional and which isn’t? Who would fall under the scope of the relevant articles of the Criminal Codex on defending the profession, and who wouldn’t? Only the market can regulate the media. A free and adequate market can self-regulate, without government interference. Excuse me, but this is a komsomol (a Russian word referring to Soviet-style organizations – ed.) in the purest sense.

Would the government somehow influence public organizations? (Organizations which would be a part of the Association of Professional Journalists which will judge the “professionalism” of a journalist – ed.) I don’t know. I was surprised that this list is published in the draft. How did they end up there? It seems to be that this is getting ahead of itself, because the very idea that they’re pushing is ineffectual."

Zurab Alasania, Head of UA:PBC:

"Any authority always aims for order and stability, and tries to minimize the chaos created by people who aren’t loyal to its power.

On the topic of the person responsible for information – the point isn’t even about them, but about how the norms of the bill regarding criminal penalties will be applied. That’s the point where everything will fall apart, because that person will pass along information about violations to the courts, but the kind of court system we have – everyone knows that it’ll just languish there and freeze. I’m not scared of this bill, I do have questions on whether or not the bill will work at all.

The second weak point is the already declared public organizations that would be part of this Association of Professional Journalists. It’ll also not work, because Ukrainian journalists could never unite...I remember the efforts (of creating a professional union – ed.) over the last 15 years, and there haven’t been any successes. Despite the fact that these things have been known by global practices, and have been used for a long time. And professional journalism, this way, defends itself from low quality information which has now increased chaotically. The bill writes that this is a self-governed organization, but I don’t believe that our journalists are capable of this.

The bill doesn’t carry any threats per se. If it wanted to turn the screws [on Ukrainian journalists], then they can do it without this, we know how the system works. I’m not scared of that from this bill. But it is indisputable that this bill wants to somehow muzzle freedom of speech. I don’t doubt that at all."

Vita Volodovskaya, Lawyer, Expert from “Digital Security Lab”:

"The Ministry of Culture wants to spread the protections of the journalist profession to professional journalists. In other words, only to those journalists that would be a part of the Association [of Professional Journalists], which they are offering to create in parallel with this bill. What does this mean? Practically speaking, they’re saying that all journalists, regardless of whether or not they’re part of the Association, will have the right, going forward to work, to disseminate information, to work in the media. But journalists that are not part of this Association will not have the right to additional social guarantees that they’re proposing in this bill.

For example, the bill contains 36 guaranteed holiday days annually, or payouts connected connected to job loss. So this would not apply to freelancers.

But what really looks ominous is that they’re offering to tie journalist accreditation from government bodies to their professional status. Anyone can come to open government events, but closed ones, where journalists are accredited separately, only "professional" journalists will be able to attend. Whether or not to admit other journalists, each government body will decide separately. Common journalists that are not part of the Association will find it hard to prove that they have the right to take part in this events.

In the version [of events] that the bill is proposing, a person responsible for information is not needed. Many countries have these sorts of information commissars, which is more of a human rights body that people can appeal to in order to defend their rights to access public information or their own personal data. This bill distorts this concept, and in practice introduces not a human rights defending body, but a controlling one, which will have very broad powers to restrict the flow of information. That is, not for defending the right to free expression, but to restrict it. It’s authority the procedure for creating it, in our view, does not correspond to the Constitution [of Ukraine]. This person will have unrestricted, uncontrolled, and very broad powers.

We, with our colleagues, are right now working on a detailed analysis of all the proposals in this bill, and so far we see a lot of threats to free expression. So far, it carries a lot more threats than it does actual solutions for the fight against disinformation."

Victoria Matola, Editor of the Rights Department of “LB.UA”:

"It’s too early to talk about this bill threatening free speech in Ukraine. It’s not completely understood, first of all, what it will look like in its final version. Secondly, how it will be implemented in practice. Considering how some points in the bill have not been anticipated, and should be decided on by the person responsible for information (a criteria for receiving the so-called “Index of Trust”), or the Association of Professional Journalists of Ukraine (which should set standards for journalists’ professional ethics.)

You can accurately say that the authorities are focused on bringing journalistic work and mass information under their control. Possibly, the media sphere does need some sort of order, but hardly in this fashion.

Why does the government want to create this status of a “professional journalist”? It’s obvious, in order to force journalists to join the Association. Probably, some journalists will want to receive those benefits that the government is proposing. Or maybe, I think, to “convince” journalists (especially editors and journalists of leading media in Ukraine) this way is impossible. And the greater the pressure from the authorities, the greater the resistance by journalists. This has resulted in a negative reaction, which has already occurred due to the presentation of this bill.

A bill this important cannot be handled in a “turboregime” (the term given to the fast pace of reform by the Zelenskyy government – ed.). It need public consideration and discussion. And importantly, it should take into account the thoughts of journalists, whose work the current government intends to regulate."

/By Tetiana Bezruk

/Translated by Romeo Kokriatski