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Ukraine: Critics Say New Law On Election Coverage Meant To Muzzle Press

A law restricting media coverage of Ukrainian elections in March has come under fire from legal experts, who say the law violates the European Convention on Human Rights. But some Ukrainian parliamentarians feel it will make for a fairer election campaign.

Kyiv, 30 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 31 March, Ukrainians go to the polls to cast their ballots in parliamentary and local elections. With just two months until the vote, Ukraine could be racing to fill its newspapers, television, and radio broadcasts with election-related stories.

But instead, media coverage of the vote has been almost nonexistent. The news blackout is the result of a law, introduced in October, that forbids the press from reporting on the election -- or "agitating," as the law puts it -- until 50 days before the vote.

The law also prevents candidates in the election from campaigning until the 50-day countdown begins on 9 February. Those found violating the law face a range of penalties, including possible imprisonment.

The restriction has sparked criticism from legal and free-press experts. The U.S.-funded IREX ProMedia group, which trains and advises Ukrainian journalists, commissioned lawyers specializing in human rights and the media to analyze the new law.

The resulting report by Kurt Wimmer and Aaron Cooper of Switzerland says the law contravenes several of the most important principles contained in Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

That article says, in part: "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers."

The convention does provide for certain government restrictions on the media, in order to protect national security interests or to prevent crime and public disorder. But Wimmer and Cooper note the European Court on Human Rights has repeatedly stressed that freedom of expression -- particularly expression of political opinions -- constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society.

The report was commissioned by the head of ProMedia's legal defense and education program, Mary Mycio, an American lawyer and journalist who has lived in Ukraine for 10 years.

Mycio says the Ukrainian law breaches the European Human Rights Convention because it falls outside the convention's criteria for justifiable restrictions. Furthermore, she says, the law is so vaguely worded that it is difficult for journalists to know whether their actions constitute a violation: "The prohibition on agitation isn't based on law, because the law has no provision defining what agitation is, and this means that it does not give journalists, for example, sufficient prior notice of what is prohibited. The law is also very vague on what kind of penalties there are for its violation. That also violates the [human rights convention's] need to adequately inform a person what is prohibited and what the consequences of violating that prohibition can be."

The law also places a ban on foreign media in Ukraine from "agitating" during elections -- another restriction that Mycio says violates the convention. She says the provision is probably directed against Russia, whose television coverage and newspapers have wide appeal in Ukraine. In past elections, the Russian media have been accused of having inordinate influence over the vote results.

But Mycio says that the law, according to statements by Ukraine's Central Election Commission, can even apply to foreigners having a private conversation about candidates and political parties. This, Mycio says, sets a very dangerous precedent in an country like Ukraine where many democratic principles have yet to take hold.

"Considering the political situation in the country, the ambiguity of the law, and the very, very severe politicization of law enforcement, makes it ripe for selective prosecution and abuse," Mycio says.

One of the Ukrainian parliamentarians who voted in favor of the law, Mykhailo Pavlovsky, says the amount and nature of television coverage is the single most important factor in determining the outcome of elections campaigns. He says in past elections, those in power used their influence over state-run and private broadcasters alike to promote themselves and exclude coverage of their rivals. The new law, he says, will guarantee that all candidates are granted equal face time.

"The law, as it concerns television, is very positive. Through this law we want to benefit from the experience of Western European countries and particularly the United States," Pavlovsky says. "People should be able to see the capabilities of each candidate for parliament or president -- their ability to defend the interests of their country, their ability to work in a complex situation. In the States they even carry out opinion polls about the candidates' intellectual abilities."

Pavlovsky compares the bias with which broadcasters have typically covered opposition politicians in the past to the means favored by Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels: "In reality, the Goebbels method is used on [Ukraine's] nationwide television channels. And what did Goebbels teach? That you have to repeat a lie 20 times and the 21st time it will be believed. And one has to isolate those that tell the truth."

ProMedia's Mycio, however, believes the new law is simply too broad: "One of the justifications for the law that I have heard is that the Ukrainian media are so partisan that the only way to ensure objective coverage is to mandate it in the law. I don't consider that to be a particularly persuasive argument, because there is no particular reason for limiting the partisanship of the media for this particular period of time."

Mycio says ProMedia is not encouraging anyone to break the new law, but says the group will try to make journalists aware that they can challenge the law in court by citing the European Human Rights Convention, to which Ukraine is a signatory. If that fails in a Ukrainian court, she adds, journalists can the take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights, where they would be likely to win.