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Ukraine: OSCE Condemns Proposal To Curtail Journalistic Freedom

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) this week condemned the Ukrainian parliament's passage of legislation that could put strict limits on the freedom of the press.

Prague, 18 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose tasks include monitoring democracy-building measures throughout the former Soviet bloc, on 15 July formally protested a move by Ukrainian lawmakers to prohibit journalists from publicizing state secrets.

Ukrainian parliamentarians hope to make it an offense for journalists to obtain or publish what the media proposals term "confidential information that is the property of the state."

The proposals have raised concerns among Ukrainian journalists and democracy advocates, who say the plan fails to define clearly what constitutes such "confidential information."

They are also worried that it will be the government and state security forces -- and not the judiciary -- who will determine what represents a breach of the proposed regulations and what does not.

The proposals, which still need to be approval by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to be passed into law, give intelligence forces the power to search, investigate, and arrest journalists suspected of violating the regulations. The proposed punishment ranges anywhere from fines to imprisonment.

In a letter to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko, the OSCE's media representative, Freimut Duve, wrote, "It is ominous that your country, where the media situation has been steadily deteriorating for the past five years, should decide at this point to approve a highly restrictive law that would have a chilling effect on the work of journalists."

Alexander Ivanko, a spokesman for the OSCE, notes that many Western countries penalize officials who divulge confidential information about the state. But sanctions are not directed at journalists or other media professionals who publicize that information.

Ivanko said the OSCE opposes any move to punish journalists for doing their jobs. He added that the Ukrainian proposals are worrisome both because they fail to clearly define confidentiality and because they greatly expand the powers of the intelligence services.

"Well, first of all, the new legislation allows the Ukrainian authorities to look into the sources the journalists have used, to investigate their sources. And it also allows the authorities to arrest journalists they believe have leaked classified information, which is unacceptable to this office, to the representative on the freedom of the media, because basically what you have is punishing the messenger and we believe that journalists should not be prosecuted for anything they write or investigate -- period," Ivanko said.

Tania Katyuzhynska is a lawyer working for IREX Pro Media, a U.S.-funded organization that runs a legal defense and education program for journalists in Ukraine. She too criticized the vagueness of the proposals, and said journalists are fearful the government can label any information it chooses as "confidential."

"The thing that disturbed journalists the most are the [proposed] changes in the information law, which state that the definition of possession and use of documents containing confidential information that is state property will be decided by the cabinet of ministers," Katyuzhynska said.

That, Katyuzhynska said, runs contrary to the Ukrainian Constitution. "These changes in the law which envisage that the regulations will be decided by the cabinet of ministers contradict the Ukrainian Constitution, which is based on the precept that responsibility -- whether civil or criminal -- should be defined by law. The present changes envisage that responsibility will not be defined by law but by the cabinet of ministers, despite the fact that laws in Ukraine are formulated exclusively by parliament. This [proposed change in the law] poses a danger because journalists do not know which information might constitute confidential information that is state property, and which is forbidden to be used or disseminated," she said.

She said the proposals also contradict current laws -- including one passed earlier this year -- which allow journalists to publish state or commercial secrets if it is done for the public good.

"Whereas previously journalists were allowed to obtain information, even illegally, which was kept secret by the regime -- and, if it was necessary for the public good, distribute such information without being held to account -- then under this [proposed] law the journalist will be held responsible and the newspaper as well as the journalist will be forbidden to publish such information," Katyuzhynska said.

Katyuzhynska said journalists and pro-democracy politicians and activists are dismayed at the extensive powers the proposals give to the Ukrainian secret services, the SBU. The changes were advocated by Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich with the open backing of the SBU chief.

"These changes envisage that action against anyone possessing, using and disseminating confidential information which is state property -- something not defined by law -- can be taken by the Ukrainian state security agency, which can conduct searches of people and things," Katyuzhynska said. "This has caused great concern to journalists."

Ukraine's independent journalists' union and pro-democracy activists are appealing to Kuchma to veto the proposals. But Western leaders and media organizations have repeatedly noted that Kuchma's administration is notorious for interfering with the press. Most of Ukraine's mass media is controlled by the government or businessmen close to Kuchma.

The Ukrainian president himself has been accused of involvement in the killing of antigovernment journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Eighteen journalists have been killed in Ukraine since the country became independent in 1991.

OSCE spokesman Ivanko said his group has been closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine. "We're quite pessimistic about the situation in Ukraine," he said. "We have followed it now for five years. I have personally gone to Ukraine over two dozen times to deal with their legislation, to deal with cases of harassment of journalists, and really, there is very little light at the end of the tunnel. I mean, it's a very dire situation, one of the more depressing ones in the OSCE region. So I can't be too optimistic and our office can't be too optimistic about the decisions that will be made regarding this legislation."

Ivanko added that Kyiv has yet to formally respond to the OSCE's letter. "Of course we would hope that the president (Kuchma) would veto [the proposals], but to be honest, I'm not so sure this will happen," he said. Ivanko said he expects it may take up to two weeks to hear back from the Ukrainian government.