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New Sanctions Bill Raises Free-Press Fears In Ukraine

Ukrainian lawmakers passed the first reading of a controversial draft law on sanctions by a small majority on August 12.

Ukraine, once celebrated for its progressive media reforms, is currently considering legislation that could set the country back to Soviet-era levels of censorship.

Lawmakers in the Verkhovna Rada are set to meet on August 14 to review a sweeping draft law imposing sanctions on Russian companies and individuals. The legislation, meant to hamstring Russia amid intensifying violence in eastern Ukraine, also includes provisions to block media deemed a threat to Ukrainian security.

Supporters say the bill will give the Kyiv government essential tools to fight the onslaught of anti-Ukrainian propaganda and disinformation spread by Kremlin-friendly Russian media.

But critics worry the draft law -- which proposes to skirt standard checks and balances by handing fast-track powers of implementation to President Petro Poroshenko and the National Security and Defense Council -- could also be used to silence dissenting voices within Ukraine itself.

"We do acknowledge that Russian aggression, Russian hate speech, and Russian propaganda remain a core problem in shaping public opinion," says Tetiana Semiletko, a lawyer with the Kyiv-based Media Law Institute. "Russia Today, Life News -- these are all threats to our national security. But we also see that our own media might be banned or shut down or restricted, with nothing more than a decision by the security council and a presidential decree."

Trump Card?

The draft law, which passed by a small majority in a first reading on August 12, provides for sanctions against 172 individuals and 65 entities in Russia and other countries for the support and financing of separatism in Ukraine.

Targets include behemoths like energy giant Gazprom, which currently relies on Ukraine to pipe nearly half of its gas supplies to Europe. Ukrainian economists have eagerly suggested Moscow could lose as much as $150 billion in revenue if the sanctions are imposed.

Press advocates are concerned that such heady projections may trump objections about the legislation's media provisions, which would allow for the prohibition of individual print, broadcast, and Internet outlets outside and inside Ukraine, as well as limiting access to public telecommunications networks.

International watchdogs have condemned the proposals as a profound rollback in Ukraine's commitment to free speech, considered one of the strongest in the post-Soviet space.

David Kramer, the president of Freedom House -- which this year demoted Ukraine from "partly free" to "not free" in its annual press freedom report -- said the draft law "does not strike the right balance between security and human rights."

Dunja Mijatovic, the representative on media freedom for the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe (OSCE), called on Rada lawmakers to drop the disputed provisions of the sanctions bill, saying the legislation "effectively reverses much of Ukraine's progress in media freedom."

In subsequent comments to RFE/RL, Mijatovic noted that despite the threat inherent in the current proposals, there have also been "positive legislative steps" with regards to media freedom in Ukraine, including a 2012 provision giving journalists the right to protect confidential sources and the Rada's decision last year to adopt a law providing for transparency of media ownership.

She added that while the question of Russian disinformation was "very difficult," that specific tools already existed for dealing with biased and misleading information.

"These include rules, in line with international standards on free media and free expression, on balance and accuracy in broadcasting; independence of media regulators; prominence of public service broadcasting with a special mission to include all viewpoints; and a clear distinction between fact and opinion in journalism," she said. "False and misleading information must be countered and fought with truthful and factual information."

'We Can Do Better'

Semiletko says many inside Ukraine are distressed by the fact that the sanctions bill was submitted by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk with no input from outside advisers, and was made available to the public only once it had passed its first reading.

"The draft law contains provisions that might be used to abuse the rights of citizens -- the rights of the media and civil society organizations," she says. "People have been appalled by the fact that those who put forward this draft law didn't involve civil society at any stage to hold consultations and take their opinions into account."

Some Rada deputies have betrayed growing discomfort about the sanctions bill, which has been squeezed into a busy agenda that includes equally controversial draft laws on lustration and election reform.

Lesya Orobets, an independent lawmaker, expressed exasperation with the drive to speed through complicated legislation, writing on Facebook, "Just one day to change the electoral system, introduce tax and budget reforms, lustration, and sanctions? No, I think we can do better."

Deputies from UDAR, the party led by ex-boxer and current Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, have described the legislation as hastily written and called for the legislation to be heavily amended before the second reading.

Serhiy Kaplin, an UDAR lawmaker, suggested on August 13 that the draft law had been altered to remove the provision that sanctions could be applied against Ukrainian citizens.

After months of Euromaidan protests calling for an end to government corruption and the embrace of European values, many Ukrainians remain skeptical of the official intent behind the sanctions bill.

Dmytro Tymchuk, a Ukrainian military expert whose daily blogs remain one of the most valuable sources of information about the country's military campaign, bemoaned the spirit of the bill in a Facebook post. "If we're fighting for the title of a democratic power," he wrote, "let's play by the rules."