November 22, 2018

Ukraine: criminalizing defamation “would be a disturbing step backwards”

Credit: press office of the President of Ukraine / Mykola Lazarenko

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Ukraine’s parliamentarians to refrain from adopting draconian legislation in the run-up to the next general election and, in particular, to reject a bill that would recriminalize defamation, making it punishable by up to three years in prison.

Ukraine’s decriminalization of defamation 17 years ago was a major democratic achievement that would be reversed by the law that three ruling party representatives proposed on 20 November.

“Recriminalizing defamation would be a disturbing step backwards, a step towards the Russian model, one that would violate Ukraine’s international obligations and democratic pledges,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We urge parliamentarians to reject this bill and to refrain from any other draconian initiative.”

International experience shows that criminalizing press offences fosters a climate of intimidation that discourages journalists from tackling sensitive stories. The United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe all oppose criminalizing defamation.

In a General Comment issued in 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee said: “Defamation laws must be crafted with care to ensure that (...) they do not serve, in practice, to stifle freedom of expression (...) Imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.”

Ukraine’s decriminalization of press offences in 2001 has often been the target of domestic criticism and its repeal was narrowly avoided in 2012 thanks to a wave of protests backed by RSF.

Defamation was briefly recriminalized in January 2014 as part of a series of repressive laws designed to crush the Maidan Square protests but these laws were all quickly repealed when the protests succeeded in forcing President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country the following month.

This week’s bill comes amid growing political tension in the run-up to next March’s general election, which is encouraging political posturing and grandstanding. Under another draconian bill submitted to parliament on 7 November, legislators would be able to ask the National Security and Defence Council to sanction individual media outlets.

Ukraine is ranked 101st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.