A woman reads a newspaper and waits for customers as she sells newspapers and magazines at an underground walkway in central…
FILE - A woman reads a newspaper and waits for customers as she sells newspapers and magazines at an underground walkway in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Jan. 24, 2019.

Media freedom watchdogs and journalists’ associations are expressing concern about a bill aimed at combating Russian disinformation. 

Critics say the draft law put forward by the Culture, Youth and Sports Ministry on January 20 paves the way for excessive governmental regulation of the media and could be used to harass journalists. 

In a statement January 23, Harlem Desir, the representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said he understood "the need to fight against disinformation” in Ukraine at a time when the country is facing a Russia-backed insurgency in the easternmost regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

“But this should not be done at the expense of media freedom and through state interference in the content of the media and in the organization of journalism activities in the country," Desir added. 

Threat to rights seen

The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU) warned that the bill on "amendments to certain legal acts of Ukraine aimed to provide national information security and right to access to truthful information" would legalize state interference in the journalistic profession and restrict media workers' rights. 

According to the bill, criminal punishment for spreading disinformation could range from large fines to prison sentences of up to seven years. 

But NUJU head Serhiy Tomilenko said some provisions, such as the issuance of press cards, have "nothing to do with Russian aggression." 

Journalists would be required to receive their press accreditation through a state-sponsored agency, while a media monitor would be tasked with imposing fines and blocking online media, among other sanctions, Tomilenko said. 

Professional status would be conferred or denied to journalists based on adherence to the Code of Journalistic Ethics. 

Watchdogs' advice

The European Federation of Journalists and other media watchdogs advised the Ukrainian government to stay out of the activities of media outlets and allow them to self-regulate. 

"The state should create conditions for this process [self-regulation and autonomy] by avoiding any governmental interference and not deprive journalists of their rights," said EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutierrez. 

To combat disinformation, the government should promote "self-regulation, support for professional standards of journalism and fact-checking initiatives, independence of the media, diversity of sources to debunk false information, and the development of media literacy," Desir said.