FILE - Journalists wait for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's arrival at a polling station during parliamentary elections, in Kyiv, Ukraine, July 21, 2019.
FILE - Journalists wait for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's arrival at a polling station during parliamentary elections, in Kyiv, Ukraine, July 21, 2019.

WASHINGTON/KYIV - Journalists and free speech advocates say proposed laws to regulate Ukraine's media pose a threat to free expression and independent reporting in the eastern European country.

Before ascending to Ukraine's highest office last year, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had campaigned on a pledge to limit the influence of oligarchs over national news outlets while safeguarding all media platforms against Russian disinformation and propaganda.

A handful of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs dominate its media marketplace, whose major television and radio broadcasters are known for taking editorial cues from owners. Zelenskiy’s primary political backer, billionaire tycoon Igor Kolomoisky, owns 1+1, one of Ukraine's largest media conglomerates.

Critics say that, if passed, the laws could too easily be exploited as instruments of state censorship. But supporters say they have a civic duty to both protect media independence and thwart disinformation.

'Key duty of the state'

"The key duty of the state is to defend its information space and to give its citizens the right to obtain truthful information," said Anatoliy Maksymchuk, the first deputy minister of culture.

Introduced by Zelenskiy's ruling lawmakers in December, a draft media regulation law would create a television and radio licensing process led by a commission authorized to ban media outlets.

Another disinformation law put forward by the Culture, Youth and Sports Ministry in January proposes classifying journalists in three groups: information distributors, journalists, and professional journalists.

FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks with journalists in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 10, 2019.

Only the latter category of "professional" class journalists would be eligible for credentials to attend government and parliamentary events and receive special protection and government support in the event of physical attacks, which are common for journalists in Ukraine.

Invitation to censorship

Securing a credential would require membership in a state-controlled "professional journalists association" that would abide to an as-yet-unwritten code of ethics. The association would be answerable to a state information commissioner empowered to fine or block media outlets from publishing reports.

"We condemn the division of journalists into the categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’” Serhiy Tomilenko, head of the Ukrainian National Association of Journalists, told VOA's Ukrainian Service. “This is in fact an introduction of the state license on [the] journalistic profession,” he said. “Journalism is a societal, open profession. Ukraine has international obligations to protect everyone who does journalistic work.”

Tomilenko also said a disinformation law clause introducing criminal penalties for “systemic distribution of disinformation” could become “a norm that many fear can be used to silence the independent press."

Not what Zelenskiy promised

Michael Isikoff, chief investigative journalist with U.S.-based Yahoo News, says Ukrainian lawmakers need to rethink their approach to combatting disinformation.

"Disinformation is unquestionably a serious global threat, but the dangers of letting governments regulate and determine what's true and what's false may be just as great as disinformation itself," Isikoff told VOA. "The problem you get into is, when the government decides what true information is and what disinformation is ...governments tend to believe that anything critical of the way they do business is disinformation."

FILE - Activists protest against TV channels they see as agents of Russian disinformation, in Kyiv, Sept. 5, 2019. Their sign reads "To believe TV channels '112' and 'NewsOne' is to betray the 'Maidan' (Ukraine's revolution of dignity)."

Isikoff also said the laws contradict Zelenskiy's anti-corruption platform and would likely compromise his standing in the West.

"Zelenskiy has been portrayed in the United States as a reformer, somebody trying to root out corruption," said Isikoff. "So it was a bit jarring to read that his administration is proposing legislation that would restrict core freedom, which is freedom of the press.”

Criminal disinformation

A major concern among journalists and media experts is the law's introduction of criminal responsibility for the distribution of disinformation.

Current drafts of the legislation, for example, carry sentences of up to five years in prison for "repetitive distribution of disinformation that poses danger to national security" through "automated computer programs," such as online bots.

Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says such matters are best left to civil courts.

"Whenever there’s an intent to criminalize, be it libel or defamation or, in this case, disinformation, we believe that definitely may lead to more limits to freedom of speech and media freedom," she said.

Journalistic caste system

Dividing journalists into officially recognized categories, she added, was of particular concern.

"Whenever we see the government attempt to say 'this is a journalist ...and this is just a blogger or just a commentator,' we see how some categories are being discriminated against, being limited in their work," he said. "This is not what we want to happen in Ukraine."

Zelenskiy’s supporters give the legislation mixed reviews.

FILE - Ukrainian business tycoon and owner of one of Ukraine's largest media conglomerates, Igor Kolomoisky, speaks with journalists in Kyiv, Ukraine Sept. 13, 2019.

Despite some ministerial-level support, six members of the parliament’s Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy on Monday issued a statement of concern about “several aspects” of the draft legislation, including the “disproportionate level of punishment and criminalization of some types of journalistic work,” how and whom gets to craft the legal definition of “disinformation,” and the division of journalists into classes.

"We believe that such methods can lead to an offensive on freedom of expression," the statement said.

'Extremely toxic'

Tetiana Popova, a media commentator and former Ukrainian information minister, now works for the Freedom of Speech and Protection of Journalists Council (FSPJ).

The council is a presidential advisory body Zelenskiy created in November. Its mission is to protect "the constitutional right to freedom of speech, build effective interaction between state agencies, the media, civil institutions, [and] prevent obstruction of legal professional activities of journalists.”

"The law is extremely toxic,” Popova told the Kyiv Post newspaper. Under current drafts, investigative reporters such as Denys Bihus would already be behind bars, she said.

"How [Zelenskiy’s] Servant of the People party and the president will get out of it, I don’t know," she said.

'Much more is needed'

Maksymchuk, the deputy culture minister, also said the legislation remains a work in progress, and that Ukrainian citizens will have the opportunity for input in open forums.

"In the framework of this discussion, we will address the points of contention, issues that are not acceptable for the media community," he told VOA. "We will amend the bill taking into account these discussions. But we must start this conversation so that we can defend our information space."

Kyiv-based journalists, however, say lawmakers aren’t responding to requests for discussion or public hearings.

Ukraine currently has multiple laws that regulate print media, television and radio, most of which were passed in the late 1990s.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Ukraine 102nd out of 180 countries in its 2019 annual World Press Freedom Index, saying that “much more is needed to loosen the oligarchs’ tight grip on the media.”

This story originated in VOA's Ukrainian Service. Pete Cobus contributed reporting.