Despite assurances made by Ukraine’s recently elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to guarantee press freedom, this January the country’s culture minister introduced two bills that would seriously threaten it.

The Ukrainian government has said that the two bills, one on disinformation and one related to the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting, are aimed at combating the rapid dissemination of disinformation facing the country. But experts say that both bills would hamper the country’s media and journalists from playing their democratic role by subjugating them to increased state control.

“The introduction of these bills was quite a surprise to us, because we had promises from the president and the head of the parliament that they would not repress media freedom and journalists”, Tatiana Popova, an expert with the NGO StratCom and a member of President Zelensky’s freedom of speech council, told the International Press Institute (IPI) in an interview. “These promises included the pledge not to make the media laws any worse and that they would not split the journalists into the right ones and the wrong ones.”

Want a press card? Submit to the state

Splitting up journalists into the right ones and the wrong does exactly what the “disinformation bill” aims to do.

According to Popova, the division would be accomplished by setting up a new state-controlled association of journalists that would have the power to issue press cards. Any journalist who wants to be recognized by the state as a “professional” must be a member of the association for three years. The association would also be enabled to seek tougher sentences for attacks on its member journalists than would otherwise be the case.

Another provision in the disinformation bill would allow a government-appointed ombudsman to define what content is and is not true and to demand that the respective media organization remove content considered false. Failure to remove such content could lead to a criminal charge of spreading disinformation. In such cases, courts will be able to issue a fine of between approximately 185,000 and 370,000 euros. If the courts judge that the media outlet or journalist has committed the offense three times, a prison sentence of two years may be handed out. The length of the prison sentence would increase with subsequent transgressions, up to a maximum of seven years.

Popova said that even if the government walked back the provision on jail time, the colossal fines would be enough to cripple even larger media outlets.

Serhiy Shturkhetskyy, chair of the Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine (IMTUU), told IPI the punishments were exceedingly harsh and especially dangerous given the unstable nature of the courts.

“This is all happening in the context of an unreformed court system and lack of confidence in the judiciary, as well as the courts’ dependence on the political situation”, he said.

The president of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU), Sergiy Tomilenko, said the disinformation bill posed a grave threat to the country’s journalists and media freedom.

“According to the ministry’s presentation, the proposed document outlines methods to control media and ways to combat fake news. However, the journalistic community of Ukraine is already concerned that this initiative is more a tool for harassing Ukrainian journalists than a method of combating Russian disinformation”, Tomilenko says.

In addition, the disinformation bill would require media outlets to publish an “index score” of trust or face penalties. Experts say the bill does not clearly define how trust should be measured.

“We have met with the minister numerous times over this issue and have asked that these provisions be deleted from the bill, but he did not listen to us at all. Instead he is trying to convince people that the bill is fine as it is but based on what different media lawyers have told us, 95 percent of it should be deleted”, Popova said.

Increased regulation of print and online media

The second bill, simply called “On Media”, has also drawn criticism for granting vast powers to the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine.

“The authors of the law want to include within the purview of the National Council, in addition to television and radio, also print and online media”, Tomilenko explained. “Under the new powers, it will be able to impose sanctions for violations of media law requirements – a fine, cancellation of a license or a ban on media activity in Ukraine.”

If the bill is passed into law, it will create a confusing legal environment, Shturkhetskyy added.

“The media regulation system will be broken. For example, the National Television Council will receive new functions, and Internet media, television and newspapers will be regulated by this law. The public broadcaster will be regulated by another law, and the rights of journalists by one more law. This will lead to turbulence in the regulation of media sphere.”

Calling out for international solidarity

According to Tomilenko, NUJU has been engaging in discussions with other stakeholders and working to convince the government of the pitfalls of the disinformation bill in particular.

“The Union has repeatedly expressed its reservations about this bill. We held public discussions with the participation of reputable journalists, media experts and media lawyers. We also invited the representatives of the authorities, but they refused our invitation”, he said.

He added: “Due to the opacity and non-publicity of the drafting of these bills, the union opposes these initiatives. We agree that the Ukrainian media legislation needs updating. But this should not be done in a hurry. All the details need to be discussed with the media community.”

Shturkhetskyy agreed: “Everything is done too fast.” The IMTUU head said he hoped for outside support. “Government officials, MPs, and officials of the President’s Office sometimes hear us. But they listen more to the opinions of reputable Western partners.”

The culture minister is expected to present a final draft law on the disinformation bill on February 28, with a parliamentary vote possible in March. The second bill, On Media, is expected to take significantly longer.