By Heini Järvinen

On 12 August, the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) approved in first reading a draft law (No. 4453) to impose sanctions on Russian companies and individuals over their alleged support and financing of separatism in Ukraine. The draft law included provisions to allow the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (RNBO) to shut down or block any website or TV or radio station without a court order on the grounds of national security.

The draft law was submitted to the parliament by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on 8 August, only four days before the first reading, with no input from outside advisers. It was made available to the public only once it had passed the first reading, with an impact study stating that

“the bill does not require consultation with civil society”.

Local journalists and media activists as well as international press freedom organisations immediately criticised the draft law, calling it a “major setback for freedom of information in Ukraine”, and accusing the government of using concerns about national security as an excuse to introduce censorship.

As a response to the quick reaction from civil society, Mykola Tomenko, parliamentary deputy and head of the parliament’s committee on freedom of speech, announced on 13 August that the parliament was working to remove the media censorship elements from the draft law.

Tetiana Semiletko, a lawyer working for the Kyiv-based Media Law Institute stated that

“we also see that our own media might be banned, shut down or restricted, with nothing more than a decision by the security council and a presidential decree.”

On 14 August, the parliament voted to adopt the national security law. 244 parliamentarians out of 450 supported its adoption. The law establishes a legal right to implement sanctions against 172 individuals and 65 entities in Russia and other countries for supporting “terrorism” in Ukraine. The sanctions include a provision to halt natural gas transit from Russia through Ukrainian territory, and to target Russia’s defence, financial and transport sectors.

Compared to the draft law approved on first reading, most of the censorship measures were removed or softened, and the law will not have impact on the freedom of media. However, even if the suggested media provisions were finally dropped, the parliament has proposed moving some of them into existing media laws to achieve more control over media and to simplify imposing bans. The threat is therefore very much alive.

Ukrainian parliament approves very dangerous draft law on first reading (12.08.2014)
http://en.rsf.org/ukraine-ukrainian-parliament-approves-very-12-08-2014,46793.html

Ukrainian law would allow authorities to block websites, along with other media (13.08.2014)
http://gigaom.com/2014/08/13/ukrainian-law-would-allow-authorities-to-block-websites-along-with-other-media/

New sanctions bill raises free-press fears in Ukraine (13.08.2014)
http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-sanctions-russia-free-press/26529268.html

Ukraine approves bill to impose sanctions on Russia (14.08.2014)
http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/ukraine-approves-bill-to-impose-sanctions-on-russia-114081400892_1.html

In the fight against Russia, Ukraine flirts with kremlinesque Internet censorship (14.08.2014)
http://globalvoicesonline.org/2014/08/14/ukraine-russia-censorship-media-security-sanctions/

Ukraine passes law on Russia sanctions, gas pipelines (14.08.2014)
http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-legislation-sanctions-russia/26530692.html

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