The Party of the Regions and their supporters in Parliament yesterday took the first steps to reinstate the old Soviet law on defamation which was removed 11 years ago by voting it through its first reading. The draft law would re-criminalise defamation and provide for prison terms of up to five years for anyone, including the media, who spread "deliberately untrustworthy information" which denigrated a person, hurt their honour and dignity or undermined their business reputation.

Opposition parties have unanimously condemned the law, which they believe is aimed at silencing unwelcome criticism from 'the remnants of democracy in Ukraine's independent media'. The biggest fear is that it would lead either to widespread self-censorship, or result in journalists being imprisoned. As well as shielding politicians, it could put Ukraine's wealthy elite beyond media criticism - particularly as the latter group has already shown its readiness to pursue journalists and others through the courts within and outside Ukraine.

President Yanukovych, growing increasingly sensitive to adverse western comments about the threats to media freedom in Ukraine, has told local officials that they must not allow pressure to be exerted on the media and must react promptly to complaints. But the Party of the Regions is unrepentant, saying that many western countries have similar defamation laws and, moreover, that its following Russia's example, which has also recently put a similar law on the statute book.

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, expressed concern today about the moves to introduce the new law. She said that the law would "represent a serious setback for media freedom in the country. Criminalizing speech in a modern democracy means stifling debate and protecting public officials from criticism, and can only lead to self-censorship on the part of the media.”

To read more in English, click here, and in Ukrainian, here and here.

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