Ukraine’s Media Law: Threat or Necessity?
Critics say that the bill allows the government full control; supporters maintain it aims to contain Russian propaganda.
Ukraine’s new media law has triggered controversy, dividing lawmakers and media professionals. Entering into force on March 31, the bill reforms Ukraine’s media landscape, specifically expanding the powers of the National Council for Television and Radio (NCTR) regulator to allow it to block outlets without a court ruling.
Media reform is one of the conditions set out by Brussels to start the dialogue on Ukraine's membership to the EU. The aims include introducing an independent regulator, enabling a competitive market and fending off the influence of vested interests in a country with a history of media ownership by powerful politicians and.
The bill’s supporters assert that a stronger regulator is needed to counter Kremlin disinformation amid Russia’s full-scale invasion. Critics, including Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists and the Independent Media Trade Union, argue that the bill can be used to censor Ukrainian voices critical of the government. The NCTR is directly controlled by the state and as such cannot be considered an independent regulator.
“This law is like a scalpel,” Volodymyr Torbich, editor-in-chief of the Agency of Journalistic Investigations Fourth Estate, told IWPR. “If used by a professional surgeon, it can cut out malignant tumours, helping fight hostile propaganda and disinformation. This can be done if the government in Ukraine is democratic, abiding by the laws and [consideration for] human rights. An independent court and a responsible civil society will help her in this.”
The bill’s provisions, however, can be manipulated, posing a threat to a democracy facing aggression.
“A scalpel in the hands of a criminal [authority] can turn into a weapon,” he explained. “An authoritarian power could use the law to obstruct or destroy unfavourable media, stating that ‘everything is within the law’,” Torbich continued, adding that “Ukrainians have repeatedly proved and still prove that they will not tolerate authoritarianism and disregard for civil rights.”
Under the bill’s provisions, Torbich’s agency will have to formally register as a media outlet. Until now it was registered as an NGO conducting investigations, which were then published on Ukrainian media.
In September, Ukraine’s Union of Journalists harshly criticised the then-draft bill, labeling it the “biggest threat to freedom of speech” the country faced since independence. It also stated that the law cast “the shadow of a dictator” over President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Consultations with media professionals led lawmakers to amend the bill, but concerns remain.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation have both called on the European Commission and the Council of Europe to convince the Ukrainian authorities to revise the law, in consultation with journalistic organisations and the media.
“President Zelensky has signed a controversial law that expands the government's powers to regulate the media,” read the statement issued by the IFJ. “It allows the state media regulator, the National Council, to regulate print and online media, as well as the Internet, television, radio, and online platforms such as YouTube and social networks. It also gives the state media regulator the right to fine media outlets, revoke their licences and temporarily block certain publications without a court decision.”
Politically, the NCTR operates under the auspices of the government: four of its eight members are appointed by the president and four by parliament, which is controlled by Zelensky’s Servant of the People party.
THE LAW’S PROVISIONS
The bill foresees that media outlets can be banned for publishing incorrect information about their ownership, disseminating “discriminatory” materials, publishing positive coverage of Russia’s invasion or displaying Nazi or Communist symbols.
The Council cannot block state-registered online media, but they can be blocked by a court after the fourth warning of violation. Non-registered online media with identified owners and journalists can be halted without a court ruling for 14 days after the fifth warning; after that, a court ruling would be needed to block them. No court ruling is required in the case of anonymous media with un-identified owners and reporters.
Oleksandr Burmahin, an NCTR member and one of the law's authors, argued that the bill was liberal. He told IWPR that the Council was still in the process of developing a monitoring mechanism, looking at other countries’ experience as well as Ukraine’s specific needs.
“Foreign experience shows that most regulators use an active approach. This is when they themselves monitor the online space and find cases of hate speech or other content violations… [using] softwares such as artificial intelligence,” Burmahin explained. “The passive approach is when the regulator checks the media after receiving specific complaints or appeals against it. I think that it will be best to use a passive model in Ukraine, that is, to react after the corresponding complaint.”
Media lawyer Liudmyla Pankratova also saw no immediate threat of authoritarianism in the law.
“The law clearly states that if you want to work as a media, then register, enter your source data, show who your editor is, who influences the formation of the media and the information it publishes, and work without violating the rules established by law. If you break it, take responsibility. Therefore, I do not see authoritarian signs that would indicate a threat to freedom of speech so far,” she told IWPR.
However, she raised concerns about how the law would be implemented, as well as the council’s capacity.
“It is not yet clear how the bill will work. There is still no registry of media entities, an electronic cabinet that would allow the media to submit an electronic application for registration,” she said, adding that few had read through the 300-page tome.
Pankratova noted that the bill provided safeguards against the council becoming too powerful.
“All [its] decisions can be appealed in court and are generally made only after a series of warnings, to which the alleged violators have not responded,” she explained to IWPR. “The block also comes after a series of ignored warnings. My opinion since 2014 is this: if an enemy resource sows propaganda and is a threat to the national security of the country, it is better to block it for a while."