Zelensky Signs Controversial News Media Regulation

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Thursday signed into law a bill that expands the government’s regulatory power over the news media, a measure that journalist organizations have warned could erode press freedoms in the country.

While some of the law’s more stringent provisions were relaxed in response to criticism, serious concerns about the independence of the regulatory body remained, domestic and international news media groups said on Friday, noting that they were still reviewing details of the final 279-page legislation.

The law expands the authority of Ukraine’s state broadcasting regulator to cover the online and print news media. Previous drafts gave the regulator the power to fine news media outlets, revoke their licenses, temporarily block certain online outlets without a court order and request that social media platforms and search giants like Google remove content that violates the law, the Ukrainian news media reported.

Mr. Zelensky, whose administration has been accused of undermining press freedom in recent years, ordered the drafting of a law increasing media regulation in 2019.

The measure was passed by Ukraine’s Parliament this month, along with a spate of other bills that lawmakers say were intended to help the country meet the European Union’s legislative conditions for membership. The bills included measures to protect the rights of national minorities.

But Ukrainian journalists and international press freedom groups raised alarms about the media bill as it advanced through Parliament, saying that it went far beyond what the European Union requires and accusing the government of using the membership obligations as a pretext to seize greater control of the press.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit group that champions press freedom around the world, called for Ukrainian lawmakers to drop the bill in September, saying that it tightened “government control over information at a time when citizens need it the most.”

The European Federation of Journalists, whose general secretary called a previous draft of the law “worthy of the worst authoritarian regimes,” said on Friday that the legislation remained in contradiction with European press freedom standards because the independence of the state media regulator, whose members are appointed by the president and Parliament, could not be guaranteed.

“Ukraine will demonstrate its European commitment by promoting a free and independent media, not by establishing state control of information,” said the federation’s general secretary, Ricardo Gutiérrez.

The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine said there was a lack of transparency as the draft bill was revised, claiming that changes were made in closed-door parliamentary committee meetings and that members of the news media and the public were not given sufficient time to respond.

The union said in a statement issued before Ukraine’s Parliament voted to approve the bill that the legislation would erode the freedoms that “distinguish the social system of Ukraine from the regime of dictatorial Russia.” The union did not immediately respond to a request for comment after Mr. Zelensky signed the bill into law.

The main legal department of Ukraine’s Parliament also noted in an analysis published this month that it had been given little time to review changes in the bill and that the legislation’s language gave insufficient consideration to the risk of introducing censorship.

Ukrainian officials have rejected charges that E.U. requirements were being used as a cover to rein in press freedoms. Significant revisions to the draft bill were made in consultation with news media professionals, they said, and argued that sweeping changes to Ukraine’s media legislation were overdue.

“Of course, this bill is even broader than the E.U. directive, because we needed to change and modernize our media legislation, which has not been changed for 16 years,” Yevheniia Kravchuk, the deputy chair of the Parliament’s information policy committee, said in a statement after the bill was approved. “It was adopted back when there was no internet at all.”

At least one Ukrainian organization focused on press freedom, the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information, said on Thursday that it was largely satisfied with the revised legislation but would monitor its implementation. The organization’s main concern remains ensuring the independence of the media regulator.

“To improve it, we will need to introduce amendments to the Constitution, which is unfortunately not possible during the martial law,” said the executive director, Oksana Romaniuk. “It is one of our main plans for future.”

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