Journalists have condemned the media bill signed into law by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Dec. 29 as a step towards censorship, U.S. newspaper The New York Times reports.
Although some of the law's harsher provisions have been watered down in response to criticism, serious concerns about the regulator's independence remain, national and international media warned on Dec. 30.
The law extends the powers of Ukraine's state broadcasting regulator to online and print media. Previous drafts gave the regulator the power to fine media outlets, revoke their licenses, temporarily block certain online publications without a court order, and require social media platforms and search giants such as Google to remove content that violates the law.
Zelenskyy, whose administration has been accused of undermining press freedom in recent years, ordered in 2019 that a law be drafted to tighten media regulation.
The measure was passed by Ukraine's parliament this month, along with a number of other bills that lawmakers said were intended to help the country meet European Union conditions for membership.
But Ukrainian journalists and international press freedom groups raised concerns about the media bill as it passed through parliament, saying it went far beyond EU requirements. They accuse the government of using membership commitments as an excuse to tighten control over the press.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an NGO that fights for press freedom around the world, called on Ukrainian lawmakers to scrap the bill in September, saying it strengthens "government control over information at a time when citizens need it the most."
The European Federation of Journalists, whose secretary general called an earlier draft of the law "worthy of the worst authoritarian regimes," said on Dec. 30 that the legislation continues to contravene European standards of press freedom because the independence of the state media regulator, whose members are appointed by the president and parliament, cannot be guaranteed.
The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine alleged a lack of transparency during the consideration of the bill, claiming that changes were made in closed meetings of parliamentary committees and that media representatives and the public were not given enough time to respond.
Ukrainian officials have rejected accusations that the EU requirements were used as a cover to restrict press freedom. They claim that substantial changes to the draft law were made after consultations with media professionals and argued that fundamental 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," said Yevheniya Kravchuk, deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Information Policy, after the draft law was approved.
At least one Ukrainian organization focusing on press freedom, the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information, said on Dec. 29 it was largely satisfied with the revised legislation but would monitor its implementation.
"To improve it, we will need to introduce amendments to the Constitution, which is unfortunately not possible during the martial law," said Oksana Romaniuk, Executive Director of the IMI.