Ukraine warned against defamation bill

Sep 19, 2012, 1:40 PM EDT

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — An international media watchdog urged Ukrainian lawmakers on Wednesday to reject a bill that would make defamation a crime, saying it could "threaten the very existence of independent journalism."

This week Ukraine's parliament, dominated by President Viktor Yanukovych's allies, tentatively approved a bill that would make defamation punishable by up to five years in prison, restoring a Soviet-era practice that Ukraine abolished 11 years ago.

Currently, alleged libel can only result in a civil lawsuit, and journalists who lose would just face fines.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said Wednesday that "such a return to the past would have a major impact on freedom of information in Ukraine." It said, "Journalists already have to confront many dangers and an increase in self-censorship inside news organizations."

The bill, which has yet to undergo a second reading, then be sent for approval to the president, has angered Ukrainian journalists, especially since it could affect their coverage of the nation's Oct. 28 parliamentary election.

Alexander Akymenko, an editor at Forbes Ukraine, suggested that all reporters could easily end up behind bars. "Now you need to have an already packed bag at home," Akymenko wrote on his Facebook page. "Just in case."

Serhiy Leshchenko, an investigative journalist with the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, whose reports are strongly critical of Yanukovych, said he is worried that he could be the first victim of the new law.

Watchdogs and opposition leaders say freedom of speech has taken a beating since Yanukovych came to power two years ago. Most television channels, the main source of information for Ukrainians, are controlled by government-friendly magnates, and opposition voices are rarely heard there.

Earlier this month, Yanukovych drew widespread condemnation when his security guards roughed up several reporters staging a silent protest during an international media conference, as the president spoke about freedom and democracy from a stage just meters (yards) away.

Yanukovych's office called for the creation of a special working group to analyze the bill.