Statement on the adoption of a libel law in Ukraine

The Ukrainian Parliament has drafted a law that would make defamation punishable by up to five years in prison, restoring a Soviet-era practice that Ukraine abolished 11 years ago. Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog, has commented that the new bill would “threaten the very existence of independent journalism.”

Below is the statement of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) on the adoption of a libel law in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Institute in London is an affiliate of UCU.

The Administration and the Senate of the Ukrainian Catholic University express their deep concern that on September 18 the Parliament of Ukraine adopted in a first reading an amendment to the criminal code, which would foresee a large fine or even imprisonment for so-called “deliberate dissemination of untrustworthy information discrediting the honor and dignity of another person or undermining his reputation.”

By itself, libel is an anti-spiritual and antisocial phenomenon as it distorts the truth and deforms interpersonal relationships. Libel is an evil that must be eradicated in all its forms and at all levels of political and public life in accordance with the current Ukraine rules on civil liability for defamation. There is no need to criminalize this liability.

The actions of the ruling majority leave no doubt as to the true purpose of the law. With its adoption, the current government has made another step toward the curtailment of democratic freedoms in our country. During a time when the Ukrainian nation must make a strong civilizational breakthrough, Ukraine is again thrust back to the archaic past, from which, it seemed, it left forever. Today, however, it is clear that the deep roots of communist totalitarianism in Ukrainian society have not been eradicated but today germinate despotism with metastases and parasitize on our frustrations and fears in the face of the economic crisis and the challenges of a new era.

Freedom of speech is not a privilege of the rich and powerful. It is the society’s best tool to keep the government in line. Those who chose to enter politics, to serve the common good as their professional career, should be ready for to have their “lives under the microscope” of mass media, public opinion, the expert community, and not to be protected from the intimidation of journalists regarding their criminal liability. Recognizing the inextricable link between freedom of speech and academic freedom, we urge the academic sphere not to stand idly by while there are attempts to curtail the freedom of speech in our country, but to stand in solidarity with journalists.

The Ukrainian Catholic University once again warns the current government and Ukrainian society that the restoration of the Soviet social and legal system and a return to authoritarian will not safeguard those in power from deserved criticism and accountability to the people, and will not protect society from the challenges of time. Sliding to the criminal past, we lose hope for a successful future.

Every national deputy who votes for this law in its second reading must keep this in mind.

Senate and Administration of the Ukrainian Catholic University