(Moscow) – The Ukrainian parliament should immediately repeal new legislation that requires some independent groups to register as “foreign agents” and introduces numerous restrictions on public demonstrations, media, and the Internet. The legislation, which consists of dozens of amendments to numerous laws, was rammed through parliament in two days.
The amendments require Ukrainian groups that receive funding from foreign sources and participate in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.” They also criminalize libel, impose additional restriction on mass media and the Internet, and introduce administrative and criminal penalties for a wide range of violations related to protest activities.
“These amendments are a serious blow to basic freedoms, association, and expression,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They are obviously a response to the recent protests and are the biggest setback to rights in Ukraine in years.”
The draft law was introduced on January 14, 2014, the first day parliament was in session after the holiday recess, by two members of the ruling Party of Regions. Parliament voted on January 16 without review by parliamentary committees or any discussion.
During the morning of the session on January 16, several opposition deputies blocked the podium and prevented the parliament’s chairman from leaving his office. Once the session started, and several minutes after the vote on the 2014 budget, the vice speaker proposed adding to the agenda other draft laws in the remaining time. The vice speaker also announced that since the opposition was trying to block the parliament’s work, the voting on remaining laws would continue without debate and with a show of hands instead of using the electronic voting system.
Within 20 minutes, parliament had approved all the amendments and seven additional laws.
The amendments affect a series of Ukrainian laws, including the Code of Administrative Offenses, the Criminal Code, the Law on Civic Associations, the Law on Security Services, the Tax Code, the Law on the Status of Judges, and the Law on Telecommunications.
The amendments borrow heavily from similar legislation adopted in 2012 in Russia and used for cracking down on independent groups there. They require nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding and participate in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents” and include the words “foreign agent” in their names and all their materials. Political activities are broadly defined as involvement in “decision-making by state bodies, changing their defined public policy, and for forming public opinion for the above purposes.”
Groups will have three months to register, and failure to comply may lead to the organization being disbanded by a court. “Foreign agent” groups will have additional tax burdens and extensive additional reporting requirements.
“The ‘foreign agents’ law is, and is intended to be, very damaging for independent advocacy in Ukraine,” Gorbunova said. “By trying to equate foreign funding with being an agent of foreign interests, it aims to tarnish independent groups as “hidden enemies.”
The law’s ambiguity and broad scope of interpretation also opens it to abusive and arbitrary enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.
The amendments also introduce criminal responsibility for libel, decriminalized in Ukraine in 2001. They further criminalize “extremist activity,” broadly defined as production, possession, and dissemination of “extremist” materials that may contain calls to capture state power by force or “interfere with activities of state authorities,” including through media and the Internet as well as at public gatherings and rallies. Penalties range from a fine to up to three years in prison.
The amendments impose several new restrictions clearly aimed at suppressing protests that have been ongoing in Kiev and other cities since November 2013. They introduce new types of administrative offenses – including wearing masks and helmets during public rallies, forming convoys of five cars or more, and installing tents, stages, and other constructions for holding a rally – and increase sanctions for such existing offenses as violating the procedures for organizing or participating in public protests.
The law also introduces harsh criminal sanctions for certain violations – for example, up to five years in prison for blocking administrative buildings and premises.
The new legislative amendments introduce mandatory licensing of Internet providers and require all mass media that provides information services to the public to obtain state registration as an “information agency.” They further allow the state to limit access to an information agency or an Internet resource that disseminates information that is “against the law” or operates without a license, including by blocking access to Internet sites without a court decision.
“The law effectively is an effort to halt politically unwelcome public rallies,” Gorbunova said. “Between the overly broad definitions and disproportionate punishments, its primary goal is to have a chilling effect on the protest movement in Ukraine.”