Deputies want to criminalize libel on the Internet

A draft law that criminalizes libel in public space, including on the Internet has been registered in Ukrainian parliament. The authors of the project believe that this is a fair mechanism for situations where journalists spread false information about politicians. Lawyers say that this draft law is contrary to the European orientation of Ukraine and may lead to auto-censorship in the mass media and court proceedings for comments on Facebook.

The main innovations of the project are:

  • responsibility for libel up to 2 years of personal restraint, and in case the information is distributed “by public demonstration in works, mass media or on the Internet” the restriction will be up to 5 years;
  • imprisonment for up to 3 years, in case libel contains information about extremely serious crimes.

A comment by Vita Volodovska, a lawyer of the public organization “Laboratory of Digital Security”, which, among other things, analyzes the situation with freedom of speech on the Ukrainian Internet. The editors asked the lawyer, in particular, whether there would be a question of liability for likes and comments on social networks:

“Today, only civil liability is provided for the spreading of inaccurate information that could harm the reputation of a person. That is, if someone believes that the publication encroaches on his or her reputation, the person can independently file a lawsuit to a court denying such information, asking for realization of the right of reply and/or compensation for moral damages. An exception is the dissemination of false information with an aim of unfair competition, which is administrative liability (Article 164-3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of Ukraine). Criminal responsibility for libel existed in Ukraine until 2001, since the Soviet Criminal Code of 1960 was still in force until that time. The decriminalization of libel was one of the obligations of Ukraine when joining the Council of Europe.

Liability for likes on social media is not discussed for now (since only distribution of libel is the main issue), however, it is quite possible to become liable for comments. If a person considers that a post on Facebook or a comment underneath the post spreads false information about him or her, the one can initiate criminal proceedings.

Moreover, if the information will contain a charge of a serious or especially serious crime, it is no longer a question of restriction, but of imprisonment for up to 3 years. For example, if journalists spread information about possible connections between an official from the Ministry of Defense or the Security Service of Ukraine with the Russian Federation, this could be estimated as an accusation of high treason.

The dangerous side of libel getting back to the Criminal Code is that even the threat of being brought to liability can be a significant restrictive factor for journalists and the media, because criminal proceedings can be initiated against them for any investigation of abuse or corruption. This leads to self-censorship, especially with a level of trust to the Ukrainian courts… That is why the Council of Europe, the OSCE and other international organizations strongly condemn any attempts to return libel to the Criminal Code.”