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18 October, 2012

How Information Society Can Drive Democratic Change in Ukraine

European institutions should make building an information society in Ukraine one of the priorities of Ukrainian-European cooperation.

Freedom of expression has long been one of democracy's most important tools. Today, censorship of expression has become more difficult because the Internet challenges the hierarchy of authoritarian regimes. More and more general access to the Internet has — once and for all — given citizens the right to know, and to share, knowledge with others. An Internet society is a knowledge society. Consequently, in the long run it will be difficult to preserve undemocratic power. (As a born optimist I am trying to persuade myself of that here in Ukraine before the election…)

States that try to hinder people’s access to stories other than those their government wants to tell are also states lacking development and economic growth. The development of the Internet has given societies all over the world the fastest growth of opportunity ever seen, and thereby contributed to growth in a world that is full of stories of economic crisis.

There are enormous economic and political aspects in building an information society. For Ukraine, it could be the main tool to help overcome the big problem of corruption; it could promote new commercial opportunities, and enhance trans-border cooperation. Key elements could include education, raising awareness and communication in the new informational "world order".

Who governs this fantastic development of the Internet? - The fantastic answer is: Everybody, Anybody!

Today's agenda should include ensuring the development of information and communication technologies with – in the jargon of IT — multi-stakeholder partnerships of government, law enforcement agencies, individuals, businesses, public organizations, and national and international organizations which should all strive for common goals and shared responsibilities. This has functioned so far, so don’t spoil it!

It’s a pity that the Ukrainian government's declaration last year to be “The Year of the Information Society” did not become more than a declaration and hence became a lost opportunity! This is sad, because developing an information society in Ukraine is the most important tool to overcoming economic decline and guaranteeing the fulfilment of democratic standards in Ukrainian society and the implementation of good governance and self-regulation, as well as raising public awareness and providing a modern basis for the intellectual and cultural development of the country.

Instead the Ukrainian IT business has to try every day to survive in battle with new taxes, restrictions, demands for licenses and permission. Ukrainian civic and expert society is at permanent war with the Ukrainian parliament and government (each year the Ukrainian parliament registers about 70 draft media-related laws, majority of them is declared as “European”, but which in fact strongly contradict European standards on human rights).

On the agenda should also be how we ensure transparency, accountability and responsibility in decision making on e-governance and self-development of electronic commerce; how we fight cybercrime, defend freedom of expression and media pluralism; how we manage the proper administration of critical Internet resources, the preservation of cultural diversity, the development of e-education, e-health care and e-environmental protection. The challenge is to ensure both the freedom of the Internet — and on the Internet.

European institutions should make building an information society in Ukraine one of the priorities of Ukrainian-European cooperation. Let me use this opportunity today to extend a special thank you to the embassies of France and Sweden that have been the main supporters of EMP's efforts to develop tools to improve the conditions of the Internet in Ukraine. We have also earlier welcomed the priority declared when the UK had the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, to promote an open Internet and to ensure both access and content on the Internet so that freedom of expression could be promoted to ensure that the Council of Europe's internet governance strategy is not only adopted, but also implemented.

In the last few years under the enormous pressure of Ukrainian society and European institutions, two major achievements on providing media freedom in Ukraine were reluctantly made: Ratification by Ukraine of the European Convention on trans-frontier television and the adoption of the Law on access to public information. Unfortunately, the implementation of these laws in practice so far is very distant from European standards.

Public broadcasting in Ukraine is one of the major commitments before the Council of Europe. This commitment has not been fulfilled during all this years. There is also the danger that in the end it will be done in the traditional Ukrainian manner – just by changing the signboard on the State Broadcasting Company. That will mean that journalistic standards will remain the same, and investigative journalism will not appear on its programmes. That is why it is extremely important to develop Internet TV, which can also be the only chance for regional and local broadcasters to survive the digital switch-over. Such developments again demand a lot of educational programmes both for broadcasters and the population, as well as political and administrative support.

Freedom House's annual status on freedom on the Internet says that Ukraine has relatively liberal legislation governing the Internet and access to information, but recently a number of initiatives were introduced with the aim of controlling the electronic media.

The Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine (IMTUU) states that a violation of tax moratorium on tested media, in particular, of TVi channel indicates demonstrative pressure on the media before the parliamentary elections. 

Furthermore, there is no transparency of media-ownership. In addition, we see the widespread use of “paid” commentary in the media. It is often so obvious that it is easily detected, but it shows a growing tendency of the system’s ability to “corrupt” editors and journalists, thus increasing the self-censorship.

Independent magazines like The Ukrainian Week magazine now experience prohibition on the sale of the magazine at the international airport Borispol, because it “contains materials that criticize the government". Ukraine should not allow such examples of pressure on the free press, as this is an example of an anti-civilized response to the fair, honest and open work of journalists.

Recently we have seen new risks to media freedom from lawmakers:

A law on defamation with criminal responsibility for libel and defamation was passed in the first reading, but after big demonstrations it was so far cancelled. This is a law that is in direct contradiction to Ukraine’s commitments to the Council of Europe.

A law "On protecting public morality” has long been on the table. It could be an easy tool to use to put politically-motivated restrictions on the Internet. It seems to have been temporarily given up before the election, but will still be a future threat to the freedom of the Internet.

On the table is also a draft law on obligatory registration for all on-line informational agencies, which could be spread to cover every blogger or social network user.

So the “relatively liberal legislation governing the internet and access to information” that Freedom House is talking about, is also at stake. Ukraine must depart its Soviet past of narrow isolation.

I would like to conclude by using this opportunity today to mention two main obstacles for Ukraine's international participation in necessary and inspiring international cooperation:

First, many countries have set up a visa jungle for Ukrainian citizens, which deprive them of the opportunity to participate in international cooperation despite invitation. How can you expect future talented Ukrainians to be inspired abroad if they are met with mistrust and bureaucracy when they apply for a visa?

Second, Ukrainian governmental institutions deprive the country of the possibility to participate in an adequate and accountable manner in the work of international forums and organizations, such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), European Dialogue on Internet Governance (EuroDIG), Governmental Advisory Committee at ICANN, and others. Moreover, even the Council of Europe Conference on Internet Freedom was ignored by Ukrainian authorities. Freedom of the Internet is also freedom to learn freely from each other in the international community.

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