Ukraine Rolls Back Freedom of Speech

A year ago today, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara addressed the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and told representatives of 57 nations that media freedom would be one of his country's priorities as it assumed the chairmanship of the regional security organization. This gave hope to media freedom advocates in Ukraine and around the world.

Ukrainian lawmakers must be grinning like Cheshire Cats this morning.

Indeed, there is an Alice's Adventures In Wonderland scent floating in the air today because on Thursday legislation was rammed through the Verkhovna Rada that, among other things, recriminalized defamation.

Other parts of the legislative package, which was passed by a show of hands, makes it a crime to distribute extremist materials (whatever that means) through media, including the Internet and gives the president and parliament the right to sack members of the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting.

The problem is this: Ukraine is only two weeks out from ending its run as chairman of the OSCE, an international body that believes in a comprehensive approach to security that encompasses politico-military, economic and environmental and human aspects. Simply put, without respect for human rights such as freedom of expression, there is no security.

Yesterday's move in the Verkhovna Rada is a slap in the face to everyone who believed in Ukraine's promise a year ago. Worse yet, it portends a rollback on the protections afforded as basic human rights -- including the right of free media -- that are spelled out in OSCE commitments made over the past 38 years and agreed to by successive governments of Ukraine.

A decade ago, Ukraine decriminalized defamation and was one of the nations with a bright future and a legal environment conducive to free expression and free media. Today that seems like a long time ago.