Ukraine's efforts to police Internet worry journalists

Sergei Sukhobok is well aware of the difficulties - and the dangers - of being an Internet journalist in Ukraine.

In 2001, he was pushed out of the online newspaper he started by angry financiers who accused him of being too critical of the government. In 2002, the offices of his new journal were raided and his computers destroyed by tax officers - a police force that often harasses government opponents. Later that year, police arrested Mr. Sukhobok on unknown charges, and he says he was shadowed by the secret police.

Sukhobok persevered and started a third online newspaper. Yet his resilience may prove insufficient to keep his career on track. Recent activity aimed at increasing government control over the Internet is threatening cyberjournalism in Ukraine, say journalists here. Two proposed laws, given initial approval by Ukraine's parliament in November, would give the government wide powers to interfere with press freedom. Ostensibly to combat terrorism, the laws - coming as an election year begins in Ukraine - have been widely interpreted as the first steps by President Leonid Kuchma in his bid to stay in office, and as a move by Ukraine away from European-style democracy.

"I think the government is trying to quiet opposition voices, and that these new laws will give them a legal basis to shut us down," Sukhobok says.

This antidemocratic trend is visible across the region. Belarus to the north has one of the world's most restrictive Internet policies, and opposition groups have virtually no way to reach the public. And press freedoms in Russia, which still has considerable influence in Ukraine, continue to erode as the government tightens its grip on the media.

The first of the restrictive laws, proposed by Ukraine's secret service (SBU), would require Internet providers to purchase and install equipment that would allow the SBU, a successor to the KGB, to monitor e-mails and websites. The second law would outlaw publishing anything "damaging to an individual's reputation" and make Internet journals legally responsible for the "reliability, completeness, and timeliness" of their reports. The law's vague wording makes it a powerful weapon against dissident online newspapers and nonconformist journalists, says Ivan Lozowy, director of the Institute of Statehood and Democracy, an independent think tank in Ukraine.

Both laws will probably be put to a vote by mid-February. Yuriy Lutsenko, a coauthor of the bill, told the Interfax News Agency that he sees no problem with the legislation: "This regulation is necessary. It enables a watch to be kept on what is happening in the traffic. When introducing the regulation, we made use of European experience, conducted public hearings, and I am not aware of any objections from Internet service providers."

Boris Mostovia, former director of Ukraine's Internet domain, views the legislation in a darker light. The government "wants to build a kind of Great Wall of China around the Internet," he says. "They don't want to use brute force. They are trying to do it through legislation."

Mr. Mostovia has experienced firsthand the government's sudden interest in the Internet. He lost his position as Ukraine domain director last July when control of the domain was wrested from the privately run company Hostmaster and handed over to the Ukrainian Center for Information Technology - a new body made up of the state communications committee and the SBU. Hostmaster has appealed, but Mostovia is pessimistic.

While the government began showing interest in obtaining the Ukraine domain in 2000, it was the murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze in November of that year - and the subsequent publication on the Internet of tape transcripts claiming to indicate possible involvement by key officials in Kuchma's government - that made Internet control a priority, Mostovia says. Gongadze had been investigating high-level government corruption. The death last month of Volodymyr Karachevtsev, an Internet journalist also investigating corruption in Ukraine, may intensify the pressure. While it is not clear whether he was murdered, the press-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders is urging a thorough investigation.

Governmental efforts to control cyberspace come as Ukraine begins preparations for presidential elections, to be held next fall, and are seen by many as an attempt by President Kuchma to muzzle a powerful source of opposition.

Others believe the country's powerful secret service is pulling the strings. "In my view, it is more of a sign of the general development in Ukraine," says Juri Durkot, a Ukrainian journalist. "We are not necessarily moving toward a dictatorship, but the trend is toward a police state."

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