Security Service Information Channels
A bill registered in parliament on 23 November has not received the publicity it deserves. Its claim to fame is not linked merely with its authorship, although the fact that the President has so used his right of legislative initiative is of significance. It also means that with the present parliamentary makeup, the law can be passed without a murmur.
Draft Law No. 9494 only speaks of some amendments to some laws however the explanatory note is more forthcoming. The President is proposing to create within the SBU [Security Service] "a counterintelligence unit for protecting the interests of the State in the sphere of information security". This, we are told, "should promote the concentration of forces and methods for … protecting the legitimate interests of the State and citizens’ rights in the information sphere from subversive intelligence activities of foreign security services, unlawful encroachments from organizations, groups or individuals".
Wind blowing from a Soviet past? The President’s "initiative" is dangerously similar to practice already seen among Ukraine’s post-Soviet neighbours, most notoriously, Belarus.
Nor are there any safeguards in Ukrainian legislation regulating what precisely is understood by "the information security sphere". In both a law on development of the information society from 2007 and the Doctrine of Information Security, passed by Presidential Decree in September 2009, the scope is considerably broader than mere protection of information and information systems from unauthorized access, use, etc. The Law defines information security as "protection of the vital interests of the individual, society, the state, preventing damage caused through incomplete, untimely or unreliable information, … negative effect of information, etc."
With all the will in the world it is difficult to believe that the President’s new legislative initiative is aimed at ensuring the public’s right to full, reliable and comprehensive information, including on television. The problem is not even in the fact that the Head of the SBU, Valery Khoroshkovsky also owns one of the television channels regularly slated for its unbalanced and misleading coverage of events in Ukraine.
Blithe optimism is also impeded by the sheer wealth of opportunity presented in the doctrine on information security which competes only with the Morality Act for woolly provisions making it quite impossible to foresee what is permitted and what banned. The norms mean precisely what those enforcing the law want them to mean.
Nor is it difficult to anticipate the likely interpretation by the SBU of the following: "protection [of the individual] from negative psychological-information effect" "preservation and increase of spiritual, cultural and moral values of the Ukrainian people"; "the safeguarding of socio-political stability"; and the task for the state of "forming a positive image of Ukraine". . It is easy also to foresee how they may deal with the following "main actual and potential threats to Ukraine’s information security": "The circulating in the world information realm of distorted, untruthful and biased information that damages Ukraine’s national interests"; "external adverse information impact on the public consciousness via the media and also the Internet."
No need to strain the imagination to find possible application of the above. Just over the last few days the First Deputy Prosecutor General, Renat Kuzmin has publicly bemoaned what he calls the distorted information about the Tymoshenko case supposedly "misleading" the international community. What he understands information security to entail is abundantly clear.
We can be certain that the SBU will understand where they are to look for threats to information security. They have plenty of experience, after all, with some of it quite fresh. Take just the SBU visit to the Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University and attempt to ban entry to Nico Lange, Director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Kyiv Office last year. Not to mention the ever more frequent cases of pressure brought to bear on civic organizations, as well as Soviet-style "prophylactic talks" with civic activists, journalists and others.
In Belarus, the KGB unit analogous to that which the President wants to see in Ukraine "protects the interests of the State" by blocking access within Belarus to sites which write about human rights violations, political prisoners and economic problems. Or, depending how you look at it, maliciously damages Belarus’ image and slanders its leaders. As do the civic activists and organizations that provide information about vote-rigging, the crushing of peaceful protest, arrests and repression.
The threat, both to the media and to the public in general, of this draft bill cannot be overstressed. The SBU’s arsenal is considerable, its experience of surveillance, fighting "terrorism" or "subversive activities" vast. All too many Ukrainians found President Yanukovych’s recent claims that armed members of the opposition were planning to seize power in Ukraine merely comical. The words seemed just too ridiculous. If those with the means at their disposal hear such words and understand what is expected of them, there will be very little to laugh about.
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