Ukraine backs tough TV language rules to limit Russian

Olga SHYLENKO
Police officers on duty outside Ukraine's parliament in Kiev on May 18, 2017

Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday backed tough limits on the amount of Russian allowed to be aired on television in a step that is likely to raise the Kremlin's ire.

A bill requiring major channels to broadcast at least three-quarters of their programmes in the Ukrainian language passed parliament by an overwhelming 269-15 margin.

The bill was adopted just a week after Ukraine blocked Russia's most popular social media networks and a top internet search engine in a self-proclaimed effort to prevent Kremlin propaganda from reaching the crisis-torn former Soviet state.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko vowed to sign the legislation and bemoaned the amount of Russian still spoken on Ukrainian airwaves.

"I have drawn the attention of channel owners and managers on several occasions to the inadmissibly low amount of Ukrainian spoken," Poroshenko wrote on Facebook.

"On some channels the ratio was at 15 percent! Gentlemen, have you forgotten what country you live in?!"

Most people in Ukraine speak both languages but Russian is used more often in the east where government forces have been battling Kremlin-backed separatists for over three years.

Moscow has long accused the former Soviet republic of persecuting its Russian speakers.

Ukraine came under intense criticism from free speech advocates and domestic users for prohibiting last week the Russian equivalent of Facebook and other popular internet services.

But nationalists and senior politicians saw it as a proper response to an information campaign that Russia is waging alongside the insurgency in the east of the country.

The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014 and turned Moscow and Kiev into sworn foes.

- 'New crackdown on rights' -

Kiev has been gradually expanding its list of outlawed Russian goods and Russians barred from entering the country for either voicing support for the Kremlin's March 2014 annexation of Crimea or the separatist fiefdoms.

Numerous Russian television series and movies have already been thrown off the airwaves and banned at cinemas. Ukraine has also blocked the import and sale of some books.

Ukraine's free speech and information policy committee chief Viktoriya Syumar said the bill she co-wrote was in complete agreement with existing European standards.

"Such laws exist in a number of European countries," she told lawmakers.

"Totalitarianism only existed when Ukrainian was banned from use in our land," she added in reference to the Soviet practise of forcing other republics to speak Russian.

"This law will work for Ukraine, for Ukrainian culture and for Ukrainian performers, actors, directors and everyone who respects their country," she said.

But Ukraine's Opposition Bloc -- a faction that includes members of the disbanded pro-Russian party of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych -- issued a statement calling the bill "a new crackdown on the rights and freedoms of citizens."

The bill makes an allowance for local channels to only show half of their broadcasts in Ukrainian.