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By Richard Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian opposition parties sounded the alarm on Wednesday over a move by President Viktor Yanukovich's allies in parliament to reinstate defamation as a crime, saying it was aimed at further curbing the free press ahead of an election next month.
The draft law, which would provide for prison terms of up to five years for offenders, was rushed through its first reading on Tuesday by deputies of Yanukovich's Party of the Regions and their allies who hold the majority in parliament.
It would apply to anyone, including the media, who spread "deliberately untrustworthy information" which denigrated a person, hurt their honour and dignity or undermined their business reputation.
The proposal to return the old Soviet law to the statute books 11 years after it was removed came as opposition parties marshalled their forces for an October 28 parliamentary election which - with key opposition figures such as former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in jail - promises to be an acrimonious contest.
The United States and other Western governments say moves to curb media criticism inside the country form part of a gradual back-sliding on democracy and a trend towards greater authoritarianism in the country since Yanukovich came to power in February 2010.
Apparently reacting to growing complaints by the independent media, Yanukovich told a meeting of regional officials that exerting pressure on the media was unacceptable.
"If any such complaints are made to you, you must react to them quickly and not in any way allow the media to be put under pressure," he said, according to the presidential website.
But opposition parties said the proposed law, which has to clear a second reading and then be signed by Yanukovich to become effective, was directed at the activities of the few remaining free media outlets in the former Soviet republic.
"It is crystal clear that the authorities will use the law to suppress the remnants of democracy in the Ukrainian media," said a statement by the united opposition, which includes Tymoshenko's party, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland).
"This is the death of Ukrainian journalism and President Viktor Yanukovich with his paranoid fear and thirst for power is personally responsible for this," it said.
"If this rule goes through, it would lead to a third of the journalists going to jail and part of the opposition too," Mykola Tomenko, a deputy from Tymoshenko's party, told journalists.
Apart from potentially shielding politicians, the law could put Ukraine's super-wealthy entrepreneurs further beyond the reach of media criticism. Many Ukrainian oligarchs, some of whom bankroll political parties but rarely give press interviews, have shown themselves quick to threaten legal action or file lawsuits in foreign courts.
WBC world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, who heads the opposition Udar (Punch) party, said the move was an attempt to "shut journalists' mouths and force them to work in conditions where the authorities are either doing well, or doing very well or great, and all the rest is slander."
"If today's compromised and degraded parliament supports it (the law) we will change this shameful act in the first session of the newly-elected parliament," Klitschko said.
The Party of the Regions, defending the move, said criminal liability for defamation was provided for in the legislation of many Western countries. It added that it was following the example of Russia, which has also returned defamation to the statute books as a criminal offence.
Independent media outlets say they are facing increased harassment from the authorities in the run-up to the October election.
The independent TVi station, which is often critical of the Yanukovich leadership, says it was the subject of a raid by tax police last July.
A tax evasion case against TVi's chief executive has since been dropped. But the station says local cable companies have come under pressure to either give it up or move it to more expensive packages, significantly cutting its viewer base.
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