The report shows a decline in freedom of speech, while Ukrainian officials stress that part of the country is occupied and the research didn’t take that into account.
The annual Freedom House’s report “Freedom on the Net” reveals that Ukraine has been downgraded in the ranking by one score as compared to the previous year. “If the last year’s score of Ukraine comprised 37, this year – 38. The situation has mostly worsened in the area of access to certain content and its publication on the Internet,” informed Tetyana Lokot, Dublin City University, author of the chapter on Ukraine in the report “Freedom on the Net 2016”,
at the presentation of the report at Ukraine Crisis Media Center. The report covers the period from June 2015 to May 2016.
Tetyana Lokot informed that the downgrading is explained by the increased number of arrests for expressing separatist views on the Internet, and the fact that the providers have blocked access to the Ukrainian websites to citizens of the temporarily occupied territories due to pressure from the self-proclaimed republics. Besides, there have been cases of cyber attacks on electricity networks, publication of personal data of journalists accredited in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) by hackers of the Myrotvorets website as well as controversial cases of seizing the servers of hosting providers by the police.
Adrian Shahbaz, scientific director of the report “Freedom on the Net 2016”, Freedom House, noted that in the regional ranking Ukraine occupies the middle position. Georgia shows the best score, Uzbekistan – the worst. “This year Russia’s score has dropped the most – by 3 scores. Now Russia’s score is 65 out of 100,” he noted.
Comments of Ukrainian media experts and government officials
Ukrainian experts disagree with the fact that the Freedom House has applied a standard methodology to Ukraine without taking into consideration the occupation of part of its territory. In their view, more emphasis should be put on who is responsible for violations. “It may seem that we have been downgraded from 37 to 38 because of speech freedom violations throughout the country rather than because of violations from separatists,” emphasized Tetyana Popova, head of the Council, Telecommunication Chamber of Ukraine. She also noted that the report contains some inaccuracies regarding the operation of Internet Exchange Points and the effective law.
According to Oleksandr Danchenko, head of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on IT development and Communications, in this situation it is acceptable for Ukraine to deviate from the peacetime standards because this is a matter of national security. “This is the war. That is why other rules are required. A fifth column is using freedom of speech to spread aggressor country’s propaganda here,” he stated.
Adrian Shahbaz noted that it would be inappropriate to exclude the temporarily occupied territories from the study because Donetsk and Luhansk region in full and Crimea belong to Ukraine. He also stressed that a detailed analysis of those responsible for certain violations is required in the report. Tetyana Lokot agreed with the Ukrainian experts that the methodology applied to Ukraine should be adapted to reflect the situation more objectively.
Current problems and solutions
Freedom of speech: Ukrainian experts’ opinion. According to Oksana Romaniuk, executive director of the Institute of Mass Information, this year an increase in cases of state censorship on the media has not been noticed. On the contrary, their number has decreased. However, the situation on the temporarily occupied territories has worsened because of blocking access to Ukrainian web sites, noted Ellina Shnurko-Tabakova, head of the Association of Information Technology Enterprises of Ukraine. Oksana Romaniuk added that in these circumstances the phenomenon of social media has emerged. The social media communities number about 400 thousand users; people are informing what they see and hear on these media. They are convenient because it is more difficult to block social media than web sites.
At the same time the number of botnets and “WC web sites” distributing fake information has increased on the free territory of Ukraine. In these circumstances, journalists should carefully filter information. Among the negative trends Oksana Romaniuk also called stigmatization of journalists by officials and politicians which adversely affects the citizens’ attitude towards them. This was demonstrated by the lack of timely response to the act of “Peacemaker.” Though after the publication of scandal photos of the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, they Oksana Romaniuk noted that currently Ukraine has no legislation regulating online media content, except for the Law on National Security; but it is insufficient. “But we are lacking in a common code of ethics, or at least understanding of what professional ethics, balance and standards are. In this case, we are lacking in professional discussion,” stated Oksana Romaniuk.
To bock or not to block?
As to pro-Russian resources, panelists’ opinions are divided. According to Olexandr Danchenko, such media must be uncompromisingly blocked, because this is a matter of national security. According to the majority of Ukrainian experts and Freedom House’s experts, blocking is not the best option, we should raise public awareness. “Digital literacy should be promoted; people should receive school-time training of assessing and analyzing information on social media. It is a very important component of democratic society and guarantee of Internet freedom,” noted Tetyana Lokot. “The better citizens will understand what is going on and the methods of struggle, the healthier will be our society and the smaller is the so-called “fifth column,” added Ellina Shnurko-Tabakov.
Adrian Shahbaz noted that the best way to fight fakes is to comply with the best standards of journalism. “It is necessary that more support should be provided to journalism in Ukraine, especially to investigative journalism so that they should have all the tools to inform people about what is happening across the country,” he stressed.
Controversies surrounding the seizure of servers
The problem of the seizure of servers should be addressed on the one hand, through improving the regulation in the legal field, and on the other, through improving the training of law enforcement officers, because the servers should be seized only in the last resort and in a civilized manner.
Oksana Romaniuk informed that she will initiate a more detailed consideration of cases of detention of people for anti-Ukrainian statements on social media. “Tomorrow we will hold a meeting of the working group on speech freedom at the Presidential Administration with the participation of representatives of the Prosecutor General Office and the Security Service. I will submit them these cases and ask to comment on them publicly. We will also search for information on these cases and respond to them,” she stated.
The current wording of the draft law on support of cinematography creates risks
Oleh Yakymchuk, Google representative in Ukraine, drew attention to the need to revise the draft law “On Support of Cinematography in Ukraine”, which at first glance is not associated directly with the freedom of speech. “However, it includes a mechanism allowing the resources to be blocked without any legal decision. This is a very dangerous draft law,” he stressed. Oleh Yakymchuk reminded that the President has vetoed the law and submitted it for revision to the parliament.