Ukraine

Ukraine

Partly Free
56
100
A Obstacles to Access 17 25
B Limits on Content 19 35
C Violations of User Rights 20 40
Last Year's Score & Status
55 100 Partly Free

Read this country report in Ukrainian: Читати цей звіт українською

Overview

Ukraine, including the Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Donbas, registered an incremental improvement in internet freedom during the coverage period, reflecting the absence of network shutdowns in the conflict zone. Ukrainian users enjoy low prices for connections, but speeds also remain low. The online information landscape is partly censored, with the government blocking Russian and separatist websites, and the separatist forces blocking Ukrainian websites in the areas under their control. However, implementation of these blocks is lax on both sides, and the digital environment is otherwise vibrant, despite efforts by political actors to manipulate debates through disinformation and paid content. These efforts intensified ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election, held in March and April 2019. Arrests of users are commonplace, primarily as an extension of ongoing hostilities between the government in Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists, as are attacks against online journalists. Adding to these challenges, persistent cyberattacks continue to constrain internet freedom.

Ukraine has enacted a number of positive reforms since the protest-driven ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Nevertheless, corruption remains endemic, and initiatives to combat it are only partially implemented. Attacks against civil society activists and members of minority groups are frequent and often go unpunished. Russia occupies the autonomous Ukrainian region of Crimea, which it invaded in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s ouster, and its military supports the armed separatists in eastern Donbas, where skirmishes continue to endanger civilians.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • The Ukrainian government announced that it would block approximately 100 websites for spreading “Russian ideology,” while existing sanctions against Russian and separatist online resources were extended (see B1).

  • The presidential election campaign, which featured widespread content manipulation, raised questions about the role of social media platforms in Ukraine’s politics (see B5).

  • Lawmakers in Kyiv considered a number of problematic bills that would expand government censorship authority and the range of punishable online speech, but the measures were not passed during the coverage period (see B3 and C2).

  • The Ukrainian government attempted to access data on the phones of two investigative journalists, prompting the European Court of Human Rights to intervene in one case (see C5).

A Obstacles to Access

Internet penetration in Ukraine did not change significantly in 2018–19. Access remains affordable for most of the population. Ukraine’s information and communication technology (ICT) market is quite diverse, although it has suffered due to broader economic hardships in the country, the crisis following Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and the ongoing conflict in eastern Donbas.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 56

Ukraine’s internet penetration rate has leveled off, with almost identical figures posted for the last two years. As of the first quarter of 2019, some 64 percent of Ukrainians reported using the internet at least once a month.1 According to International Telecommunication Union (ITU) data for 2017 (the latest year for which reliable data were available), Ukraine had a fixed-line broadband penetration rate of 12.6 percent, a mobile penetration rate of 133.5 percent, and a mobile broadband penetration rate of 41.7 percent.2 The latest official figures indicated that there are 26 million internet users in Ukraine, a country of about 44 million people.3 Internet availability and ease of access varies by region; the Russian-supported occupation of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Donbas—which separatist authorities refer to as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR, respectively)—is a limiting factor. Some government-controlled areas in the conflict zone also suffer from poor internet connections.

Most people access the internet via their mobile phones and from home or work, though many cafés and restaurants provide free Wi-Fi connections. Wi-Fi is also common in public libraries, schools, shopping malls, and airports. It has become selectively available on public transit, including high-speed trains.

Mobile internet use continues to grow, with Ukrainian Internet Association data suggesting that 61 percent of the country’s users accessed the internet through mobile phones in the first quarter of 2019.4 An estimated 57 percent of the population own smartphones.5 While mobile internet speeds in Ukraine remain poor compared with other countries (with an average download speed of 19.56 Mbps, according to May 2019 testing),6 the country’s 3G networks continue to expand to more towns and cities.7 According to reports, 4G networks, which were only debuted in 2018,8 cover about half of the population in terms of geographical reach, though only about six million mobile users had 4G service in 2018.9

The de facto authorities in the so-called DPR and LPR have gradually forced out Ukrainian internet service providers (ISPs), compromising connectivity in those areas. In October 2016, the de facto authorities in Luhansk issued a decree mandating that internet connections be supplied only by local “state-owned” providers. The Donetsk office of Ukraine’s largest ISP, UkrTelecom, was seized by the separatist authorities there in 2017, leaving some 200,000 users without landline phone connections and mobile internet.10 In the absence of Ukrainian ISPs, internet traffic in the occupied territories is now routed through Russia.11 While there is a lack of reliable information about internet availability and levels of penetration in the DPR and LPR, occasional media reports suggest that some communities enjoy only limited access due to poor infrastructure and slow connection speeds.12 During the coverage period, 3G service spread in the DPR, while mobile internet service remains sparse in the LPR.13 The DPR’s Ministry of Communications announced the development of 4G service in March 2018.14

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 23

Monthly subscriptions are fairly affordable for most of the population, with fixed-line broadband subscriptions costing as little as 120 to 160 hryvnia ($4.00 to $6.00), and mobile broadband subscriptions costing as little as 60 to 100 hryvnia ($2.00 to $3.50), as of 2018. The average monthly wage in Ukraine was 10,573 hryvnia ($370) in December 2018.1 The 2019 Internet Inclusivity Index ranked Ukraine at 57 out of 100 countries surveyed in terms of the affordability of internet connections.2 According to one study, mobile broadband rates in Ukraine are the fourth-cheapest in the world, with 1 GB of traffic costing $0.51 on average.3 The cost of monthly mobile broadband subscriptions is reportedly similar in the occupied areas, although prices fluctuate and the quality of service is much lower.4

ICT infrastructure is more developed in urban areas, though the urban-rural divide has continued to narrow. The internet penetration rate in rural areas rose from 51 percent in 2017 to 54 percent in 2019, according to some estimates.5 3G and 4G mobile internet services are much more limited in rural areas.

There is a slight gender gap in internet access, with more men using the internet than women.6

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 46

Ukrainian legislation on states of emergency and martial law can be used to restrict connectivity. During states of emergency, the government may introduce “special rules” concerning “the connection and transmission of information through computer networks.”1 Under martial law, the military is empowered to prohibit “the transmission of information through computer networks.”2 It is unclear what these provisions mean in practice, though they likely allow for some limitations on internet access. The government has so far refrained from implementing the provisions. In November 2018, martial law was declared in 10 regions in response to a naval confrontation with Russia in the Kerch Strait.3 For the 30 days that martial law was in effect, there were no network shutdowns or service restrictions. At the same time, though, attempts to introduce legislation that would enable tighter governmental control over the internet were made during the reporting period. In particular, draft law 6688 would obligate service providers to install equipment giving the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) network management capabilities.4

Restrictions on connectivity are historically most common in the occupied Donbas. A number of internet disruptions were reported in previous years, with major incidents occurring in October 2017,5 January 2018,6 and April 2018.7 No significant disruptions were reported by the Ukrainian media during the coverage period. After the government in Kyiv cut off access to the DPR and LPR, internet connections were rerouted through Russia.8 In the DPR, the company Ugletelecom laid the main channels to Russia, though the DPR’s communications minister would not specify which Russian provider made the rerouting possible.9

Disruptions, when they occur (see A1), remain localized in part because Ukraine’s diverse internet infrastructure makes it resistant to disconnection. The backbone connection to the international internet is not centralized; major ISPs each manage their own channels independently.10 Ukraine’s largest internet exchange point (IXP), UA-IX, allows Ukrainian ISPs to exchange traffic and connect to the wider internet. The country has a set of at least eight regional IXPs as well as direct connections over various physical paths to major European exchanges.11

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 46

The Ukrainian ICT market is fairly liberal and undergoing gradual development. There are approximately 6,000 ISPs and mobile service providers, according to the National Commission for the State Regulation of Communications and Informatization (NCCIR).1

The state owned 93 percent of UkrTelecom, the largest telecommunications company and ISP, prior to its privatization in 2011.2 UkrTelecom is now under the ownership of Rinat Akhmetov, a politically connected business magnate, or “oligarch,” and the country’s richest person.3 Other telecommunications providers are dependent on leased lines, since UkrTelecom owns the much of the ICT infrastructure, and some alternative providers lack resources to build their own networks. However, UkrTelecom does not exert any pressure on or regulatory control over other ISPs.

Other major ISPs in Ukraine include Volia, Triolan, Tenet, Freenet, Fregat, Datagroup, Lanet, and Vega.4 Kyivstar (owned by Veon, formerly VimpelCom, which is controlled by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman) is the second-largest ISP.5 It is also one of three major players in the mobile internet market, along with Vodafone Ukraine (owned by the Russian company MTS) and Lifecell (owned by the Turkish company Turkcell).6

There are many local ISPs in the occupied Donbas, according to available reports.7 Intertelecom was the last Ukrainian ISP operating in some parts of the occupied areas, but it reportedly left the DPR in August 2018.8 After other Ukrainian ISPs were forced out earlier, some local providers took over their remaining assets. For example, Komtel took over UkrTelecom’s assets in Donetsk,9 while Fenix operates on Kyivstar and Lifecell’s network and infrastructure.10 In March 2019, Vodafone Ukraine reportedly stopped working in the DPR, giving Fenix a de facto monopoly in the mobile market.11 After the coverage period, Vodafone Ukraine reportedly reached an agreement with the de facto authorities to restore service.12

There are no direct barriers to entry into the ICT market, but any new business venture faces bureaucratic, legal, and tax hurdles in addition to a culture of corruption. The Ukrainian ICT market has been criticized in particular for its confusing licensing procedures. Under the 2003 Law on Telecommunications, operators are required to have a license before beginning their activities; this requirement was set to expire on January 1, 2018, under the Law on Licensing, but the NCCIR continues to issue licenses, citing the Law on Telecommunications.13 Regional ISPs are usually smaller businesses whose success depends on local political connections, making the market prone to corruption.

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 24

The ICT sector is regulated by the NCCIR, which is subordinate to the president and accountable to the parliament.1 The president appoints NCCIR members to six-year terms by decree. The lack of transparency regarding appointments has raised concern in light of widespread corruption in Ukraine’s political system and the lucrative nature of the industry.2 Current members include former government officials and professionals with backgrounds in communications, engineering, and security. The Law on Telecommunications mandates that the president approve NCCIR regulations,3 thus threatening the commission’s independence. Critics have also expressed concern that the NCCIR lacks transparency in its decisions and operations.

In the DPR, ICT regulation appears to fall under the purview of the separatist Ministry of Communications, while the LPR’s Ministry of Communications and Mass Media has assumed regulatory responsibilities there.4 Little is known about the workings of these bodies.

B Limits on Content

The government’s policy of censoring online content it deems to threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty has remained firmly in place since it was first implemented in the wake of the 2014 Russian invasions. Many Russian websites and separatist media are currently blocked, and the government continues to propose legislation that would bolster its blocking authority. Despite the existing restrictions, however, internet content is relatively pluralistic. Both Russian and domestic trolls, who are employed by political actors, manipulate public debate online, but activists have been tracking and exposing their efforts.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 36

Authorities on both sides of the Donbas conflict engage in online censorship beyond the limits of international norms. The government, which rarely blocked content in the past, now restricts access to several Russian-owned web platforms as well as websites deemed to contain Russian propaganda. The de facto authorities in the so-called DPR and LPR block Ukrainian websites, including news sources.1 Over the past three years, the government has proposed a number of laws that would provide it with more power to block websites, signaling its intention to further censor the online information landscape. However, newly elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who took office in May 2019, has indicated that he does not favor his country’s current blocking regime.2

In February 2019, a senior official from the SBU announced that the agency intended to block 100 websites for promoting “Russian ideology.”3 The status of these blocks was unknown at the end of the coverage period. In the past, the SBU has blocked sites of its own accord.4 No new website blocks were reported in the DPR and LPR during the same period.

Russian social media platforms VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki (OK) are blocked in Ukraine, as are Yandex, the Russian-speaking world's most popular search engine, and Mail.ru, a popular email service. ISPs were ordered to block these sites as part of a 2017 decree issued by then president Petro Poroshenko that imposed sanctions on Russian companies.5 Poroshenko claimed that the measures were necessary to protect against cyberattacks and data collection by Russian authorities.6 In 2018, Poroshenko implemented more sanctions that required ISPs to block 192 websites, including Russian and separatist online media outlets.7 In March 2019, Poroshenko renewed sanctions against certain Russian and separatist entities, including Yandex, despite the fact that the original 2017 sanctions did not expire until 2020.8

The Ministry of Information Policy has asked the SBU to block websites (usually, separatist-affiliated websites) in recent years. In 2019, it requested that 21 sites be blocked for a range of reasons, including inciting interethnic hatred, calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order, and advocating for war.9 In 2018, it identified 21 sites be blocked,10 while in 2017, it identified 20 sites to be blocked.11 Some websites listed by the ministry have apparently been blocked by ISPs in the absence of a formal blocking order.12

The actual implementation of government-ordered website blocking by Ukrainian ISPs has been inconsistent. The Ukrainian nongovernmental organization (NGO) Digital Security Lab conducted tests of blocking for 70 ISPs in all regions of Ukraine circa March 2019 and found that while several leading ISPs, including Datagroup, Kyivstar, and Volia, blocked 240 websites from the 2017 and 2018 sanction lists, 20 ISPs did not block half of those listed.13 Even VK and OK were accessible on certain ISPs’ networks.

Some copyright-infringing material is also blocked by a police unit established in 2015.

Separately in 2015, the de facto authorities in the DPR instituted their own blacklist of banned websites that included Ukrainian news sites.14 The list is not public, and it is unclear to what extent DPR officials have been able to enforce it.15 The LPR blocked access to more than 100 news websites at the end of 2015 by pressuring local ISPs to implement its censorship orders.16 The LPR’s Ministry of Communications and Mass Media operates a registry of “banned sites,” but it is not publicly accessible.17 Tests conducted by Digital Security Lab in a number of towns in the occupied areas circa March 2019 added to evidence that implementation of blocking by the separatist authorities has been uneven. They showed that Ukrainian websites are most actively blocked by Luhansk ISPs, while two Donetsk ISPs did not block any of the 162 websites surveyed.18

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 24

The Ukrainian government sometimes forces third parties to remove politically sensitive content.

In the latter half of 2018, Facebook received one content-removal request from the government, targeting a page that was allegedly related to a “locally designated terrorist organization.”1 Facebook complied with the request. Twitter also received a single content-removal request during that period, but the company did not act on it.2 Google received 20 requests from the government during the latter half of 2018, related to claims of defamation, copyright and trademark violations, fraud, and, threats to national security.3 Google acceded to 15 percent of these requests.

Facebook and other social media companies frequently remove legitimate content from their platforms in Ukraine. In an effort to fight disinformation (see B5), Facebook has taken a hard line against sponsored political content, and NGOs have been caught up in this crackdown. Privacy International reports that some NGOs “repeatedly experience having their educational materials being banned or incorrectly marked as political content and taken down.”4 In addition, bots (automated accounts) operating on behalf of unknown political actors have been known to flood Facebook with bad-faith requests to remove content, leading the company to temporarily take down posts or suspend accounts.

In 2015, the SBU targeted web-hosting company NIC after the firm failed to comply with a request to remove five allegedly anti-Ukrainian websites. SBU officers seized hosting servers at four NIC data centers in Kyiv, causing 30,000 unrelated Ukrainian websites to go offline temporarily.5 No similar incidents were publicly reported during the 2018–19 coverage period.

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 24

The government in Kyiv is not transparent about the websites it blocks or the decision-making process for blocking them. The criminal code currently mandates blocking of child sexual abuse images,1 but the government’s authority to block other types of content is largely ungrounded in legislation. A decree on information security signed by the president in 2017 called for the development of legal mechanisms to block, monitor, and remove content deemed threatening to the state,2 and a number of bills have been proposed to address this issue.

A bill introduced in the parliament in March 2019 would establish individual criminal liability for the dissemination of inaccurate information online and in mass media. It would also allow courts to temporarily halt the operations of media outlets that publish inaccurate information during electoral campaigns, for instance by blocking their websites.3 The bill was criticized by local NGOs and remained stalled at the end of the coverage period.4

In June 2018, the parliament’s Committee on Security and Defense approved a controversial information security bill, known as draft law 6688, and advanced it for consideration by the legislature as a whole.5 The bill would grant the government broad powers to block websites, with one provision allowing officials to block sites for up to 48 hours without a court order.6 The draft law has weathered condemnation from civil society groups since it was first introduced in 2017,7 but it remained on the legislative agenda.8 A similar measure, known as draft law 6676, was eventually withdrawn after its 2017 introduction.9

In February 2018, the NCCIR drafted a resolution laying out how ISPs should block websites and calling for a technical mechanism by which government officials can monitor whether websites are successfully blocked.10 The resolution was developed by the intelligence services. Ukrainian civil society organizations urged the authorities to withdraw the measure, arguing that it provided too much power to government officials and threatened the free internet.11 Critics also expressed concern that the manner of blocking it prescribed had the potential to cause collateral damage. The resolution was never finalized.

As a result, no formal guidance has been issued by the government on implementing sanctions on Russian and separatist websites. Moreover, under the Law on the National Security and Defense Council, the sanctions are only binding to organs of the state.12 However, the NCCIR has advised ISPs that the sanctions are binding and threatened operators with administrative fines for non-compliance.13

Under Ukraine’s E-Commerce Law, ISPs are generally not liable for third-party content transmitted through their networks.14

The 2017 Law on State Support of Cinematography in Ukraine requires website hosts to limit access to pages containing unauthorized reproductions of certain categories of copyrighted material on the request of the copyright owner if the page owner has failed to remove it. The website host can hide pages without a court order for up to 10 days. Hosting providers risk liability for noncompliance.15

The frameworks for blocking websites and removing content in the DPR and LPR are unclear. However, the legal systems developed by both separatist entities borrow heavily from that of Russia; indeed, the LPR’s Law on Mass Media, which prohibits the dissemination of certain content, is identical to Russia’s law of the same name.16

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 24

Online journalists and ordinary internet users face pressure to self-censor, especially on topics related to patriotism, separatism, terrorism, and Russia. IREX’s 2019 Media Sustainability Index claims, “self-censorship is embedded in Ukrainian media.”1 The problem has become more acute in the occupied Donbas, where those accused of expressing pro-Ukrainian views are subject to intimidation and violence.2

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 24

Paid commentators and trolls have proliferated in Ukraine’s online public sphere.1 Some investigative reports suggest that many Ukrainian political actors hire public-relations companies and trolling groups to burnish their reputations or assail their opponents online. These activities are usually conducted through networks of automated social media accounts, or bots. One report from 2018, for example, identified a group of accounts that exhibited bot-like traits and demonstrated unusually high activity on certain Facebook pages, including those of former minister of information policy Yuriy Stets and other politicians.2 An analysis of the accounts’ activities showed that they often liked and shared the same content from disparate Facebook users and pages, suggesting that the same networks were used in multiple online campaigns.3 Much is unknown about the operation of these firms, and their actual impact on public discussion and opinion is open to debate. After the coverage period, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an exposé on one such company, which went by two names, Doping and PRagmatico.4 The company tasked an undercover reporter with writing 300 comments (on Facebook and on popular online news websites) favorable to certain political forces, including the parties Hromadyanska Pozytsiya (Civic Position) and Holos (Voice), every seven-hour shift.

In addition to such dubious social media manipulation, political campaigns in Ukraine often involve popular bloggers who are expected to influence public opinion by promoting certain information or partisan commentary.5

Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election campaign featured a fierce struggle among the candidates in the social media domain. This often included the promotion of deliberately misleading content.6 For instance, several pages reportedly affiliated with Poroshenko disseminated video clips that portrayed his main competitor and the eventual winner of the election, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as a drug addict.7

Ukraine’s online information landscape is also subject to manipulation by Russian interests. Fabricated or intentionally misleading information presenting Kremlin-friendly narratives is regularly circulated in online news articles targeting Russian-speaking Ukrainians. StopFake, a Ukrainian platform created to debunk disinformation and propaganda online, regularly identifies examples of Russian-language fake news on topics concerning Ukraine. The articles follow a pattern, presenting false information meant to convince readers that the government in Kyiv is ineffective,8 that Ukraine will not or should not grow closer to the European Union,9 or that Ukrainians accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea.10 The debunked articles often first appear on Russian outlets, including state-owned media, and sometimes reappear on Ukrainian online news websites.11

Kremlin-aligned trolls actively target Ukrainian audiences on social media. In January 2019, Facebook reported removing 107 Facebook pages, groups, and accounts—along with 41 Instagram accounts—“for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a network that originated in Russia and operated in Ukraine.”12 The individuals behind those accounts presented themselves as Ukrainians and shared various local Ukrainian news stories, possibly advancing certain narratives. In March 2019, prior to the first round of the presidential election in Ukraine, Facebook announced that it had removed 1,907 pages, groups, and accounts linked to Russia for engaging in spam and inauthentic behavior.13 According to the report, some of the accounts posted content related to Ukrainian news and politics.

Trolls, including Kremlin-aligned trolls, have also been observed posing as enthusiastic Ukrainian patriots or nationalists in the past few years, attempting to sow distrust within society. One report noted that such trolls were often highly active in Ukrainian patriot groups on social media, sometimes even serving as page administrators. They used Ukrainian symbols in profile pictures, relentlessly accused the Ukrainian government of failing its citizens, and called for its violent overthrow.14

Compounding these challenges, Ukraine’s online media are highly polarized. Journalists sometimes follow the editorial dictates of powerful media owners. This problem intersects with the phenomenon of jeansa, or secretly paid-for content. A monitoring exercise conducted during Ukraine’s presidential election campaign by the Institute of Mass Information identified 314 cases of politically motivated jeansa online in just five days.15

Reports of strict censorship and the liquidation of independent media outlets have emerged from the occupied Donbas.16

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 23

Online media in Ukraine are generally less constrained by economic pressures and owner interests than print and broadcast media. Lower production costs compared with television and generally liberal regulation have contributed to the development of a vibrant online media landscape. For example, there are no registration requirements for online media, and the government does not limit the ability of such outlets to accept advertising or investment.1 The online advertising market has shown steady growth in recent years; its size was estimated at $134 million in 2018, a 17 percent increase over 2017.2

The increasing popularity of online media has induced oligarchs and political actors to create their own digital properties. Since such outlets can rely on generous investments from their owners, this has created uneven market conditions for independent media.

The economic and regulatory environment for online publishers working in the DPR and LPR is highly unstable. Authorities in the DPR require bloggers to register with the entity’s Ministry of Communication.3

In Ukraine, net neutrality is not enshrined in national legislation. Mobile providers violate net neutrality by offering plans in which users do not pay, or pay reduced rates, for access to social media platforms,4 although the existence of these plans “does not have a substantial effect on digital participation,” according to DW Akademie.5

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 24

The online media landscape in Ukraine is generally pluralistic and diverse, though restrictions on Russian platforms have begun to affect their usage, and diversity is reduced in the occupied portions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The ubiquitous use of social networks, particularly Facebook, by journalists, politicians, and activists facilitates pluralism online. Russian social media platforms remain popular thanks to the availability and increased use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent government-ordered restrictions. The usage data for VK, OK, and other Russian services are sometimes contradictory due to varying approaches to audience measurement. However, multiple studies show a decline in the use of these services. According to one study, VK dropped from 10th place among the most popular websites in December 2017 to 17th place in December 2018.1 Other international platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, remain freely available; they gained significantly more users following the 2014 revolution (see B8).

While there is less online diversity in the occupied Donbas, users there are able to access Russian and some Ukrainian resources.

In April 2018, Ukraine’s parliament passed a contentious language law stipulating that, among other things, websites must use the Ukrainian language by default and campaign materials published online must only be in Ukrainian.2 The law has the potential to narrow the online information landscape for Ukraine’s sizeable population of Russian speakers as well as other linguistic minorities, such as ethnic Hungarians and Tatars.

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 46

The Ukrainian social media sphere, which expanded dramatically following the 2014 revolution, continued to grow in 2019, although the pace slowed. Facebook in particular has become an important platform for debate about politics, reforms, and civil society. In December 2018, there were 13 million Facebook users in Ukraine, a 56.6 percent increase from May 2017, when Russian social media were blocked.1 The blocking of VK and OK continues to limit the potential for mobilizing on these popular platforms (see B1).

Websites and social media platforms have been crucial for providing Ukrainians with up-to-date information on developments in occupied eastern Ukraine. One online platform, LetMyPeopleGo,2 offers regular information about Ukrainian citizens held captive or being prosecuted by Russian-backed forces. It also campaigns for their release.3

Other online platforms are used to fight corruption. Since 2014, investigative journalists and activists have been working on a digital database of officials’ tax declarations.4 During the presidential election campaign of 2019, activists launched a Telegram account to collect data on vote-buying and other election-related violations.5

Social media are used to advocate for marginalized or underrepresented groups, such as women and people with disabilities.6 Povaha, an online platform launched in 2016, seeks to elevate professional women through advocacy campaigns and the creation of a database of experts that is available to local and international media outlets.7 Another online campaign, #яНебоюсьСказати (#IAmNotAfraidToSayIt), was made popular in 2016 by activist Anastasiya Melnychenko after she shared personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse. Thousands of women from Ukraine and Russia mobilized to share similar stories using the hashtag, with the aim of shifting cultural attitudes.8 Members of Ukraine’s LGBT+ community regularly use social media tools to organize offline events such as Kyiv Pride. However, they sometimes face resistance, also organized online, by far-right groups.9

Many officials in the Ukrainian government use Facebook and Twitter to publicize their activities. Officials regularly engage with comments in an attempt to heed public opinion and increase accountability.10

There have been no confirmed reports of digital mobilization in the DPR and LPR; in these areas, the de facto authorities do not tolerate dissent.

C Violations of User Rights

Authorities have continued to prosecute social media users in an attempt to curb allegedly anti-Ukrainian rhetoric online, in some cases imprisoning individuals for spreading “separatist” or “extremist” sentiments online. Cyberattacks, predominantly initiated from abroad, continue to pose a serious threat to state agencies, NGOs, and ICT infrastructure.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 36

The right to free speech is granted to all citizens of Ukraine under Article 34 of the constitution, but the state may restrict this right in the interests of national security or public order, and it is sometimes restricted in practice.1 Article 15(3) of the constitution forbids state censorship.2

Ukrainian courts are not free from corruption or political interference. Trust in the Ukrainian judiciary remains low; as of September 2018, only 16 percent of Ukrainians reported that they had faith in the courts.3 That is up from just 5 percent in 2015, reflecting piecemeal attempts at reform.

Freedom of expression and other rights are not respected in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 24

No dedicated law mandates criminal penalties or civil liability specifically for online activities, but other laws, primarily articles in the criminal code, such as those penalizing extremism, separatism, or terrorism, apply to online activities. Article 109(2) of the criminal code prescribes prison sentences of three to five years for public calls for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order.1 Article 110 of the criminal code criminalizes public appeals for the infringement of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including any such appeals made online, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison.2 Article 161 of the criminal code prohibits “inciting national, racial or religious enmity and hatred” and assigns a maximum penalty of five years in prison.3

In March 2019, a bill that would criminalize the dissemination of “fake news” was proposed by several lawmakers.4 It envisions fines and community work as penalties for the deliberate dissemination of inaccurate information. The bill was stalled in the parliament at the end of the coverage period.

In November 2018, lawmakers registered a bill that would assign criminal liability, including a maximum five-year prison sentence, for online defamation.5 Under current law, neither defamation nor insult carry criminal penalties in Ukraine.6 Also that month, other lawmakers proposed a bill that would allow the parliament to impose sanctions against “mass media outlets” if they engage in “terrorist” activities, including the creation and dissemination of information in support of terrorism.7 Neither bill was progressed during the coverage period.

In light of repeated cyberattacks against Ukraine (see C8), a cybersecurity law was passed in 2017 and came into effect in May 2018. The law outlined protections for “critical infrastructure” and introduced criminal liability for offenses committed in cyberspace, which were previously not clearly addressed in domestic law.8

Rule of law is generally lacking in the occupied Donbas. Internet users, especially journalists, have been accused and convicted by separatist de facto authorities of nebulous offenses like “espionage” or “treason” whose basis in law is questionable.

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 26

Multiple internet users in Ukraine have been arrested and fined or sentenced to prison in recent years for activities that may be protected under international human rights standards. According to an estimate from Human Rights Platform, an NGO, Ukrainian courts considered 118 criminal cases that concerned the online dissemination of propaganda between 2014 and 2018.1 In the majority of those cases, individuals were charged with violating Articles 109 and 110 of the criminal code (see C2). An analysis of the court rulings showed that over 80 percent of cases ended in sentences other than imprisonment. Most often, probationary periods were assigned.2

A separate report from the NGO Net Freedom identified 12 sentences in the public register of court rulings for internet-related offenses between April and October 2018.3 Most of these sentences related to posts on the banned Russian social media platforms VK and OK that violated Articles 109 and 110 of the criminal code. The harshest sentences were for six years in prison. Several more recent convictions were reported during the coverage period. In April 2019, a user was given a three-year prison sentence under Article 110 for her posts in Russian social media.4 That same month, another user received a five-year prison sentence under Articles 109 and 110 for his posts in unspecified social media.5

While there is a public register of court rulings, it is unclear how many criminal investigations are still pending, because there is no respective register. During the coverage period, though, the SBU regularly announced detentions of users for posting “extremist” or “separatist” content and/or calls for the “overthrow of the constitutional order.”

  • In May 2019, the SBU arrested a “pro-Russia propagandist” in Kyiv who stood accused of “preparing and distributing anti-Ukrainian information materials on the internet.” The individual was charged under Articles 109 and 110 of the criminal code.6

  • In February and April 2019, the SBU arrested residents of Odesa who allegedly disseminated information calling for the overthrow of the constitutional order as well as materials promoting the DPR and LPR on social media.7 Both were charged under Article 110.

  • In November 2018, the SBU said it had uncovered a network of “anti-Ukrainian internet-agitators” in Odesa, Kyiv, and Severodonetsk. Nine citizens were allegedly receiving instructions from the Russian intelligence services and posting anti-Ukrainian information and calls for civil unrest online.8

  • In August 2018, eight administrators of social media groups in the Odesa, Mykolayiv, Kherson, and Zhytomyr regions were detained by the SBU. The authorities claimed that the administrators received money from Russian handlers in exchange for online posts “calling for the violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”9

  • In May 2018, Kirill Vyshinsky, a journalist for the Russian state media service RIA Novosti, was detained and charged with treason for “subversive” reporting on Crimea and working with separatist groups.10 The SBU pointed to opinion pieces published on RIA Novosti Ukraine’s webpage as evidence for the charges. The office of the outlet was also raided by the SBU. In August 2019, after the coverage period, Vyshinsky was released from detention.11 He was sent to Russia the next month as part of a prisoner exchange.

De facto authorities in the separatist-controlled portions of Donetsk and Luhansk have also prosecuted online journalists and bloggers.

  • In July 2017, separatist forces in the LPR sentenced Ukrainian blogger Eduard Nedelyaev, who wrote about daily life in Luhansk, to 14 years in prison for espionage and treason.12 He was originally detained in November 2016 and accused of defaming LPR residents, inciting hatred against Russia, and threatening national security by cooperating with Ukrainian security services.13

  • In June 2017, DPR officials detained Stanyslav Aseyev and charged him with espionage, which includes a potential 14-year prison sentence.14 Aseyev is a local journalist who contributed to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) under the name Stanyslav Vasin. He remained in custody in Donetsk at the end of the 2018–19 coverage period.15

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 44

There is currently no obligatory registration for either internet users or prepaid mobile phone subscribers. Users can purchase prepaid SIM cards anonymously and comment anonymously on websites whose administrators do not require registration. In 2017, the State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection published a draft bill that would require mobile phone subscribers to register and instruct telecommunications providers to collect data on subscribers.1 After its release, the measure was widely criticized, and the parliament has yet to consider it.

At present there are no restrictions related to encryption tools, though the commercial provision of encryption tools is subject to business licensing.2

According to one report, residents of the DPR must show a passport in order to purchase a Fenix SIM card. An individual must use separate SIM cards to make calls to Ukraine and to communicate within Fenix’s network in Donbas.3

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 36

Little information about surveillance or communications interception in Ukraine is publicly available. There is a lack of comprehensive legislation to protect privacy and prevent abuse of surveillance powers. The SBU and police can initiate criminal investigations and use wiretapping devices on communications technologies, but existing legislation, such as the Law on Operative Investigative Activity,1 does not specify the circumstances that justify these measures or the timeframe or scope of their implementation.

In previous years, the government in Kyiv has purchased equipment compliant with the Russian-designed SORM surveillance architecture.2 It is believed that the government makes use of an analogue architecture.

During the coverage period, Ukrainian authorities moved to violate two journalists’ rights to privacy and to source confidentiality. In August 2018, a court in Ukraine approved a request from the Prosecutor General’s Office to examine more than a year’s worth of data from the phone of RFE/RL investigative journalist Natalia Sedletska, sparking immediate outrage.3 Sedletska’s lawyers appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which instructed Ukrainian authorities in September to refrain from accessing the data while it considered the case.4 Also in August 2018, a reporter from Novoye Vremya, Kristina Berdynsykh, announced that she had been targeted with a similar data request.5 She was able to convince a court to reject the request in May 2019.6

Little is known about surveillance in the DPR and LPR. However, the de facto authorities are known to work closely with Russian security services, which possess advanced electronic surveillance capabilities.

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 46

At present, providers are not legally required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users in the absence of a court order. The extent to which providers store user data is difficult to ascertain. However, officials have increasingly attempted to introduce regulations—such as the 2018 draft NCCIR resolution on implementing sanctions and draft law 6688—that would oblige providers to install special technical equipment for blocking illegal content (see B3). According to experts, such equipment can also be used for automatic monitoring of users’ activities.1

The NCCIR’s 2013 Rules for Activities in the Sphere of Telecommunications included a problematic paragraph requiring ISPs and telecommunications providers to “install at their own cost in their telecommunications networks all technical means necessary for performing operative and investigative activities by institutions with powers to do so.”2 There is no information available on the extent to which these provisions have been implemented.3

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 25

While the situation for online journalists and activists in the conflict areas of eastern Ukraine generally improved during the coverage period, ongoing political instability has contributed to a tense environment across the country. The Institute of Mass Information noted 235 violations of freedom of speech in 2018, compared with 281 in 2017. Of the 2018 total, 173 violations involved physical aggression toward journalists, many of whom represented online outlets.1 In the first half of 2019, the Institute of Mass Information observed 116 violations, 88 of which involved physical aggression.2 Investigative journalists reporting on corruption among top officials are especially likely to face intimidation.

In May 2019, investigative journalist Vadym Komarov was assaulted by unknown assailants, sustaining serious injuries. The attack came just one day after Komarov announced on Facebook that he planned to publish an exposé of local corruption related to the construction of athletic facilities. Komarov died as a result of his injuries in June.3 Police reported no significant progress in their investigation into his killing.

In February 2019, reporters working for two anticorruption investigative journalism projects, RFE/RL’s Schemes and Bihus.info, said they had been followed and surveilled. Denys Bihus of Bihus.info suggested that he was likely watched because of his investigation into corruption in Ukraine’s defense sector.4 Mykhaylo Tkach of Schemes revealed that he and his film crew had been tracked by vehicles belonging to a security company owned by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.5 The security company denied the allegations and accused the journalists of “interfering with the private life of a private person and collecting information illegally.”6 In November 2017, Tkach and his film crew had been physically attacked by the security guards of Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who is known for his close ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin.7

Ukrainian authorities sometimes intimidate online outlets that are perceived to be pro-Russian. In May 2018, the SBU raided the office of Russian state news agency RIA Novosti and charged one of its journalists, Kirill Vyshinsky, with treason (see C3).8 In 2017, police and the SBU raided the offices of the news website Strana and the Vesti media group,9 two Ukrainian outlets with pro-Russian stances. Both websites remain accessible.

In 2016, Pavel Sheremet, a veteran Belarusian journalist working for the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, was killed in a car-bomb explosion in Kyiv.10 Sheremet covered official corruption and the conflict in the east, among other topics; he had endured state pressure and jail time during a career that spanned Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Sheremet’s colleagues at Ukrayinska Pravda maintain that he was murdered in retribution for his professional activity.11 The case remained unsolved in early 2019.

Journalists reporting on the conflict in eastern Ukraine face retaliation from both Ukrainian nationalist forces and Russian-backed separatists. Both sides use the tactic known as doxing, or deliberately publishing personal information to encourage harassment and intimidation. In August 2018, several separatist websites published the personal data of Ukrainian journalists from 11 different outlets who were working in the conflict area. The data included journalists’ phone numbers and their vehicles’ license plates.12 In 2016, a group of Ukrainian nationalist activists calling themselves Myrotvorets (Peacemaker) posted a list containing the leaked contact details of thousands of journalists who were accredited by separatist authorities to report in the DPR;13 the group denounced the journalists as “accomplices of terrorists.”14 Those on the list said the exposure obstructed their efforts to report objectively on the conflict, and several received threats.15 The doxing received little criticism from Ukrainian officials. Some, including Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, applauded the move. Prosecutors in Kyiv investigated the leaks, though no progress was reported, and the list remained available online in early 2019.

Other vulnerable groups have been subject to online abuse. LGBT+ people have been baited on social media and lured to in-person meetings where they were beaten. The attackers sometimes post video footage of the incidents online, forcing victims to state their name, address, and other personal details. Entire groups on VKontakte are devoted to “exposing” LGBT+ people. Participants in the groups tend to conflate LGBT+ people and pedophiles in an attempt to justify the harm they inflict.16 A recent survey by the Ukrainian NGO Fulcrum found that 54 percent of LGBT+ activists had experienced isolated online harassment, and 32 percent reported feeling unsafe on the internet.17

In September 2018, Myrotvorets doxed a number of ethnic Hungarian Ukrainians who had received Hungarian citizenship, adding them to a publicly accessible list and implying that they were disloyal.18

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 03

Ukrainian businesses, government agencies, and ICT infrastructure frequently face cyberattacks.

The presidential election in March 2019 attracted a wave of cyberattacks from Russia, which were mainly directed against the Central Election Commission.1

In 2018, the country was beset by numerous but smaller-scale cyberattacks. The National Bank of Ukraine reported nearly one million attacks over a three-month period in late 2018, and 46 percent of those were believed to have originated in Russia.2 In December 2018, police reported an orchestrated cyberattack on private notaries.3 In June of that year, Serhiy Demedyuk, Ukraine’s cyber-police chief, warned of an upcoming large-scale attack after learning that Russian hackers were installing so-called back doors in the systems of Ukrainian companies, having penetrated them with malicious software.4 The affected companies reportedly included banks and energy firms. The Russian government has denied any involvement.

The country’s cyber-police arrested numerous domestic users during the coverage period for committing petty crimes online. For example, in January 2019, a pair of hackers in the city of Mariupol were arrested after they carried out DDoS attacks against a local news website and the sites of local state institutions.5 That same month, four hackers in the city of Rive were arrested for developing and spreading ransomware.6

Ukraine was significantly disrupted by the June 2017 attack using ransomware known as NotPetya. The malicious software encrypted entire hard drives and requested payment in order to restore access.7 The virus spread across the country on June 27, the eve of the anniversary of the adoption of Ukraine’s constitution, destabilizing telecommunications companies, government ministries, banks, and other vital infrastructure. Radiation-measuring systems at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster were also temporarily inhibited before the attack was contained on June 28.8 Observers speculated that the motive for the attack may have been political rather than financial. Ukrainian security services said that the software lacked an effective mechanism for securing ransom funds, indicating that the real purpose was to destroy data and disrupt institutions across Ukraine, a goal they attributed to Russia.9 The US Central Intelligence Agency also reportedly concluded that Russia was behind the massive cyberattack.10

Hacker collectives like the pro-Russian Cyber Berkut and the nationalist Ukrainian Cyber Forces that had been active in 2014–17 seem to have gradually faded from view. The last update from the Ukrainian Cyber Forces was published in March 2017, when they claimed to have taken 173 separatist websites offline in three years.11 The Cyber Berkut has not reported significant activity over the past year.

Explanatory Note

Crimea is not covered in this report. Certain territories that are assessed separately in Freedom House's Freedom in the World report are excluded from the relevant country reports in Freedom on the Net, as conditions in such territories differ significantly from those in the rest of the country.

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

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