Ukraine

Partly Free
61
100
A Obstacles to Access 19 25
B Limits on Content 21 35
C Violations of User Rights 21 40
Last Year's Score & Status
56 100 Partly Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

A number of positive policy changes have been implemented since the 2019 elections by the new government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which, among other things, discontinued previous practices of administrative website-blocking. In its turn, the newly formed Parliament abolished licensing requirements for internet service providers (ISPs). Contentious draft laws that could have limited free expression online were also withdrawn. However, a new draft law on regulating disinformation (currently on hold) would oblige users to only share information whose authenticity they have first verified, create a state body with vast powers to remove content, and implement provisions that drew criticism as restricting the media. The authorities also renewed sanctions on certain Russian-owned internet services.

The government largely avoided major online privacy violations in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has presided over a lower incidence of politically motivated cyberattacks. On the whole, though, systemic threats to internet freedom remain, including content manipulation and ongoing legal persecution of users for online speech that may be protected under international human rights standards.

More generally, 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. Journalists, civil society activists, LGBT+ people, and members of the Romany minority face attacks; police responses are often inadequate.

Editor's note: to align this survey with Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index, which assesses conditions in the occupied Eastern Donbas discretely because they differ greatly from those in government-controlled Ukraine, Freedom on the Net has excluded Eastern Donbas from its analysis, beginning with the 2020 edition. As a result of this change in scope, Ukraine’s B4 and B8 scores improved. Crimea is also not covered in this report. It and other territories that are assessed separately in Freedom House's Freedom in the World survey are excluded from the relevant country reports in Freedom on the Net.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2019 - May 31, 2020

  • In September 2019, the parliament removed a regulation requiring ISPs to obtain an operating license (see A4).
  • In May 2020, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy prolonged sanctions against Russian-owned platforms and websites deemed to host propaganda (see B1).
  • In May 2020, for the first time since the start of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, a court found a user guilty of “propaganda of war” for posts on the Russian social media platform VKontakte (see C3).
  • Several initiatives aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 — including a “self-isolation map” and a state-run quarantine app — allow state bodies to temporarily skirt data-processing rules, raising privacy concerns (see C5).
  • The government closed investigations into the assassinations of investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet in 2016 and anticorruption activist Kateryna Handziuk in 2018, moves critics called hasty (see C7).

A Obstacles to Access

The coverage period saw significant growth in rates of access, while the government laid plans for near-universal mobile internet coverage. No accidental or intention disruptions to connectivity were observed. A licensing requirement for ISPs was abolished in favor of a notification regime, while President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s new administration reshaped the state’s ICT regulatory apparatus.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 5.005 6.006

During the coverage period, Ukraine’s internet penetration rate increased at the fastest clip in the last three years. At the end of the third quarter of 2019, some 71 percent of the population reported using the internet at least once a month, up from 64 percent at the beginning of the year. This jump is likely linked to growing use of mobile devices: 22 percent of regular internet users rely exclusively on such devices to access the internet.1 According to the latest data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as of 2018, Ukraine’s fixed-broadband penetration rate was 12.8 percent and its mobile penetration rate was 127.75 percent.2 At the same time, data released by the State Statistics Service in 2020 indicated that, with a total population of 41.9 million, Ukraine has 25.7 million individual internet users.3 Internet availability and ease of access vary by region. Some government-controlled areas in the conflict zone suffer from poor connections (see A2).

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, malls, and airports. It has become selectively available on public transport, including high-speed trains and, most recently, airplanes.4

While mobile device ownership5 and mobile internet use6 continues to grow, mobile internet speeds in Ukraine remain poor. The average mobile download speed in May 2020 was 24.64 Mbps, compared to a global average of 33.71 Mbps, according to the company Ookla.7 The average fixed broadband speeds was much faster, per Ookla, clocking in at 54.73 Mbps. Connection speeds were largely unaffected by increased usage amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In October 2019, the government inked an agreement with four major mobile service providers to expand mobile internet access across Ukraine,8 pledging that 90 percent of settlements would have access to high-speed mobile internet in two years.9 To this end, the information and communications technology (ICT) regulator reallocated radio frequencies among these operators in February 2020. At that time, 4G services were available to 75 percent of the population, according to mobile operator Kyivstar. Operators were expected to launch 4G services in settlements with over 2,000 residents within the next 24 months, along international highways within 30 months, and along national highways within 48 months.10 This work was to start in the Western regions of Ukraine after the coverage period, on July 1, 2020.11 The authorities noted that it might take up to three years before 5G networks will be deployed.12

Additionally, during the coverage period, the Ministry of Digital Transformation launched a website to collect up-to-date information about internet coverage and speeds around the country, with specific focus on schools.13

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 2.002 3.003

With an average monthly wage of 10,700 hryvnia ($450) as of January 2020,1 monthly internet subscription rates are fairly affordable for most of the population. According to 2019 data from the ITU, the average cost of a monthly fixed broadband subscription was 1.8 percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita, while that of a mobile subscription offering 2 GB of data was 1.2 percent of GNI per capita.2 Prices for both kinds of subscriptions in Ukraine are relatively expensive compared to those in Western and Central Europe but relatively affordable compared to those in the Commonwealth of Independent States. However, private studies have shown that prices for both fixed-broadband3 and mobile4 subscriptions in Ukraine are among the world’s least expensive. Telecommunications experts noted that monthly subscription prices increased by 15 to 25 hryvnia ($0.42 to $0.63) in 2019, and continue to grow. According to rough estimates, in 2020 prices could increase by 5 to 7 percent. At the same time, high competition among operators generally keeps prices affordable.5

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some ISPs refrained from disconnecting subscribers who could not make their monthly payments.6 In addition, many mobile service providers offered unbilled access to online government resources. Vodafone Ukraine even provided zero-rating for popular social media platforms.7 The Anti-Monopoly Committee recommended that mobile operators not raise tariffs for their services.8

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 53 percent in 2018 to 58 percent in 2019,9 though 3G and 4G mobile internet services remain limited.

Internally displaced and conflict-affected people in Ukraine generally have access to reliable internet connections.

Evidence suggests that rates of access are lower among members of Ukraine’s Romany minority. A June 2020 United Nations report observed that some Roma children could not participate in distance-learning programs during the COVID-19 pandemic because “many families…lack access to the internet and equipment (computers, smartphones, etc.).”10

There is a slight gender gap in internet access, with more men (65.5 percent) than women (60 percent) using the internet, according to 2018 ITU data.11

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 4.004 6.006

While the government does not centralize control over internet infrastructure, it does block a number of popular Russian-owned social media and communication platforms thereby restricting connectivity (see B1).

Ukraine’s diverse and open internet infrastructure makes it resistant to disconnection by authorities. The backbone connection to the global internet is not centralized, and major ISPs manage their own channels independently.1 The country has a set of at least 14 internet exchange points (IXPs),2 nine of which were operational as of 2020.3 Ukraine’s largest IXP, UA-IX, allows Ukrainian ISPs to exchange traffic and connect to the global network. In 2019, Ukraine improved by eight positions and was placed 4th in a global IPv4 internet resiliency ranking, an indication of the robustness and stability of the country’s internet infrastructure.4

Potentially, Ukrainian legislation on states of emergency and martial law can be used to restrict connectivity. During a state of emergency, the government may introduce “special rules” concerning “the connection and transmission of information through computer networks.”5 Under martial law, the military is empowered to prohibit “the transmission of information through computer networks.”6 So far, the government has refrained from implementing these provisions.

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 5.005 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 4 to 5 due to the removal of licensing requirements for ISPs.

The Ukrainian ICT market is fairly liberal and undergoing gradual development. According to the National Commission for the State Regulation of Communications and Informatization (NCCIR), there are 354 ISPs in the country,1 while unofficial estimates put the number of ISPs in between 1,500 and 3,500.

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.3 Other telecommunications providers are dependent on leased lines, since UkrTelecom owns much of the ICT infrastructure, and some providers lack the resources to build their own networks. However, UkrTelecom does not exert any pressure or regulatory control over other ISPs. According to internal estimates, UkrTelecom controls a 13 percent share of the fixed-broadband market; it is followed by Kyivstar with 7.8 percent, Volia with 6.6 percent, and Triolan with 4.9 percent.4 Other major ISPs in Ukraine include O3/Freenet, Fregat, Datagroup, Lanet, and Vega Telecom.5

The fixed-broadband market is highly saturated, with hundreds of ISPs operating at national, regional, and local levels. At the same time, the mobile broadband market is dominated by three main competitors: Kyivstar, Lifecell (owned by Turkey’s Turkcell), and Vodafone Ukraine.6 In December 2019, Russia’s Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) completed the sale of Vodafone Ukraine to Azerbaijan’s Bakcell.7

There are no direct barriers to enter the ICT market, but any new business venture faces bureaucratic, legal, and tax hurdles, and may need to navigate pervasive corruption in the business and political spheres. Regional ISPs are usually smaller businesses whose success depends on local political connections, making the market prone to corruption.

In September 2019, the government removed a licensing requirement for telecommunications operators, introducing a simplified notification procedure in its stead.8 However, mobile operators must still license the radio frequencies they use to provide cellular services.

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 3.003 4.004

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because previous versions of this report erroneously stated that the president must approve all NCCIR regulations under the Law on Telecommunications, which had factored into the A5 score.

The ICT sector in Ukraine is regulated by the NCCIR, which is subordinate to the president and accountable to the parliament. The president appoints a chair and six NCCIR members for six-year terms by decree. Currently the NCCIR comprises four well-qualified members, with the terms of office for three of them expiring in 2020.1

A lack of transparency regarding NCCIR appointments has raised concern in light of widespread corruption in Ukraine’s political system and the lucrative nature of the ICT sector.2 Among the last decisions made by former president Petro Poroshenko before he left office May 2019 was the dismissal and subsequent re-appointment of current NCCIR chair Oleksandr Zhyvotovskyy. This move ensured that Zhyvotovskyy will serve for six years instead of the one year remaining on his original term. Given that, according to the Law on Telecommunications, the imminent inauguration of a new president is not a reason for the dismissal of NCCIR commissioners, Poroshenko’s decision was seen by some as an attempt to keep a loyalist in a key position.3 Upon taking office, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy let this decision stand but canceled another last-minute appointment to the NCCIR (that of Yuriy Artemenko).4

President Zelenskyy has prioritized digitalization, creating a Ministry of Digital Transformation by restructuring the State E-Governance Agency. This body is responsible for articulating and implementing state policy in the areas such as e-government. It is also in charge of building digital skills among Ukrainians.5 Zelenskyy’s administration also created digital transformation leadership positions in each ministry, regional administration, state company, and state agency.6

Several civil society groups actively influence ICT and media regulation in Ukraine, including the Internet Association of Ukraine and the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.

B Limits on Content

Authorities continued to censor online content, including by renewing sanctions on Russian-owned web platforms and websites. They also prepared two much-criticized bills that would expand their power to block websites, remove content, and otherwise influence the information landscape. Neither was put to a final vote during the coverage period. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated extant dis- and misinformation problems.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 3.003 6.006

The government blocks numerous websites. Sanctions implemented in 2017 against several Russian-owned web platforms — including VKontakte (VK), Odnoklassniki (OK), and Mail.ru — and websites deemed to contain Russian propaganda were prolonged by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in May 2020 for another three years, while sanctions against the Russia-affiliated companies Dr.Web, Kaspersky, and Yandex were extended for one year.1 This decision was preceded by a parliamentary resolution recommending the sanctions’ renewal.2 Several additional Russian media outlets tied to the Russian government were also sanctioned, meaning that their websites are to be blocked in Ukraine.3 Notably, Zelenskyy had been critical of restrictions on VK and similar platforms during his presidential campaign. However, since taking office, he has not been vocal on this issue, while various members of his administration have publicly advocated for the sanctions’ renewal.4 According to May 2020 polling data, only 36 percent of Ukrainians considered the sanctions necessary to protect the state, while 50 percent believed them to be a mistake which had resulted in violations of human rights.5

The actual implementation of website blocking mandated by the sanctions has been inconsistent. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Digital Security Lab conducts regular tests to measure Ukrainian ISPs’ compliance. For instance, in December 2019, it found that six out of 54 ISPs monitored were blocking the largest number of websites from the sanctions list (over 270). Among them were national ISPs like Kyivstar and Volia, as well as local ISPs. On the other end of the spectrum, one local ISP in Poltava blocked just 13 websites. Even Yandex, VK, OK, and Mail.ru, were accessible on certain ISPs’ networks. These resources are still among the top 25 websites visited by Ukrainians.6

A 2019 court case serves as a vivid example of the inconsistent implementation of the ban. One ISP, NetAssist, did not implement the sanctions and was subsequently found noncompliant by the NCCIR in August 2019, which fined it 935 hryvnia ($39) and gave it a bit more than a month to comply. NetAssist challenged the NCCIR’s decision in the court but lost.7 The NCCIR has not disclosed how many administrative violations it has assigned since the sanctions came into force.8

On a positive note, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) seems to have discontinued its arbitrary and extrajudicial practice of blocking websites allegedly threatening national security, after the 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine. That said, in 2019, the SSU reported that it had “shut down” 1,000 online resources that had been used for “criminal purposes.”9 Furthermore, it reportedly blocked numerous websites involved in cyberattacks in early 2020 (see C8).

Furthermore, in 2019, the Ministry of Information Policy was merged into the newly created Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports. The latter has not continued the practice of its predecessor of creating lists of websites to be blocked.

The authorities occasionally direct ISPs to block websites involved in cybercrime, fraud, illegal gambling, the drug trade, and money laundering. According to reports from the SSU, the number of websites blocked for these reasons is in the thousands. In January 2020, the NCCIR, acting on a court order, directed ISPs to block 59 websites allegedly involved in these offenses.10 The decision raised red flags because eight of the 59 websites are news aggregators.

In a dubious July 2019 case, police secured a court order to block 18 allegedly defamatory and extortionate websites.11 These included a number of news outlets. Several ISPs and the proprietor of one of the affected sites appealed the order, asking for an explanation of how the blocking would be implemented (the order did not specify). An appellate court dismissed their complaint, claiming that it could only elaborate on the initial decision, and not the method of its implementation. Further, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case in December 2019, saying that this type of case could not be subject to cassation review (see B3). Thus, the restrictions remain active, but their actual implementation varies by ISP.12

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 2.002 4.004

The government sometimes refers content to third parties, seeking its removal.

In 2019, Facebook did not receive any content removal requests from the government, a positive improvement compared to previous years.1 Twitter received a single request regarding 22 accounts in 2019, but the company did not act on it.2 In 2019, Google received 77 requests from the government regarding 937 items. These requests related to defamation (65), threats to national security (3), copyright violations (4), hate speech (3), fraud (1), and business complaints (1). Google ultimately removed only 109 of the requested items.3

At the same time, some civil society groups have objected to Facebook’s and other social media platforms’ habit of removing legitimate content in Ukraine. For instance, Facebook has taken a hard line against sponsored political content as part of its efforts to fight disinformation, and NGOs have become entangled in this crackdown. Privacy International reports that some organizations monitoring disinformation and political advertising in Ukraine “repeatedly experience having their educational materials being banned or incorrectly marked as political content and taken down.”4

The SSU periodically forces the removal of content from social media platforms deemed to endanger national security. By the end of the current coverage period, it had “blocked more than 2,700 groups with an audience of over a million” and identified 393 “internet agitators” spreading “fake news” about the COVID-19 pandemic, some of whom were allegedly acting at the behest of the Russian state.5 In January 2020, the SSU identified several “pseudoradical groups” allegedly created by Russian security services. Upon notifying the relevant social media platform administrators, the groups were removed.6

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 2.002 4.004

The criminal code currently mandates blocking of child sexual abuse imagery,1 but the government’s authority to block other types of content is largely ungrounded in legislation.

The sanctions against Russian web platforms and websites are inconsistent with domestic law and Ukraine’s obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights, to which the state is a signatory. For one, they prohibit “internet providers” from allowing access to the sanctioned resources, even though this term has not been defined in domestic law (the Law on Telecommunications, for instance, regulates “operators and providers of telecommunications”). For another, the Law on the National Security and Defense Council implies that sanctions are only binding upon state bodies—and not upon either “internet providers” or “operators or providers of telecommunications.” However, the NCCIR has acted as if ISPs must abide by the sanctions, a position the courts have supported (see B1).2 When authorities extended the sanctions in May 2020, these inconsistencies were not addressed.

Potentially restrictive draft laws—including draft law 6688, which would have given the government broad powers to block websites; and draft law 10139, which envisioned temporary bans on outlets implicated in the spread of alleged “fake news”—were automatically withdrawn once the newly elected parliament began its legislative session. However, the parliament debated new and worrying initiatives during the coverage period.

For instance, the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports (which incorporated the Ministry of Information Policy in September 2019) proposed a disinformation bill in January 2020 that has been heavily criticized inside and outside the country.3 The bill would impose criminal liability for spreading disinformation, oblige users to only share information whose authenticity they have first verified, and create a state body with vast powers to remove content. Moreover, the bill would consider every user a journalist but reserve special privileges and protection for so-called professional journalists, whose status would be granted via membership in a new, state-backed Association of Professional Journalists of Ukraine. Finally, the bill envisions a “trust index” for news media, ostensibly to assist users in identifying credible sources of information.4 Facing a storm of criticism—including from the President Zelenskyy’s newly created Public Council on Freedom of Speech and Protection of Journalists5—the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports prolonged the bill’s public consultation period.6 Shortly thereafter, in March 2020, the ministry was dissolved; its competencies were divided among the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy, with the latter seemingly assuming responsibility for the bill. However, this ministry lacked a leader through the end of the coverage period. This fact, along with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, put the bill on hold.7 By May 2020, it had not been formally registered in parliament.

At the end of December 2019, a media bill aimed at aligning domestic law with European Union (EU) standards was registered in parliament for the official consideration of lawmakers. However, it prompted serious concerns for myriad reasons, including for proposing the extension of the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting’s purview to online and print media; a definition of online media that encompasses bloggers, influencers, and even political figures; the blocking of media under certain circumstances; the creation of a list of actors threatening Ukraine’s media landscape; bans on certain content such as “materials containing promotion or propaganda of any bodies of the aggressor state/occupant state” (a reference to Russia); prohibition on the ownership of media properties by religious institutions, entities linked to Russia, and entities with nontransparent ownership structures; and the imposition of intermediary liability on social media platforms.8 Despite criticism, the parliament’s Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy recommended its adoption in January 2020. It reversed itself in May 2020, asking lawmakers to send the bill back to committee for further refinement based on comments from the Council of Europe and various civil society groups.9 At the end of the coverage period, the bill was back in committee.10

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 materials upon a request from a copyright owner, if the owners of the pages fail to remove said materials. The website host can hide pages without a court order for up to 10 days. Hosting providers risk liability for noncompliance.11

The coverage period also saw the courts set some problematic precedents for internet freedom. In July 2019, a Kyiv district court ordered the blocking of 18 allegedly defamatory and extortionate websites in order to “seize intellectual property rights obtained by internet users when using web resources” and preserve evidence of potential crimes (see B1). It is unclear how users become intellectual property rights holders by accessing websites or how blocking a website is a means of preserving evidence of potential crimes. Despite the decision’s questionable reasoning, it survived several appellate challenges and sets a troubling standard for court-ordered censorship.12

At the end of September 2019, a Kyiv district court dismissed a lawsuit filed by FreeNet Ukraine Coalition, a group of civil society organizations, against the former Ministry of Information Policy (MIP). The lawsuit contested the MIP’s refusal to provide the criteria and methodology used to compile lists of internet resources recommended for blocking (see B1). The court, observing that all of the websites recommended for blocking had disseminated anti-Ukrainian content, affirmed the MIP’s position that the requested information was meant for internal use only.13 Given the MIP’s restructuring, the FreeNet Ukraine Coalition did not appeal the decision.14

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 3.003 4.004

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 due to the exclusion of conditions in Eastern Donbas from this report’s analysis.

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 According to a 2019 study of 127 journalists, 48 percent practiced self-censorship, while 65 percent agreed that the war in eastern Ukraine had increased self-censorship.2

Another recent study, focused on television journalists, showed that formal and informal directives from editors and employers—who may have political agendas—lead to self-censorship (see B5). The study identified disproportionately low criticism of particular political figures as a strong indication that there are unofficial political arrangements that breed self-censorship.3

An alarming case from within the coverage period could encourage further self-censorship. In August 2019, the ultranationalist group C14 successfully sued independent news outlet Hromadske TV, which labeled C14 “neo-Nazi” in a tweet. A court ordered Hromadske TV to retract the tweet, which it deemed defamatory, and pay C14’s legal fees, totaling 3,500 hryvnia ($147) (see C3).4 Hromadske TV intended to challenge the ruling at the European Court of Human Rights.5

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 2.002 4.004

Ukraine’s online information landscape remains polluted by domestic and foreign dis- and misinformation.1

Paid commenters and trolls have proliferated in Ukraine’s online public sphere. 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. Little is known about the operation of these firms, and their actual impact on public discussion and opinion. During the coverage period, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an exposé on one firm, which went by two names, Doping and PRagmatico.2 The company tasked an undercover reporter with writing 300 comments on Facebook and on online news websites favorable to certain political forces, including Hromadyanska Pozytsiya (Civic Position) and Holos (Voice) parties, every seven-hour shift.

Social media platforms (primarily Facebook) are the main source of news, which explains the increased use of paid commenters and trolls on these platforms for political purposes. According to one analysis of activity on Facebook between May and July 2019, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and former president Petro Poroshenko were targeted by the largest numbers of inauthentic accounts (27,926 and 20,065, respectively) out of any politicians. Most comments from these accounts were negative. The only politician who enjoyed more positive comments than negative ones from inauthentic accounts was former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko.3

In July 2019, ahead of Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, Facebook removed a number of Russian-linked accounts, groups, and pages engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior. In September 2019, Facebook removed another tranche of inauthentic accounts, groups, and pages posting about “celebrities, show business, sports, local and international news, political and economic issues including Ukrainian elections, political candidates and criticism of various public figures.” The company linked this network to Doping/PRagmatico. In February 2020, Facebook removed more inauthentic accounts, groups, and pages tied to Russian intelligence services.4

Beyond social media manipulation, Ukraine’s consolidated online media landscape is highly polarized and frequently distorted as a result. Media monitoring conducted in December 2019 by the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), an NGO, identified misleading reporting about the ruling Servant of the People party, the “Opposition Platform–For Life” party, and former president Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party.5 Further analysis clarified the political sympathies of the owners of some of Ukraine’s largest media outlets. For example, media properties owned by businessmen Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoisky, Victor Pinchuk—among Ukraine’s wealthiest people—were supportive of President Zelenskyy. Meanwhile, media properties linked to Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of the Opposition Platform—For Life grouping and to former president Poroshenko were supportive of Medvedchuk and Poroshenko, respectively.6 Documents leaked during the coverage period also showed that during Poroshenko’s 2014–19 presidency, his allies regularly paid media outlets for favorable coverage (a phenomenon known as jeansa) and directed smear campaigns against his critics on social media platforms.7

Meanwhile, President Zelenskyy and his allies have taken an antagonistic stance toward the media, eschewing interviews and press conferences for direct communication with the public via social media platforms and political advertisements.8 In some cases, Zelenskyy’s office has deliberately delayed its response to information requests from journalists and limited reporters’ access to briefings, when they do take place (see C1). Some have even accused his office of deliberately feeding false information to journalists in an effort to discredit the media writ large.9

Ukraine’s online information landscape is also subject to manipulation by Russian interests, as evinced by Facebook’s removals of coordinated inauthentic behavior linked to the Kremlin. Fabricated or intentionally misleading information presenting Kremlin-friendly narratives is regularly circulated in online articles mainly targeting Russian-speaking Ukrainians. StopFake, a platform created to debunk disinformation, regularly identifies examples of Russian-language “fake news” mischaracterizing the Ukrainian government’s policies and smearing both the European Union and the United States.101112 StopFake, and a fellow fact-checking group, VoxCheck, joined Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program in Ukraine in March 2020.13

Several other groups work to identify content manipulation. In July 2019, the NGO Internews-Ukraine launched a project, TrollessUA, to identify suspicious accounts on Facebook and flag them for the company to inspect.14 Meanwhile, a web browser extension and a Telegram bot called Feykogryz was designed to identify dis- and misinformation, propaganda, and jeansa.15

State-run news agency Ukrinform also announced plans to release a special application, Defake, which will automatically highlight key words that suggest the possible presence of fake news in any text.16 The government has also committed itself to reducing by half the amount and consumption of manipulated content created by Russia, intending to create an index to measure its progress toward this ambition.17

Despite these initiatives, content manipulation surged amid the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring a wave of misleading information ranging from recipes for tea that purportedly grants immunity to the virus, to disinformation about what the coronavirus is and how it appeared, to claims that the pandemic could lead to the removal of sanctions against Russia.18 Some groups in popular messaging apps and on social media platforms disseminated false information about fines and other punishments that might be imposed on parents whose children play outside while in quarantine. Other false information related to unreported deaths from the coronavirus, the prolongation of quarantine requirements and distance learning programs, and waivers for utility bills.19 In one disturbing incident, an e-mail from an unknown actor masquerading as the country’s Health Ministry touched off riots in Novy Sanzhary, a small town where Ukrainian and other evacuees from China were quarantined (see B8).20

While the government has provided accurate and up-to-date information about the epidemiological situation in the country on a dedicated website,21 some of its actions have created uncertainty. For example, all Ukrainians evacuated from China to Novy Sanzhary signed a consent form which prohibited them from communicating with the media.22

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 2.002 3.003

Online media in Ukraine are generally less constrained by economic pressures and owner interests than print and broadcast media. Lower production costs compared with TV and generally liberal regulation have contributed to the development of a vibrant online media landscape. 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

In 2019, the scale of internet advertising in Ukraine reached 12.6 billion hryvnia ($531 million), a 35 percent increase compared to 2018. The share of media internet advertising came to 4.7 billion hryvnia, a 34 percent increase over 2018.2

Despite this growth, many online media outlets struggle to remain financially viable in a market deeply distorted by consolidated media conglomerates whose backers are willing to lose money in order to maintain the political influence afforded by owning media properties. Independent online media outlets rely mainly on advertising to keep functioning. Some online media outlets generate revenue by publishing jeansa, paid commercial or political materials disguised as journalistic content.3 A March 2020 analysis of some 18 online media outlets conducted by the IMI showed that the Opposition Platform—For Life party was the main jeansa customer, responsible for 41 percent of all observed paid materials. Other political groups were behind an additional 9.5 percent of all observed paid materials. The IMI speculated that jeansa was becoming more prolific ahead of 2020 local elections.4

Since his election, President Zelenskyy has repeatedly stressed that media owners must be apolitical and should not influence the editorial policy.5 He has also mused aloud that media can only be independent if they belong to Ukrainians.6 The draft media bill would prohibit religious institutions, entities linked to Russia, and entities with nontransparent ownership structures from owning media properties in Ukraine (see B3).7

Separately, draft law 2634, registered with parliament in December 2019, would introduce a 20 percent tax on nonresident technology companies like Facebook and Google providing e-services, including the provision of images and text, to users in Ukraine. These companies would be obliged to register as taxpayers if the cost of the services they provide exceeds 1 million hryvnia ($42,000). Those who fail to do so will be fined 8,500 hryvnia ($360).8

Net neutrality is not enshrined in national legislation. Mobile service providers violate net neutrality by offering plans in which users do not pay, or pay reduced rates, for access to social media platforms,9 although the existence of these plans “does not have a substantial effect on digital participation,” according to one report (see A2).10

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 2.002 4.004

The online media landscape in Ukraine is generally pluralistic and diverse, though restrictions on Russian platforms affected their usage. Despite the existence of high-quality journalism published by some Ukrainian online media outlets, the general quality of online publications remains low, due to politicization and consolidation in the media sector (see B5 and B6).

The ubiquitous use of social networks, particularly Facebook, by journalists, politicians, and activists facilitates pluralism online. Russian social media platforms remain popular due 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 web resources are sometimes contradictory due to varying approaches to audience measurement. Multiple studies show a decline in their use. However, at the beginning of 2020, both VK and OK were still among top 10 websites in Ukraine, while Mail.ru was the most widely used email service.1 Some ISPs have acknowledged that they are technically unable to restrict access to VK, as the platform has an inbuilt VPN service.2

A North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) study shows that those who continued to use VK after it was sanctioned actually developed stronger connections with other users and consumed more information from a greater number of groups. While the number of users in “ideological groups” decreased threefold, the number of “ideological posts” increased by 122 percent. Notably, “pro-Russian propaganda” increased while “Ukrainian news” decreased. The study also found that VK’s audience became younger.3

During the coverage period, an average of 54,241 Ukrainian users accessed Tor daily via relays, comprising the ninth-largest national segment of Tor’s user base.4 According to a report regarding VPN usage on mobile devices, in 2019, Ukrainian users downloaded VPN applications 6.38 million times, an 18 percent decrease compared to 2018.5

In April 2019, the 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.6 These provisions will only come into force in 2022 but do not apply to media in English and other EU languages as well as indigenous languages (such as Crimean Tatar). The law has the potential to narrow the online information landscape for Ukraine’s sizable population of Russian speakers. When the law was adopted, only 12 out of the top 30 websites writing on social and political issues had Ukrainian- or adaptive-language interfaces. Nine enabled readers to switch to Ukrainian from Russian, the default language. Creating new language interfaces will create additional expenses for online media outlets.7

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 5.005 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 4 to 5 due to the exclusion of conditions in Eastern Donbas from this report’s analysis.

The Ukrainian social media sphere, which expanded dramatically following the 2014 revolution, has become an important space for debate about politics, reforms, and civil society. The blocking of VK and OK continues to limit the potential for mobilizing on these popular platforms. Messengers are gaining momentum, with Viber, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp among the most popular ones.1 Telegram channels are growing rapidly and are largely focused on political issues.

Ukrainians are also quite active in using e-petitions to advocate for some socially and politically important issues. Many officials in the Ukrainian government use Facebook and Twitter to publicize their activities. Officials regularly engage with users in an attempt to heed public opinion and increase accountability.

Ukrainians held a number of online protests after restrictions on mass gatherings were put in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, though some critics questioned their impact. At the end of March 2020, the first Zoom protest was held against funding cuts to cultural programs. Around 10,000 people registered, but technical problems capped participation at 1,000.2

Among other notable campaigns, in May 2020, artists and others employed in the creative industry organized a national campaign around the hashtag #Cтопкультурнийкарантин (“Stop cultural quarantine”) to highlight the impact of the pandemic on the industry.3 Earlier, in November 2019, officials and ordinary users deployed the hashtag #CrimeaIsUkraine to protest Apple’s decision to identify occupied Crimea as a Russian territory for users of its services inside Russia.4 Ahead of the July 2019 parliamentary elections, activists launched the online campaign #Явирішую or “I decide,” to raise awareness among young people about political parties, voting, and electoral manipulation.5 An online platform called LetMyPeopleGo6 offers regular information about Ukrainian citizens held captive or being prosecuted by Russian-backed forces, and campaigns for their release. Since 2014, investigative journalists and activists have worked to maintain a digital database of officials’ tax declarations.7

Online platforms are actively used to advocate for marginalized or underrepresented groups, such as women and people with disabilities. Povaha, an online platform launched in 2016, seeks to combat sexism in the media through advocacy campaigns and creation of a database of female experts.8 A flash mob using the hashtag #Ятобінедорогенька (“I am not Darling to you”) was launched by two women journalists to draw attention to sexism toward female journalists by politicians. Despite receiving popular support, the women were also harassed online.9 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.10

Indeed, there is a dark side to the use of social media tools for real-world mobilization. In February 2020, residents of the village of Novi Sanzhary used Facebook, WhatsApp, and Viber to organize a riot after the government announced that evacuees from China—the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak at the time—would be quarantined in a local sanatorium.11 Nine police officers were wounded in the ensuing violence, and 24 people were arrested.

C Violations of User Rights

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the authorities prosecute users for spreading rumors online and launch several initiatives aimed at stopping the spread of the disease, including an app that monitors individuals in mandatory isolation, that infringe upon users’ privacy rights. Online journalists continued to face extralegal retaliation for their work. Cyberattacks remain a regular occurrence, affecting government and nongovernment targets alike.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 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? 3.003 6.006

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. Article 15 of the constitution prohibits censorship.1

Ukrainian courts are hampered by corruption and political interference, and public trust in the judiciary remains low.2

Serious crimes against journalists often remain unresolved (see C7). President Zelenskyy’s administration has at times denied reporters access to information (see B5). The IMI recorded 21 COVID-19–related restrictions on the work of journalists from mid-March 2020 until the end of April 2020, including cases in which journalists were prohibited from attending government meetings or prevented from reporting.3

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 2.002 4.004

No dedicated law mandates criminal penalties or civil liability specifically for online activities. However, the criminal code penalizes extremism, separatism, and terrorism, including through 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. Article 110 criminalizes public calls for the infringement of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including those made online, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Article 161 prohibits “inciting national, racial or religious enmity and hatred” and assigns a maximum penalty of five years in prison.1

Article 173-1 of the code of administrative offenses prescribes fines for spreading false rumors that sow panic, and was invoked many times during the COVID-19 pandemic (see C3).2 Since January 2019, the code of administrative offences penalizes any form of bullying, including by using means of electronic communication (under Article 173-4). Individuals found guilty of bullying may be fined or given community service obligations. Individuals who fail to report bullying are also subject to fines. In February 2019, the first court decision for bullying on social media was rendered.3

Neither defamation nor insult are criminally penalized in Ukraine.4 The disinformation bill introduced during the coverage period envisions criminal liability for disseminating disinformation (see C3).

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 2.002 6.006

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.

The COVID-19 pandemic led the state to penalize dozens of users for spreading false information online. As of the beginning of June 2020, the SSU identified 18 individuals that allegedly received instructions from Russia to spread false information about COVID-19 and opened criminal proceedings against them under Articles 109 and 110 of the criminal code. Furthermore, according to the SSU, by June 2020, “administrative measures,” i.e., fines, had been imposed on 160 people under Article 173-1 of the code of administrative offenses for spreading false information that could provoke panic or public order violations.1

However, this figure appears inconsistent with data reported by the judiciary. From March 12 to May 18, 2020, the courts examined 89 police protocols under Article 173-1 of the code of administrative offenses related to the dissemination of COVID-19-related disinformation. The courts fined 30 users, issued warnings to nine others, and either closed the remaining cases for lack of evidence or sent them back to the police for clarifications. In 80 percent of these cases, disinformation was disseminated via Facebook, Instagram, or Viber.2 In at least some cases, users were found guilty of sharing false information jokingly or unknowingly.

Additionally, in March and early April 2020, the Cyber Police recorded 267 cases of COVID-19-related “fake news,” identifying 152 individuals responsible.3

In May 2020, for the first time since armed conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine, a court found a social media user (specifically, a VK user) guilty under Article 436 of the criminal code (penalizing “public calls to an aggressive war or an armed conflict”). The user was also found guilty under Article 110 of the criminal code, receiving a 3.25-year prison sentence.4

That month, blogger Serhiy Poyarkov was indicted under Article 346 of the criminal code (penalizing among other things “threats of murder, impairment of health, destruction or impairment of property, kidnapping or confinement made in respect of the president of Ukraine”) for allegedly threatening President Zelenskyy in a YouTube video uploaded in October 2019. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Poyarkov claims the video was a parody.5

The SSU regularly reports the unmasking of alleged Russian agents involved in disseminating online content in violation of Articles 109 and 110 of the criminal code.6 In 2019, the SSU opened 34 cases under Articles 109 and 110 of the criminal code for crimes against national security via the dissemination of allegedly anti-Ukrainian propaganda or other illegal content (a decrease from 49 cases in 2018). The SSU also banned 280 foreign nationals from entering Ukraine for spreading separatist materials online.7

Journalists who work online occasionally face civil defamation lawsuits from public and private actors who object to their reporting. In August 2019, former chief of staff Andriy Bohdan filed a defamation lawsuit against three journalists from the investigative journalism outfit Schemes.8 That month, online media outlet Hromadske TV was fined by a court for allegedly defaming the far-right group C14 in a tweet (see B4). In March 2020, Iryna Venediktova, then the interim head of the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and now the prosecutor general, announced that she has filed a lawsuit against Anti-Corruption Action Center, an NGO, and Ukrayinska Pravda, an online media outlet, for claiming that her husband influenced the process of appointing SBI employees.9

In May 2018, Kirill Vyshinsky, a journalist for the Russian state-run media service RIA Novosti, was detained and charged with treason for “subversive” reporting on Crimea and working with separatist groups. The SSU pointed to opinion pieces published on RIA Novosti Ukraine’s webpage as evidence for the charges. In August 2019, Vyshinsky was released from detention; the next month, he returned to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange.10

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 4.004 4.004

There is currently no obligatory registration for either internet users or prepaid mobile device subscribers. Users can purchase prepaid SIM cards anonymously and comment anonymously on many websites. During the coverage period, President Zelenskyy’s administration attempted to introduce a requirement to present a passport in order to purchase SIM cards, sending a proposal to this effect to the parliament.1 However, the proposal generated stiff resistance and was withdrawn just a few days after it was formally registered.2

At present, there are no restrictions related to encryption tools, though the commercial provision of these tools is subject to licensing.3

The disinformation bill proposed in January 2020 would oblige all individuals and legal entities to provide contact and other identifying information every time they share “mass information” online (see B3).4 Moreover, it would empower the government to identify the administrators of websites, web pages, social media accounts, channels, chats, or “other communities” with more than 5,000 subscribers or unique daily users.5

In January 2020, several regional media outlets received letters purportedly from regional offices of the Cyber Police of Ukraine suggesting that they embed code in their websites that would enable the identification of anonymous users.6 The Cyber Police denied that its offices had sent the letters.7

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 3.003 6.006

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 SSU and police can initiate criminal investigations and use wiretapping devices on communication 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 September 2019, a bill (draft law 1129) was registered in the parliament that would permit investigative authorities to hack into and retrieve information from electronic systems as well as monitor correspondence without a court order in urgent cases. The bill would require a court’s approval to be obtained within 48 hours of the start of surveillance in such cases.2 At the end of the coverage period, the bill had not advanced.

Previous governments had purchased equipment compliant with the Russian-designed System for Operational Investigative Measures (SORM) surveillance architecture.3 It is believed that Ukrainian intelligence law enforcement and intelligence services currently make use of an analogous architecture, requiring operators to install equipment that facilitates the lawful interception of user data.4 In April 2019, Kyivstar announced that it had purchased a Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) system, ostensibly to allocate resources more effectively, analyze subscribers’ preferences, and serve targeted advertisements. Kyivstar claims its system handles depersonalized data. Another mobile operator, Vodafone, installed a DPI system around five years ago for similar purposes, while Lifecell, the third major mobile operator, has not disclosed whether it has a DPI system.5

DPI technology can be used to filter traffic and surveil users. Authorities have repeatedly tried to oblige providers to install DPI for these purposes, but their efforts have been unsuccessful. Draft law 3080, introduced to the parliament during the coverage period, would authorize the SSU to install DPI systems on ISPs’ networks, give the SSU control over ISPs’ connections to IXPs, and expand its ability to censor online content. Industry representatives criticized the bill, calling it a copy of restrictive Russian legislation. In May 2020, the parliament’s Committee on National Security, Defense, and Intelligence recommended against its adoption.6

In a March 2020 interview, Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov stated that Ukrainian law enforcement services were technically ready to monitor users’ movements in compliance with COVID-19 quarantine measures, although legally this can be done only after a declaration of a state of emergency—which was not imposed during the coverage period.7

In April 2020, the Ministry of Digital Transformation used data from Kyivstar, Lifecell, and Vodafone Ukraine to create a map monitoring whether individuals who had returned from abroad since March 17, 2020, comply with quarantine measures.8 It shows the number of people who have returned from abroad and the countries from which they arrived as well as the number of people who have violated quarantine measures (along with the number of people who have been in contact with these violators). Reportedly, the data do not contain enough identifying information to conduct surveillance. At the end of the coverage period, 1.5 million individuals’ data had been transferred to the Ministry of Digital Transformation. The map was used by the Ministry of Health and the National Security and Defense Council to adjust the state’s response to the pandemic. The Ministry of Digital Transformation also claims the map was designed to help citizens “assess the degree of risk of danger in their region.”9 According to the Law on Telecommunications, operators must ensure the integrity of their subscribers’ data, which can be disclosed after subscribers have given explicit consent (with some exceptions).10 This requirement was not satisfied prior to the creation of the map, raising questions as to its lawfulness. Later, in May 2020, the government set up another map using data from Apple, Kyivstar, and various banks.11

Several municipal and regional administrations created maps of COVID-19 cases in April 2020 using data from local health care providers and the National Police. Controversially, one map, in the Zhytomyr Region, identified the streets on which infected people lived.12 Another, in the city of Dnipro, highlighted areas infected people had visited.13

That month, the parliament adopted amendments to the Law of Ukraine on Protection of the Population from Infectious Diseases,14 establishing new rules for processing personal data in order to prevent COVID-19 dissemination. This data may be processed without consent solely for epidemiological purposes during the official COVID-19 quarantine period and 30 days following its abolition.15 The lawful processors of this data include medical personnel, various state health care and social protection institutions, the Ministry of Digital Transformation, the National Police, and the National Guard of Ukraine.16 It is not clear who is responsible for ensuring the eventual depersonalization or deletion of this data. It is also not clear what the consequences of failing to do so are. The amendments do not guarantee that only infected individuals will have their personal data processed without consent. This could deter people in need of medical treatment who wish to preserve their privacy.17 The amendments also envision a procedure for recording, registering, and exchanging information on new cases as they arise during the COVID-19 quarantine period. They do not clarify what information might be processed under this procedure. The amendments mention liability for the unlawful disclosure of personal data, although without offering any further details.

Notably, under the Law on Data Protection, the processing of personal data without consent is permissible to protect users’ “vital interests,” but once circumstances permit, consent must be immediately obtained.18

COVID-19 surveillance was especially strict at Ukraine’s borders. In March 2020, Deputy Minister of Interior Anton Geraschenko said that the Border Guard Service automatically transferred personal data of Ukrainians who had returned from abroad to the National Police, who could use it to check whether these people were isolating themselves for 14 days, as required by law.19

In April 2020, the Ministry of Digital Transformation debuted an application called "Act at Home." Everyone arriving from abroad who did not opt to undergo a 14-day quarantine in a hospital or sanatorium was obliged to install the app and to provide their phone number and the address where they planned to isolate themselves. Using facial recognition systems and location services, the app requires users to log their location and photograph themselves as many as 10 times per day, with a failure to do so potentially resulting in visits by the National Police to check if quarantine measures are being observed;20 those found in violation could face fines or jail time.21 Data collected by the app is held by the Ministry of Digital Transformation, while the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Police are recognized as third parties to whom such data can be lawfully transferred. This data must be destroyed 30 days following the abolition of the official COVID-19 quarantine period.22

Initially, the Border Guard Service forced individuals to register in the app at the border. In these cases, the app recorded the border as the address where the individuals were isolating themselves. When the individuals moved on from the border, they were unable to confirm their location with the app.23 People crossing into government-controlled Ukraine from separatist-controlled areas are not given the option of undergoing a 14-day quarantine in a hospital or sanatorium; thus, they had to install “Act at Home.” Those without smartphones could not do so and were thus not allowed to cross, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.24

By the beginning of May 2020, the app had been installed by nearly 28,000 individuals, and had notified the National Police of more than 16,000 violations. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Digital Transformation had received over 144,000 requests from the Ministry of Internal Affairs for users’ data. Some human rights advocates criticized the app for infringing upon privacy rights.25 Many users complained that “Act at Home” inaccurately identified the address where they were isolating themselves, sent notifications without audio cues, and failed to process their selfies, leading to unnecessary interventions by the National Police.26

Other attempts to acquire advanced surveillance tools as part of the state’s response to COVID-19 were unsuccessful. The government earmarked 50 million hryvnia ($2.1 million) for the SSU to purchase a technology called NowForce from the American-Israeli company Verint, a purveyor of spyware, but canceled the plan after coming under widespread criticism.27 City administrators in Kyiv sought to buy 400 cameras with facial-recognition and temperature-detection capabilities from the Chinese company Hikvision for 65 million hryvnia ($2.7 million), but the purchase was canceled because the cameras were not included on a list of government-approval goods for stopping the spread of COVID-19.28

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 4.004 6.006

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.

According to the Law on Telecommunications (Article 39), operators are obliged to install in their telecommunication networks and at their own cost all technical means necessary for performing operative and investigative activities by respective authorities.1 There is no information available on the extent to which these provisions have been implemented.

Operators appear to have voluntarily handed over users’ data to the government as part of the latter’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, including through maps showing violations of quarantine measures (see C5).

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 2.002 5.005

Users, and in particular journalists who work online, are frequently subject to extralegal retaliation for their online activities. The IMI recorded 243 “violations of freedom of speech” in 2019, a slight increase compared to 235 in 2018. Most of the recorded violations (172) involved physical aggression against journalists.1 In the first quarter of 2020, the IMI recorded 62 violations, out of which 43 involved physical aggression against journalists.2 However, not all of these violations involved journalists or other actors who work online. Another NGO, Human Rights Platform, recorded just six physical attacks on journalists who work online between May and September 2019.3

For the first time in three years, a journalist—Vadym Komarov—was killed. He was beaten unconscious in May 2019, shortly before he planned to publish a story about local corruption. Komarov succumbed to his wounds in June 2019.4

In 2018, activist Kateryna Handziuk died of injuries she sustained in an acid attack. Handziuk used social media platforms and the local citizen journalism website MOST to expose corruption. In April 2020, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the SSU announced that the much-delayed investigation into her murder, which has seen five people jailed for carrying out the acid attack5 and three implicated in its organization, was complete. However, human rights advocates contested the decision, claiming that the authorities had sent the case to court prematurely as a publicity stunt.6

In 2016, Pavel Sheremet, a journalist working for the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, was killed in a car bomb in Kyiv.7 In December 2019, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the police announced that the case was almost closed, detaining five suspects. However, a month later, the Prosecutor General’s Office admitted that it lacked enough evidence to find the suspects guilty.8 In May 2020, new prosecutors were assigned to the case,9 and subsequently, three suspects were sent to trial,10 while an investigation into unidentified people involved in organizing the killing remains ongoing.11

Fair and timely investigations of attacks against journalists who work online and other users are exceptions rather than the rule.

Nonphysical acts of retaliation are common. For example, at least four Kyiv Post journalists received threatening SMS messages from pro-Russian fighters from the occupied areas of the Luhansk region shortly after submitting accreditation documents to the Ukrainian military in September 2019.12 In July 2019, blogging platform Enigma.ua was blocked after it published an article exposing connections between law enforcement and organized crime groups in targeting human rights defenders in Ukraine (see B1).13

In May 2020, Anna Babinets, editor in chief of the independent news website Slidstvo.info, was summoned for questioning by the National Police based on her information request to Oleksandr Dubinskyy, a lawmaker from the ruling Servant of the People party, regarding his connections with Rudolph Giuliani, US President Donald Trump’s personal attorney. Officials implied that Babinets could face prosecution for violating the secrecy of correspondence under Article 163 of the criminal code. The move was widely seen as an act of intimidation against Babinets, who is known for her investigative work.14

Doxing occurs sporadically and remains a problem. In May 2020, the phone numbers of a few high-profile investigative journalists were leaked online, apparently in connection with the publication of an article claiming a former official has plagiarized his PhD dissertation. The same former official doxed members of the investigative journalism outfit Schemes in October 2019.15

An online group of Ukrainian nationalist activists calling themselves Myrotvorets (Peacemaker) continues to harass and dox journalists and others they perceive as anti-Ukrainian.16 In October 2019, President Zelenskyy said that shutting down not just Myrotvorets’s website but any website is beyond his mandate.17 Around the same time, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reiterated concerns regarding the safety of those shamed by Myrotvorets, and called for its blocking.18 In November 2019, the chair of the parliament’s Committee on Freedom of Expression asked the SSU to investigate the group’s activities.19

LGBT+ individuals frequently face online harassment. During the 2019 parliamentary election campaign numerous cases of "pink-black PR," attempts to discredit some politicians via their alleged association with the LGBT+ community, were observed.20 In 2019, at least 50 gay men fell victim to extortion schemes after being catfished on dating apps.21

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because no large-scale or nationwide cyberattacks occurred during the coverage period (as was the case in years prior).

While public and private actors, including journalists and human rights defenders, are frequently subject to cyberattacks, there is no indication that the Ukrainian state is involved in these attacks. The IMI identified 18 cyberattacks against journalists in 2019.1 Cyberattacks against online resources belonging to LGBT+ organizations were also observed.2

During the first quarter of 2020, the SSU neutralized 103 cyberattacks on public authorities’ websites. Since March, institutions engaged in responding to COVID-19 have been targeted more intensively. Overall, between January and March 2020, the SSU blocked almost 2,000 websites that were used for cyberattacks.3

In May 2020, Ukrainian Ombudsperson Liudmyla Denisova called on the SSU to identify the culprits behind persistent cyberattacks on her official website. She stated that the attacks usually follow the publication of statements related to Ukrainian political detainees in Russia, occupied Crimea, and the separatist-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They usually entailed disabling the website or removing content from it.4

In April 2020, the administration of the city of Kyiv reported a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack in which 1.5 million IP addresses were used to disrupt the functioning of municipal e-services.5

In December 2019, 1+1 media group was targeted by a DDoS attack.6 At different times in 2019, various online media outlets, including Black Sea TV, Delo, Gordon, and Hromadske TV, and Black Sea TV, faced similar attacks.7

In July 2019, the customer relationship management (CRM) service of the Holos political party, containing personal data of registered volunteers and supporters, was hacked.8

In June 2019, the National Bank of Ukraine was buffered by DDoS attacks which disabled its website.9

The government has stepped up its policing of cybercrime. At the end of 2019, authorities arrested a cybercriminal group comprising three Ukrainians and one foreign national that hacked private organizations in Ukraine and around the globe.10 In another case, police arrested a 16-year-old Odesa resident for carrying out a DDoS attack to take down an ISPs’ network.11

Cyberattacks from Russia, sometimes sponsored by the Russian government, continue to menace Ukraine. In December 2019, hackers believed to be sponsored by the Russian government targeted Ukrainian diplomats, government officials, military officers, law enforcement officials, journalists, and NGOs in a spear-phishing campaign. In January 2020, a Russian hacking group infiltrated Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company which has featured prominently in the debate around the impeachment of US President Donald Trump.12 A February 2020 report identified another Russian hacking group involved in spying on military institutions in Ukraine.13

On Ukraine

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    62 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    61 100 partly free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes