Ukraine

Partly Free
62
100
A Obstacles to Access 20 25
B Limits on Content 21 35
C Violations of User Rights 21 40
Last Year's Score & Status
61 100 Partly Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

The environment for Internet freedom in Ukraine improved because there were no intentional disruptions to internet access and fewer reported cases of users imprisoned for online activities protected under international human rights standards. However, censorship remains a negative trend in the online environment. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed new rounds of restrictive measures on Russian-affiliated online media outlets, and the courts continued the dubious practice of blocking online resources by ordering a “seizure of internet users’ intellectual property rights.” Additionally, lawmakers put forth a number of draft laws that prohibit content denying Russian aggression in Ukraine and create broadly-worded preconditions for blocking online resources, at times without a court order. In a blow to the protection of Ukrainians’ personal data and right to privacy, both the Law on Electronic Communications and the Law on Intelligence permit the government to restrict internet access for the sake of antiterrorist operations and during a state of emergency or martial law; augment state surveillance operations; and arbitrarily intercept private communications. Journalists continued to face physical and digital threats due to their reporting.

Since the 2014 protest-driven ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine has enacted a series of reforms to address the country’s ongoing endemic issues including widespread corruption, attacks against journalists, activists, and members of minority groups. However, government initiatives to solve these problems sometimes suffer from a lack of political will and have experienced setbacks. Tensions around the conflict with Russia, driven by the Russian invasion of Crimea, are prominent in the public realm, and the government retaliates against individuals or groups perceived as threatening to Ukrainian sovereignty.

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 in analysis, beginning with the 2020 edition. 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, 2020 - May 31, 2021

  • In September 2020 and December 2020, parliament passed the Law on Intelligence and the Law on Electronic Communications, which allow the government, under certain conditions, to restrict access to the internet in specific areas, give the state increased access to telecommunications data, and facilitate surveillance and arbitrary interception of communications (see A3 and C6).
  • The government did not disrupt access to the internet during the coverage period (see A3).
  • The president signed new rounds of sanctions ordering the blocking of Russian media outlets, payment systems, IT companies, pro-Russian Crimean media, and Ukrainian TV channels in early 2021 (see B1).
  • During the coverage period, Ukrainian authorities became more proactive in requesting foreign technology companies, including Apple and Google, to remove apps of recently sanctioned legal entities from their app stores (see B1, B2).
  • Facebook listed Ukraine as one of the top five countries in which coordinated inauthentic behavior networks originated between 2017 and 2020 (see B5).
  • The severity of prison terms related to online speech decreased during the coverage period (see C3).

A Obstacles to Access

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, access to the internet remained roughly the same, while coverage with fourth-generation (4G) mobile technology increased significantly. According to the latest data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as of 2019, Ukraine’s internet penetration rate was 70.1 percent. As of 2020, the fixed broadband penetration rate stood at 18.62 percent and the mobile broadband penetration rate at 85.3 percent.1 At the same time, aggregated data released by the analytical initiative DataReportal in January 2021 indicated that, with a total population of 43.6 million, Ukraine has 29.47 million individual internet users, totalling a 67.6 percent penetration rate.2 Internet availability and ease of access vary by region. Since September 2020, the National Commission for the State Regulation of Communications and Informatization (NCCIR) is obliged to publish open-access fixed broadband internet penetration data by settlement (for example, by village or city).3 Some government-controlled areas in the conflict zone suffer from poor internet connectivity (see A2).

Most people access the internet on their mobile phones, 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

According to estimates from the organization Statista, smartphone ownership reached 57 percent in 2020.5 In the 2019 mobile connectivity index, The Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) scored Ukraine 66.9 points (out of 100) for overall mobile internet adoption, while infrastructure and affordability were evaluated at 60.7 and 61.5 points, respectively.6 In 2021, the number of mobile internet users in Ukraine amounts to an estimated 26.4 million7 but mobile internet speeds remain poor. The average mobile download speed in April 2021 was 30.47 Megabits per second (Mbps), compared to a global average of 53.38 Mbps, according to the company Ookla.8 The average fixed broadband speed was much faster, per Ookla, clocking in at 67.52 Mbps for Ukraine, and 102.12 Mbps globally, on average. Connection speeds were largely unaffected by increased usage amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the end of June 2020, three major mobile operators Kyivstar, Vodafone, and Lifecell started redistribution of frequencies for 4G long-term evolution (LTE)–900 technology network expansion as a part of the nationwide program to provide 4G to 90 percent of the population by 2024.9 In a follow-up memorandum, the operators agreed to the joint use of infrastructure to help provide more 4G LTE coverage.10 In December 2020, Kyivstar’s LTE (900 megahertz, 1800 megahertz, and 2600 megahertz frequencies) network reached 85 percent of Ukraine’s population, closely followed by Vodafone Ukraine with over 80 percent coverage.11 According to the ITU, as of 2019, LTE and Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WIMAX) service covered 78.1 percent of the population.12

In November 2020, the government adopted a step-by-step fifth-generation (5G) technology implementation plan. The first government tender to install the network was to be announced in October 2021, and the government set 5G deployment to begin in 2022, in the largest cities first.13

The Ministry of Digital Transformation continues to collect up-to-date information about internet coverage and speeds around the country through a dedicated website.14 At the end of September 2020, the government approved an action plan to improve the quality of mobile services between 2020 and 2022, providing for more transparency among operators.15

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

Infrastructure for ICTs is more developed in urban areas, though inequality along an urban-rural divide has continued to narrow. In 2020, the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine conducted the first ever nationwide study on fixed broadband internet penetration. According to the data, 5.75 million people have no access to internet, out of which 4.2 million reside in settlements with no fiber-optic internet provider and 1.55 million in villages where access costs are too expensive. Moreover, 17,000 out of 28,000 settlements do not have access to high-speed internet. Sixty-five percent of villages still lack connectivity, though the government has launched a plan to provide internet coverage to 95 percent of the rural population with speeds above 100 Mbps (see A1).1

With an average monthly wage of 13,543 hryvnias ($471) as of April 2021,2 monthly internet subscription rates are fairly affordable for most of the population. The Ministry’s study shows that the price of connection to fiber optic internet varies from 1,200 hryvnias ($41.75) per household in urban areas to 1,300 hryvnias ($45.23) in rural areas. At the same time 18 percent of the rural population, usually those in remote villages, cannot get internet access for less than 2,500 hryvnias ($87), which is 150 percent higher than the average market price.3 According to 2020 data from the ITU, the average cost of a monthly fixed broadband subscription (5 gigabytes) was 1.6 percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita ($4.77), while that of a mobile subscription offering 1.5 gigabyte (GB) of data was 1.54 percent of GNI per capita ($4.59).4 Private studies have shown that prices for both fixed broadband ($6.41 per month)5 and mobile broadband (averaging $0.75 per 1 GB)6 subscriptions in Ukraine are among the world’s least expensive. Internet service providers (ISPs) intended to increase subscription prices at the beginning of 2020 but ceased this practice after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.7 In mid-2021, the main mobile operators did not release plans outlining a substantial increase in tariffs, though higher costs for electricity might force them to review the prices.8 High competition among operators generally keeps internet subscription prices affordable.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was first identified in Ukraine in early 2020, some ISPs refrained from disconnecting subscribers who could not make their monthly payments.9 In addition, many mobile service providers offered unbilled access to online government resources. Vodafone Ukraine even provided zero-rating, offering free access to a number of social media platforms.10

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 Roma 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.).”11

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.12

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? 5.005 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 4 to 5 because the government did not shut down the internet during the coverage period.

While the government has not centralized control of the internet infrastructure, it does block several popular Russian-owned social media and communication platforms, thereby restricting connectivity (see B1). Additionally, new laws have provided the government with an avenue to restrict access under certain conditions.

Ukraine’s diverse and open internet infrastructure hinders authorities from blocking connectivity on large scales. 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 15 internet exchange points (IXPs),2 10 of which were operational as of 2021.3 Ukraine’s largest IXP, UA-IX, allows Ukrainian ISPs to exchange traffic and connect to the global network. In 2020, Ukraine retained its 4th position in Qrator Labs’ global Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) internet resiliency ranking, an indication of the robustness and stability of the country’s internet infrastructure.4

Ukrainian legislation on states of emergency and martial law could potentially be used to restrict connectivity. In December 2020, Parliament passed the Law on Electronic Communications (see C6), which amended the Law on Combatting Terrorism to enable the government to temporarily restrict access to the internet for the sake of antiterrorist operations. The law also allows the restriction of internet access during states of emergencies or martial law,5 when the government may introduce “special rules” concerning “the connection and transmission of information through computer networks.”6 Under martial law, the military is empowered to prohibit “the transmission of information through computer networks.”7 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

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 were 4,218 ISPs in the country by the end of the reporting period.1

The state maintained ownership of 93 percent of UkrTelecom, the largest telecommunications company and ISP, prior to its privatization in 2011.2 Rinat Akhmetov, a politically connected business magnate, now owns a majority of UkrTelecom shares.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. At the end of the third quarter of 2020, Kyivstar surpassed UkrTelecom (900,000 users)4 and became a leader in the fixed broadband market, with 16 percent (1.1 million users) of the market share (see A1).5 Other major ISPs in Ukraine include Triolan, O3/Freenet, Fregat, and Datagroup.6

In December 2020, Datagroup, Ukraine’s leading national fiber-optic infrastructure and digital services provider, announced the purchase of Volia ISP.7 Some experts have predicted more deals with telecommunications assets would occur 2021, as companies seek to enlarge infrastructure and subscriber databases before the rollout of 5G networks (see A1).8

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.9 In December 2019, Russia’s Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) completed the sale of Vodafone Ukraine to Azerbaijan’s Bakcell.10 Though Intertelecom, the country’s fourth mobile operator, was allowed to start deployment of 4G networks in April 2020, three months ahead of its competitors, it failed to pay for the license and subsequently ceased its services altogether in nine regions of Ukraine. As of December 2020, the company had less than one million subscribers.11

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.12 However, mobile operators must still license the radio frequencies they use to provide cellular services.

In September 2020, the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) and financial services consultant Ernst & Young released a report on mobile taxation in Ukraine revealing that the Ukrainian mobile sector is more heavily taxed than other European markets as a result of multiple regulatory fees and a special pension fund fee.13

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

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 and appointees cannot serve on the Commission more than two terms in a row. By the end of reporting period, the NCCIR comprised four members whose first terms expired in 2020.1 Despite the expiration of their terms, the president did not appoint new members and the current members continue to act in their respective roles.

A lack of transparency regarding NCCIR appointments has continuously raised concerns 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 reappointment of current NCCIR chair Oleksandr Zhyvotovskyy. This move ensured that Zhyvotovskyy would 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 valid reason to dismiss 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 Zelenskyy let this decision stand but canceled another of Poroshenko’s last-minute appointments to the NCCIR.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 and is in charge of building digital skills among Ukrainians.5 Zelenskyy’s administration has 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

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 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 extended 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 Several additional Russian media outlets tied to the Russian government were sanctioned that month, meaning that their websites were to be blocked in Ukraine.2 In March 2021, sanctions were imposed on other popular Russian online media outlets,3 and in May 2021 additional sanctions were leveled against Russian and pro-Russian Crimean media, payment systems (WebMoney, PayMaster, WM Transfer), and information technology companies (Megasoft, Yandex, Kaspersky, Dr. Web, 1C).4

In March 2021, the government blocked access to 12 news sites under the practice of “seizing intellectual property rights obtained by internet users when using web resources” (see B3), after Pavel Babul filed a complaint for their coverage of his Spets Techno Export venture.5 Access to the news sites was restored two months later.

In February 2021, the government blocked the .ua domains of three TV stations (112, ZIK, NewsOne), allegedly linked to pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk.6 The channels were given .tv domains, which are only accessible through a virtual private network (VPN). To circumvent the blocking, the TV stations continued to broadcast on YouTube until the end of April 2021, when the company also blocked them.7 Blocking sanctions have been challenged and remained under the Supreme Court’s consideration at the end of the coverage period.8 Previously, Ukraine’s Culture and Information Policy Minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, asked the government to consider extending sanctions to online services offering Russian-origin content, such as ivi.ru and library.ru.9 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.

The actual implementation of website blocking mandated by the sanctions has been inconsistent, disputed in the court,10 and never properly monitored.11 In September 2020, VK informed users about improvements in the mobile app’s proxy, which made it accessible in Ukraine without a VPN.12 At the end of the reporting period, Yandex, VK, OK, and Mail.ru were still among the top 20 websites visited by Ukrainians.13 According to estimates, in 2021 VK had approximately 5.1 million users in Ukraine.14

The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy, previously known as the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports, has not continued to create a list of websites to be blocked, as the Ministry of Culture, which preceded both ministries, did. However, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy cooperates with the National Security and Defence Council (NSDC) concerning websites that threaten Ukraine’s security.15

The authorities occasionally direct ISPs to block websites involved in cybercrime, fraud, illegal gambling, the drug trade, and money laundering. In 2020, the SSU reported that it had “shut down” 3,000 online resources that had been used for “criminal purposes.” Additionally, the SSU also blocked around 220 information resources in the first quarter of 2021 as a result of their use in criminal activities.16 In January 2020, the NCCIR, acting on a court order, directed ISPs to block 59 websites allegedly involved in criminal activities.17 Independent analysts raised concerns about the decision, as 8 of the 59 websites were news aggregators.

On a positive note, after the 2019 presidential elections the SSU seemingly discontinued its arbitrary and extrajudicial practice of blocking websites that allegedly threaten national security.

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, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 2.002 4.004

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

During the coverage period, the SSU requested that Apple Inc. and Google LLC delete the apps of sanctioned legal entities from their app stores.1 While VK and OK were still available for download, a few Russian TV channels’ apps (Rossiya-1, Rossiya Television and Radio, Vesti FM, Vesti.ru) were removed from the Ukrainian app store upon SSU request.2 Similarly, in February 2021 the Commissioner for Children’s Rights discussed whether TikTok should be banned for disseminating harmful content.3

In 2020, Facebook received no content removal requests from the Ukrainian government.4 During the same period, Google received 88 requests from the government regarding 611 items. These requests related to defamation (74), threats to national security (7), violations of privacy and security (5), copyright (1), and trademark (1). Google ultimately removed 251 (41.1 percent) of the requested items based on legal grounds.5 Between January and June 2020, Twitter received a single legal request regarding one account, but the company did not act on it. The company received no requests from July to December.6

The SSU periodically forces the removal of content from social media platforms deemed to endanger national security. In February 2021, the SSU identified an intelligence network coordinated by Russian security services, which was administering 12 Telegram channels with anti-Ukrainian propaganda, four of which were subsequently formally sanctioned by the courts (see B3). 7 Authorities detained two Ukrainian citizens and served the administrator of the network, who was living abroad, a notice on suspicion of treason.8

In February 2021, the Embassy of Ukraine to the United States officially requested that Twitter remove the verfiied account of the Russian Foreign Ministry's office in occupied Crimea, arguing that it is an illegitimate entity.9

During the coverage period, the Facebook accounts of a few activists have been misleadingly reported to the company under “commemoration of the deceased” status.10

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 the 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 (ECHR), to which the state is a signatory. 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”). Further, the Law on the National Security and Defense Council implies that sanctions are only binding upon state bodies—and not upon “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.

At the end of January 2021, lawmakers introduced to Parliament the first reading of the Draft Law on the Security Service of Ukraine (bill 3196-d) (see C5), which would significantly strengthen the SSU’s powers while simultaneously limiting its oversight. The draft law lists an unnecessarily broad set of justifications for blocking online resources—for example, to prevent an act of terrorism or intelligence and subversive activity against Ukraine; to counteract special information operations against Ukraine aimed to undermine the constitutional order, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine; or to aggravate the sociopolitical and socioeconomic situation in the country—which involve both legal and extralegal procedures. The proposed bill would also provide the SSU the authority to engage ISPs in counterintelligence activities. The document was criticized by the Internet Association of Ukraine3 and other civil society organizations.4 At the end of the coverage period, the draft law was being revised for a second reading based on feedback. Allegedly, the provision on extrajudicial preventive blocking, which could last up to seven days before a court order is issued, was removed from the revised text unofficially released on Facebook by one parliamentarian who co-authored the bill.5

The highly controversial draft Law on the Media, which was originally registered in Parliament in December 2019, has undergone a series of revisions. The bill was re-registered in the parliament at the beginning of July 2020, though this was done with some procedural violations.6 This version of the bill still poses some risks for the freedom of expression, namely it:

  • Preserves the extended powers of the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting (NCTRB) to regulate online and print media, thus monopolizing supervision over the media sector;
  • Charges the NCTRB with creating a list of persons threatening Ukraine’s media landscape;
  • Preserves the ban of online media with a nontransparent company structure;
  • Retains bans on certain content such as materials containing promotion or propaganda of any bodies of an aggressor or occupying state (a reference to Russia), its public officials, individuals or organizations and their actions justifying the armed aggression, annexation, or occupation of the territory of Ukraine, including the public denial of the above;
  • Suggests restrictions on content that creates a positive image of Nazi and Communist regimes or leaders.7

According to the head of the parliamentary committee on humanitarian and information policy, the revised draft law was to be submitted for Parliament’s consideration in late 2021.8

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.9

Courts continued the dubious practice of “seizing intellectual property rights obtained by internet users when using web resources.” In February 2021, a court obliged ISPs to restrict access to four Telegram channels; however, providers were unable to exercise selective blocking technically.10 In February 2021, the court also ordered the blocking of 426 websites after a man complained that these websites had committed fraud against him.11 In March 2021, another district court in Kyiv ruled similarly against 12 online media outlets, including well-known Glavcom and Apostrophe.12 The providers complied with the blocking order, but the court decision was revoked after two months (see B1).13 In October 2020, the court ordered an online media outlet to restrict access to a contested article.14 The restrictions in a dubious 2019 court case, which blocked 18 allegedly defamatory and extortionate websites, remain active, though their actual implementation varies by ISP.15 The decision itself was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).16

According to some officials, the Ministry of Digital Transformation considered creating an independent body in charge of online security and protection of users’ rights with powers to block online resources and take down content.17 The representatives of the parliamentary committee on digital transformation were not supportive of this initiative.18

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

Online journalists and ordinary internet users face pressure to self-censor, especially on topics related to patriotism, separatism, terrorism, and Russia. The 2019 Media Sustainability Index create by the International Research and Exchanges board (IREX) claimed that “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 January 2020 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).3

In September 2020, the head of the NSDC mentioned the agency’s plans to create lists of all Ukrainian VK users and monitor their activity to determine the extent of the dissemination of Russian content, which could bring about additional self-censorship (see C5).4

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.

Social media platforms (primarily Facebook) have become the main source of news for many Ukrainians, which has driven the increased use of paid commenters and trolls on these platforms for political purposes. At the end of 2020, an advisor to the presidential office disclosed plans to cooperate with bloggers, potentially on a paid basis, to promote government policies and create a positive image of the state.2

According to the Facebook Threat Report, published in May 2021, Ukraine was one of five countries where the company identified the origin of the most coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) networks between 2017 and 2020. Ukraine also ranked second among countries most frequently targeted by foreign influence operations (IO), and third in the rating of domestic IOs.3 In April 2021, Facebook removed accounts and pages engaged in CIB and connected to the presidential political party Servant of the People, as well as a few hundred pages and accounts conntected to entities and individuals sanctioned by the US Treasury Department and some individuals advising former prime minister Volodymyr Groysman.4 In December 2020, the company had removed fake accounts and groups linked to the far-left Borotba party that used the network to promote their message across Europe. In the same month, Facebook removed other networks linked to the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) Anti-Corruption Blockpost and Sprava Gromad, as well as the European Solidarity Party, which employed fake accounts to spread their messages in Ukraine.5 In October 2020, Facebook also reported the removal of other networks, including the public relations firm MAS Agency, individuals associated with Yulia Tymoshenko’s campaign, and people linked to political party Batkivshchyna.6 In July 2020, Facebook reported the removal of a network linked to advertising agency Postmen DA. The network was particularly active during the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.7

Beyond social media manipulation, Ukraine’s consolidated online media landscape is highly polarized and frequently distorted. Media outlets follow the political sympathies of their owners. 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 group and to former president Poroshenko were supportive of Medvedchuk and Poroshenko, respectively.8 Documents leaked in December 2019 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.9

President Zelenskyy and his allies have continued an antagonistic stance towards the media, eschewing interviews and press conferences for direct communication with the public on social media platforms and political advertisements.10 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.

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 articles mainly targeting Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

Several groups work to identify content manipulation, such as TrollessUA, which identifies and flags suspicious accounts on Facebook11 and the Feykogryz project, which is designed to identify disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda.12

In July 2020, Zaborona, a Ukrainian media outlet, conducted an open-source investigation revealing that StopFake, one of the two Facebook-approved fact-checking organizations in the country, had links to individuals identified as neo-Nazis, which called into question their impartial judgment of posts by neo-Nazi aligned groups (see C7). The platform’s link to neo-Nazis and related patriotic sentiments may have pushed it to arbitrarily label its critics as Kremin agents.13

In 2021, the Ukrainian authorities were quite active in institutionalizing their efforts to combat Russian propaganda. The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy established the Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security, in charge of countering disinformation.14 The body will closely work with the newly created Centre for Countering Disinformation of the NSDC which is in charge of the country’s information security and was presented as a to-be international hub countering fake news and disinformation in Ukraine and abroad.15 Simultaneously, the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection opened the UA30 Cybercentre to increase the protection of critical information infrastructure and authorities’ efficiency in reacting to cyber attacks.16

In 2020, the SSU reported that it shut down 21 bot farms of over 60,000 bots.17 Additionally, in the first quarter of 2021, the SSU banned 20 foreigners from entering Ukraine for disseminating separatist propaganda online, and blocked bot farms of over 23,000 accounts for spreading destructive content.18

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 television and generally liberal regulations 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 2020, the scale of internet advertising in Ukraine reached 13.5 billion hryvnia ($470 million), a 7 percent increase compared to 2019. The share of media internet advertising grew to 6.6 billion hryvnia ($230 million), a 41 percent increase from 2019.2

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 to them through media ownership. Independent online outlets rely mainly on advertising for funding, though some generate revenue by publishing jeansa—paid commercial or political materials disguised as journalistic content.3 According to September 2020 monitoring by the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), an NGO, 18 percent of interviewed journalists reported that they had been forced to publish jeansa, while 8 percent do so on their own. Similarly, 33 percent confirmed their media would not be financially viable without such materials, but 45 percent find it unacceptable to produce prepaid materials supportive of pro-Russian political parties.4 In anticipation of the 2020 local elections, local political parties, as well as the president’s Servants of the People party, were the main purchasers of political jeansa in regional online media.5

Since his election, President Zelenskyy has repeatedly stressed that media owners must be apolitical and should not influence editorial policy.6 He has also mused aloud that media can only be independent if they belong to Ukrainians.7

The Draft Law on the Media, introduced in October 2020, would offer funds, state support, and increased access of official activities for online media outlet that voluntarily registered with the government. The bill would also prohibit religious institutions, state bodies of foreign countries, and international organizations from owning audio-visual media properties in Ukraine (see B3).8

In October 2020, the parliament withdrew the accreditation of 22 media outlets, the majority of which were online media, preventing them from entering the parliament, allegedly for a failure to report on its activities for some time.9

In June 2021, after the coverage period the president signed law 4184, introducing a 20 percent tax on foreign technology companies, like Facebook and Google, providing e-services to users in Ukraine. These companies would be obliged to register as taxpayers if the cost of the services they provide exceeds 1 million hryvnias ($34,800). Companies that fail to pay could be fined 180,000 hryvnias ($6,260); whether companies would charge customers to cover the tax burden was unclear.10

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,11 although the existence of these plans “does not have a substantial effect on digital participation,” according to a report from Digitak (see A2).12

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 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).

Journalists, politicians, and activists use social networks, particularly Facebook, ubiquitously, which facilitates pluralism online. Russian social media platforms remain popular. The usage data for VK, OK, and other Russian web resources are sometimes contradictory due to the groups’ differing approaches to audience measurement; multiple studies show a decline in their use. However, as of May 2021, both VK and OK were still among top four social networks in Ukraine, while Mail.ru was the most widely used email service.1

In response to misinformation regarding COVID-19 pandemic, the government provided accurate and up-to-date information about the epidemiological situation in the country on a dedicated website,2 while civil society organizations launched fact-checking initiatives specifically dedicated to debunking false information and conspiracy theories about the virus.3 Recent research by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed that Ukrainian online media, forums, blogs, messengers, and social networks disseminated over 250,000 pieces of COVID-19 disinformation between March and November 2020. The false narratives were usually related to wearing masks, conspiracy theories about the origin and existence of the novel coronavirus, and the effectiveness of testing and vaccines.4 According to another study, over 80 percent of Ukrainians were exposed to COVID-19 disinformation in 2020. Around a third of respondents believed the false reports and shared them further. At the beginning of 2020, news about COVID-19 was of the highest interest online, which significantly declined by mid-summer.5

During the coverage period, an average of 47,086 Ukrainian users accessed Tor daily through relays, comprising the tenth-largest national segment of Tor’s user base, but demonstrating a 13.2 percent decrease compared to the previous coverage period.6

In April 2019, the parliament passed the Law on Ensuring the Functioning of Ukrainian as the State Language, a contentious law stipulating that, among other things, websites must use the Ukrainian language by default; and campaign materials published online must be solely in Ukrainian.7 These provisions will come into force in 2022 but do not apply to media in English and other European Union (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.8

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

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 cointinue to gain momentum, with Viber, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram among the most popular, followed by WhatsApp and Skype.1 Telegram channels are growing rapidly and are largely focused on political issues.2

Ukrainians and Ukrainian government officials actively use e-petitions and online resources to publicize their activities and advocate for socially and politically important issues. Officials regularly engage with users in order to heed public opinion and increase accountability. Due to government restrictions intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Kyiv Pride celebration was held online in 2020.3 An online platform called LetMyPeopleGo4 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.5

During the coverage period, Ukrainians held several online flash mobs—when users en masse share stories and employ a hashtag within a short time frame to draw attention to a social issue. For example, the verified Twitter account of the Russian Foreign Ministry's office in Crimea triggered a flash mob #TwitterSupportsTerrorism and #CrimeaIsUkraine (see B2).6 The #StopRussianBrutality campaign invited users to share stories about Russian aggression in Ukraine and about political prisoners.7 After the #PinterestSaveUkraine flash mob, Pinterest fixed a bug that prevented searches under #Ukraine and #Ukrainian.8

Marginalized and underrepresented groups, such as women and people with disabilities, actively use online platforms to advocate for their rights. 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.9 A flash mob using the hashtag #IAtobinedorohen’ka (“I am not Darling to you”) was launched by two women journalists who wanted to draw attention to the sexist attitudes and actions of politicians experienced by women in journalism. Despite the hashtags popular support, the women were also harassed online.10 LGBT+ people in Ukraine 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.11

C Violations of User Rights

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 However, 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). At the end of the reporting period, draft law 3633 which amended the criminal code by increasing fines for criminal offenses against journalists, was still awaiting the president’s signature.3

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 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 to violently overthrow 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 for those found guilty of five years in prison.1

Article 173-1 of the code of administrative offenses prescribes fines for spreading false rumors that sow panic; the law was periodically invoked during the COVID-19 pandemic (see C3).2 Since January 2019, the code of administrative offenses 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 may also be subject to fines. In February 2019, a judge gave the first indictment for bullying on social media.3

Neither defamation nor insult are criminally penalized in Ukraine.4

In February 2021, the alarming draft laws 5101 and 5102 were registered in the parliament. Draft law 5101 would prohibit the justification, recognition as legitimate, and denial of the 2014 armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine—including calling it an internal conflict or civil war and glorifying its occupants and combatants. Similar requirements for television and radio broadcasters are included in the draft law 4188, which was registered in Parliament in October 2020.5 Additionally, the proposed legislation would enable judges to shut down and ban religious organizations, NGOs, and political parties for violating the above terms, or for promoting war propaganda, the communist regime, and calls for changes in the constitutional order. Draft law 5102 specifies punishment for any violations of these bans.6 In the following month, parliamentarians from the president’s party registered draft law 5258, which would prohibit propaganda of the “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) ideology, equating it to Nazism; it would also allow the NSDC to block media that supports such propaganda.7

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 3.003 6.006

Score Change: The score increased from 2 to 3 to reflect the sharp decrease in significant prison sentences for online content protected under international human rights standards.

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; however, there were fewer severe sentences handed out during the reporting period.

Throughout the coverage period, the courts heard cases under Article 173-1 of the code of administrative offenses for spreading false information that could provoke panic or public order violations in significantly smaller numbers. The courts eventually closed many of these cases for various reasons, including for lack of evidence.1

In July 2020, the Oktyabrsky District Court of Poltava sentenced Andriy Knyazev to two years’ imprisonment for a 2017 Facebook post intimidating Daryna Synytska, a journalist at the Poltavschyna online portal. The court found him guilty under Article 345-1 of the criminal code for threatening a journalist with violence. Ultimately, the judge allowed Knyazev to serve one year of probation, instead of the two years in prison.2

In late 2020, the SSU opened criminal proceedings against blogger Anatoliy Shariy for posting a map of Ukraine excluding the occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas on his YouTube channel. He was charged under Article 111 of the criminal code on high treason and Article 161 on infringing citizens’ equality. He did not show up for questioning, as he had fled Ukraine in 2012. The SSU put him on an international wanted list.3 In May 2021, Lithuania revoked Shariy’s asylum status, which he had obtained in 2012, and declared him persona non grata.4 Allegedly, Shariy appealed this decision.5

In June 2020, independent news outlet Hromadske TV filed a complaint before the ECtHR in an alarming case against the ultranationalist group C14. 6 In July 2019, C14 had successfully sued Hromadske TV, which had called C14 a “neo-Nazi” group in a post on Twitter. A court ordered Hromadske TV to rescind the post, which it deemed defamatory, and pay C14’s legal fees, totaling 3,500 hryvnia ($130).7

In May 2020, 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. Poyarkov claims the video was a parody. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and the case was still pending at the end of the coverage period.8

The SSU regularly reports on the unmasking of alleged Russian agents involved in disseminating online content in violation of Articles 109 and 110 of the criminal code.9 In 2020, it blocked more than 2,600 groups with an audience of over a million users (see B2), which resulted in the opening of 50 criminal proceedings and the criminal liability of 40 individuals for spreading anti-Ukrainian propaganda online (see C2).10 The SSU also banned 158 foreign nationals from entering Ukraine for spreading separatist materials online.11 In the first quarter of 2021, the SSU arrested eight individuals who were charged for their publication of anti-Ukrainian propaganda.12 Scant information about these cases is publicly available and in most cases, offenders receive suspended sentences and probation.13

Journalists who work online occasionally face civil defamation lawsuits from public and private actors who object to their reporting. In March 2020, Iryna Venediktova, then the interim head of the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and now the prosecutor general, announced that she filed a defamation lawsuit against the 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.14 Though two courts upheld Venediktova’s claims, the defendants stated that the decisions were improper, due to multiple procedural violations.15

In January 2021, a leaked document from the Ministry of Digital Transformation revealed that authorities kept a list of activists who had been critical of the government’s open data policies. The document was promptly deleted.16

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. The recently adopted Law on Electronic Communications (see A3 and C6), which will come into force in January 2022, preserves the right to use communication services anonymously.

At present, there are no restrictions related to encryption tools, though the commercial provision of these tools is subject to licensing.1

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 time frame or scope of their implementation. Draft law 1129, registered in the parliament in September 2019, would permit investigative authorities to hack into and retrieve information from electronic systems as well as monitor private 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 and was still under the revision of the parliamentary committee on law enforcement.

Previous governments had purchased equipment compliant with the Russian-designed System for Operational Investigative Measures (SORM) surveillance architecture.3 Some analysts believe that Ukrainian 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 Mobile operators Kyivstar and Vodafone use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) systems, ostensibly to allocate resources more effectively, analyze subscribers’ preferences, and enhance targeted advertisements. Kyivstar claims its system handles depersonalized data. The operator Lifecell 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, which would authorize the SSU to install DPI systems on ISPs’ networks, was withdrawn from the parliament during the coverage period. However, new legislative initiatives with similar goals were introduced (see C6).

In April 2020, the parliament adopted amendments to the Law of Ukraine on Protection of the Population from Infectious Diseases,6 establishing new rules for processing personal data in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This data may be processed without consent solely for epidemiological purposes during the official COVID-19 quarantine period and 30 days following its abolition.7

In April 2020, the Ministry of Digital Transformation debuted a COVID-19 tracking application called “Act at Home.”8 Data collected by the app is to be 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. The information must be destroyed 30 days following the abolition of the official COVID-19 quarantine period.9

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 3.003 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 year due to measures in the new Law on Electronic Communications and the Law on Intelligence, which allow the state to access communications before obtaining a court order.

Previously, providers were not legally required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users in the absence of a court order, but the recently passed laws on Electronic Communications and Intelligence have provided the government with ways to circumvent a court order.

The Law on Electronic Communications, which was passed in December 2020 and enacted in January 2021, obliges providers of electronic communication services to retain users “personal data, including content of transmitted information, person’s location data, and data transfer routes.” These data can be shared with the government only when the law is violated and when an investigating judge or court has issued a request. The law also stipulates that electronic communications services must give the state the technical ability to access communications; the state may do so autonomously.

In October 2020, the new Law on Intelligence came into effect, which also enables the intelligence authorities to autonomously intercept information from telecommunications networks. According to the law, interception can begin up to 72 hours before a court order is issued. Moreover, court orders (both approving and denying interception) are not subject to being recorded in a unified register. Civil society claims that the law was adopted without proper public consultation and contains significant contradictions to the country’s constitution and the ECHR.1

A package of legislative amendments (draft laws 4002, 4003, 4004), which aims to improve the efficacy of operations combatting cybercrime and ensure compliance with government sanctions, has been pending in Parliament since September 2020. The bills would give authorities the right to access information on a smartphone or computer without a court order, while ISPs would be obliged to install, at their own expense, the technical means to intercept information from communication networks.2

Bill 3196-d (see B3), which passed its first reading in February 2021, expands the SSU’s powers, gives it extrajudicial access to citizens’ personal data and information collected by telecommunications companies, based on SSU-specified conditions.3

According to the current Law on Telecommunications (Article 39), which will remain in force until January 2022 before its replacement is implemented, operators are obliged to install in their telecommunications networks, at their own cost, all technical means necessary for performing investigative activities by relevant authorities (see C5 for recent amendments).4 There is no information available on the extent to which these provisions have been implemented.

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, had complied with the government’s quarantine requirements.5 Reportedly, the data did not contain enough identifying information to conduct surveillance and was used by the Ministry of Health and the NSDC to adjust the state’s response to the pandemic.6 According to the Law on Telecommunications, operators must ensure the integrity of their subscribers’ data, which can only be disclosed after subscribers have given explicit consent (with some exceptions).7

  • 1. “Громадянське суспільство вимагає накласти право вето та повернути на повторний розгляд до Верховної Ради України Закон “Про розвідку” [Civil society demands to veto and return Law on Intelligence to Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine for reconsideration],” Anti-CorruptionResearch and Education Centre, https://acrec.org.ua/news/hromadians-ke-suspil-stvo-vymahaie-naklasty-p…
  • 2. “Пакет законопроектів щодо протидії кіберзлочинності та посилення санкційного механізму від 1 вересня 2020 року містить загрози для цифрових прав – заява Коаліції “За вільний Інтернет” [Package of bills on combating cybercrime and strengthening sanctions mechanism as of September 1, 2020 contains threats to digital rights - the statement of the Coalition “For Free Internet”],” Digital Security Lab, September 8, 2020, https://dslua.org/publications/paket-zakonoproektiv-shchodo-protydii-ki…
  • 3. “ІнАУ вбачає в законопроекті 3196-д Про СБУ порушення прав громадян, невідповідність європейським нормам, а також технічну неможливість окремих новацій [InAU considers bill 3196-d about SSU to be in violation of citizens’ rights, contradictory to European norms, and technically non-implementable],” Internet Association of Ukraine, February 2, 2021, https://inau.ua/news/inau-vbachaye-v-zakonoproekti-3196-d-pro-sbu-porus…
  • 4. “Про телекомунікації” [Law on Telecommunications], Official Website of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, https://zakon.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/1280-15
  • 5. У Міністерстві цифрової трансформації України створили мапу, яка демонструє недотримання правил самоізоляції людьми, які повернулися із-за кордону, з країн де вирує коронавірус [The Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine has created a map that demonstrates non-compliance with the rules of self-isolation by people who have returned from abroad, from countries where the coronavirus is rampant],” Ukrinform, March 9, 2020, https://www.ukrinform.ua/rubric-society/3002056-v-ukraini-stvorili-mapu…
  • 6. “Мінцифра використовує Big Data для боротьби з пандемією [Digital Ministry is using big data to overcome pandemic], Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine,” April 9, 2020, https://thedigital.gov.ua/news/mintsifra-vikoristovue-big-data-dlya-bor…
  • 7. “Про телекомунікації [Law on Telecommunications],” Official Website of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, https://zakon.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/1280-15
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 relation to 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 Institute of Mass Information (IMI) recorded 229 “violations of freedom of speech” in 2020, a slight decrease compared to 243 in 2019. Most of the recorded violations (171) involved physical aggression against journalists, both those who work in offline and online media.1 As of October 2020, the national police documented 41 cases of threats or violence against journalists.2 An additional 11 cases were reported by the end of the first quarter of 2021, two of which were related to online journalists and involved damage to their cars.3 Justice for Journalists, an NGO that investigates crimes against journalists, documented 76 incidents of beatings of journalists, one case of sexual harassment, and 38 forceful seizures or intentional damaging of professional equipment.4 However, how many of these violations involved journalists or other actors who work online is unclear.

In July 2020, the prosecutor general filed charges against Vladislav Manger and Oleksiy Levin, two officials from the city of Kherson, for the 2019 murder of journalist Katernya Handziuk. Handziuk, who used social media platforms and the local citizen journalism website MOST to expose corruption, died of injuries she sustained in an acid attack in 2018. In April 2020, the prosecutor general and the SSU announced that the much-delayed investigation into her murder, which had seen five people jailed for carrying out the acid attack5 and three implicated in its organization, was complete.6 However, human rights advocates contested the decision, claiming that the authorities had sent the case to court prematurely as a publicity stunt. 7

In 2016, Pavel Sheremet, a journalist working for the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, was killed in a car bombing in Kyiv.8 In December 2019, the prosecutor general, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the police announced that the case was almost closed, with five suspects in detention. However, a month later, the prosecutor general admitted that it lacked enough evidence to find the suspects guilty.9 In May 2020, new prosecutors were assigned to the case,10 and subsequently, three suspects were sent to trial,11 while an investigation into unidentified people involved in organizing the killing remained ongoing.12 By the end of the reporting period, two suspects were under house arrest and one had been released on bail.13 In September 2020, the court began hearing the case and appointed a jury panel.14 In January 2021, the police reported new evidence as to who ordered the murder and received permission to investigate in another European country.15

In February 2021, unknown persons torched a car of the founder of online portal ‘dtp.kiev.ua’.16 At the end of May 2021, the court decided to detain a suspect for the case’s pretrial investigation, with the possibility of being released on bail.17 At the end of the reporting period, court hearings were ongoing in another case, in which perpetrators were charged for torching a car of a Radio Liberty journalist.18

Fair and timely investigations of attacks against journalists who work online and other internet users are exceptions rather than the rule. In September 2020, the prosecutor general created an interdepartmental working group to coordinate law enforcement agencies’ investigative efforts in criminal proceedings of these cases.19

Nonphysical acts of harassment and doxing remain a problem. The high-profile doxing and intimidation against Kateryna Sergatskova, chief editor of Zaborona online portal, followed her July 2020 publication about far-right groups’ influence on Ukrainian fact-checking organization StopFake (see B3). On Facebook, she was largely accused of pro-Russian propaganda and subsequently fled Ukraine after intensified threats against her family and the leak of personal information and pictures.20 Initially, the police refused to open an investigation, which was then initiated for the “invasion of privacy” instead of “interference in journalistic activities.”21 The Committee to Protect Journalists,22 Human Rights Watch,23 the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine,24 and a group of independent journalists25 called upon Ukrainian authorities to conduct a swift and fair investigation.

In the same month, journalist Liubov Velychko from the outlet Texty published an investigation about pro-Russian messages on Telegram channels and their influence on the voting preferences of parliamentarians from the president’s Servant of the People party. These revelations made her a victim of a massive intimidation campaign on social media, including Telegram.26 Velychko filed a complaint with police about death threats and interference with her professional activities, a move supported by the Ukrainian media community.27 A new wave of intimidation followed after she published an investigation about illegal casinos.28 Other reported cases of cyberbullying on social networks concern a journalist at 061.ua, a regional online portal,29 and a journalist at the Accent in the Zaporizhzhya region.30

In March 2021, a Hromadske journalist received threats over social media for her investigation into restaurants violating lockdown restrictions.31 Another journalist Olena Dub experiencced online intimidation for her previous reporting on Crimea. Many of the threats originated from Russian phone numbers.32

An online group of Ukrainian nationalist activists calling themselves Myrotvorets (Peacemaker) continued to harass and dox journalists and others they perceive as anti-Ukrainian. During the reporting period, Myrotvorets targeted a list of individuals, including Viktor Medvedchuk’s wife Oksana Marchenko,33 deputy of the Odesa regional council Yana Freyman,34 investigative journalist Denys Bihus,35 and EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi (who was subsequently deleted from the list), among others.36 In March 2021, the SSU searched the apartment of a blogger who had been on the Myrotvorets list since 2017.37 In February 2021, the European Parliament called upon Ukrainian authorities to ban Myrotvorets,38 though President Zelenskyy said in October 2019 that shutting down any website, including Myrotvorets’s, was beyond his mandate.39

The intimidation of marginalized groups online is common. According to a June 2020 study of regional online media, hate speech and discriminatory language was found in 46 percent of publications about gender issues and LGBT+ people, followed by 14 percent about national minorities, and 7 percent about socially vulnerable groups.40 In August 2020, a group of local residents attacked the home of a Romany family in the Kharkiv region, following calls for anti-Roma violence on social media.41 LGBT+ individuals frequently face online harassment.42 In 2020, the meme “sorosiata” was widely used online to discredit civil society organizations receiving funds from the Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist, George Soros.43

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

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 11 cyberattacks against journalists in 20201 and another 5 by June 2021.2

In the first quarter of 2021, the SSU reported that it had neutralized 350 potential cyberattacks on public authorities’ websites.3 In 2020, the SSU reported it prevented 600 cyberattacks.4

During the coverage period, hacking and DDoS attacks were directed, inter alia, against the national police,5 the Commissioner for the Protection of State Language,6 the Commissioner for Human Rights,7 the Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea,8 and other public authorities9 and news portals.10 The beginning of 2021 was marked by a large-scale phishing attack on multiple state institutions.11 In April 2021, the SSU reported increased cyberattacks against state bodies, critical infrastructure, and private businesses, mostly attributed to hacker groups coordinated by Russian intelligence services.12

Journalists also often face attempts to hack into their email, messaging, or social media accounts. According to a study conducted by the Ukrainian NGO Digital Security Lab, in 2020, journalists experienced numerous digital security incidents, including phishing (33.3 percent of cases), resetting of passwords (16.6 percent), reusing the same passwords (13.3 percent), and short-message service (SMS) interception (6.6 percent).13 Likewise, the Institute of Mass Information (IMI) also recorded distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and cyberbullying against journalists.14

Cyberattacks from Russia, sometimes sponsored by the Russian government, continue to menace Ukraine.15 In mid-March 2021, the SSU blocked a large-scale cyberattack against governmental bodies run by the hacking group Armageddon, which is controlled by Russian intelligence services.16 In January 2020, a Russian hacking group infiltrated Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that featured prominently in the debate around the impeachment of former US president Donald Trump.17 A February 2020 report identified another Russian hacking group involved in spying on military institutions in Ukraine.18

On Ukraine

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

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    60 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    62 100 partly free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes