To consider the Internet freedoms in Ukraine, one should consider the latest developments in media industry in Ukraine, in particular, the segment of the Internet and social media. Such analysis must foresee a broader perspective, including the development of the Ukrainian Internet as an industry as well as the role of government that directly and indirectly regulates the Internet.
49,8% of adult population in Ukraine had access to the Internet as of Sept 2013, reports Kyiv Institute of Sociology (KIIS). The Internet access expanded from big cities to regional centers and small towns. The market for online advertising has grown 20-30% annually and the forecast for 2013 was $250 million. Online purchases became an everyday habit for hundred thousands of Ukrainians. The segment of tablets in the market was rapidly growing – 784 000 tablets were imported to Ukraine during the first three quarters of 2013. The growth of tablets sales in the 3rd quarter of 2013 was 233% compared to the same period of 2012.
The market of Internet providers in Ukraine was diverse and competitive since late 90s, the time when it has been constantly developing. An average monthly payment for broadband Internet access is around $12-15, one of the cheapest in the world. The cost of the Internet in Ukraine made the service accessible to new customers and helps the market to grow. A Ukrainian cyrillic domain zone .УКР for websites was registered in 2013, expanding the variety of domain names for local business and media.
The government interference targeting Internet companies was among the most disturbing factors of the industry development. In 2013 the government took actions to control the online payments and the distribution of content online by using the effective but legislatively doubtful method – to invade the offices of the companies and eject network servers. In 2013 the law enforcement agencies targeted the following offices: IT-company GlobalLogics, Russian social network VK.com, online payments company WebMoney, Internet-provider Volya, file exchange service company FS.com. On Dec 9, 2013, the government used the same method against their political opponents – police invaded into the headquarter of oppositional Batkivchyna political party and ejected the servers.
The positive factors for the freedom of the speech in the Ukrainian Internet was the launch of three online TV stations. Spilno.TV as a crowdsourcing onlne TV was launched in May 2013. The group of 15 journalists, previously retired from TVi channel, announced the launch of HromadskeTV in June 2013. In five months HromadskeTV went live. Finally, EspressoTV was launched in Nov 2013. The appearance of three independent online TV stations might have led to the positive impact on the editorial policies of traditional TV channels, whose broadcasting is described as biased, unethical and pro-government. The launch of the new stations also indicates the development of the Internet-technologies in Ukraine and the public demand on online streaming.
On the other hand, in 2013 the market forces had a negative impact on the freedom of speech. One of the biggest media-holding UMH, owned by Boris Lozhkin has been sold to another businessman – Sergiy Kurchenko, a close ally of Yanukovych. The deal had a dramatic impact on the work of influential online news resources Korrespondent.net, Forbes.ua, Bigmir.net that previously were owned by Lozhkin’s UMH. Majority of editors and journalists from the online sites have retired due to the pressure and censorship from the new owner. The quality of news has immediately dropped. The news resources, such as Korrespondent.Net, have become a tool for pro-government propaganda.
Legislative initiatives targeting Internet
In 2013 the legislative initiatives in the field of the Internet were mainly aimed to restrain freedom of speech online. The key initiatives are the following:
– №2208а “On Amendments to the Law of Ukraine “On Protection of Public Morality ” from 10.06.2013.
Initiated by pro-government MP Volodymyr Oliynyk, the bill provides to strengthen the control over the dissemination of information in the Internet. In particular, the bill proposes to oblige Internet providers to deny access to websites promoting ethnic hatred, violence, or violations of civil rights and liberties. In fact, the legislation would allow law-enforcement agencies to shut any site without notice based on any appeal from citizens or government. Currently the bill is being revised in parliamentary committees.
– #2576 “On Amendments to the Tax Code of Ukraine on the support of national cinematography” from 19.03.2013.
The initiative suggests to support national cinema industry by introducing a tax on the Internet. A 2% tax fee is planned to be charged within gross income of telecom operators and Internet providers. The consequences of introduction of the legislation would hit consumers – the average Internet fee would increase significantly. Currently the bill is also being revised in the parliamentary committees.
New challenges for independent media in Ukraine
In 2013 attacks against independent online news sites got new dimensions. Readers of Ukrainska Pravda (pravda.com.ua) are being mislead by two almost identical to Ukrainska Pravda sites, launched in summer 2013. First one, Ukrainska Kryvda (http://www.kryvda.com/) has stolen the design of Ukrainska Pravda and publish biased anti-oppositional articles. By launching Ukrainska Kryvda, its unknown founders violated copyright laws, registered their site from Russia and located their hosting in Australia, which protects the identity of site’s founders. Second fake site stole the brand “Ukrainska Pravda” and registered a similar to www.pravda.com.ua original domain name – http://ukrpravda.ua/ Both fake sites witness that the methods to combat independent journalism in Ukraine become more and more sophisticated.
Cyber attacks against online news sites
In 2013 Ukrainian journalism community has been widely exposed to cyber attacks – unidentified hackers have targeted their emails and files at their desktops. In Oct 2014, the executive director of Institute of Mass Information (IMI) Oksana Romanyuk was hacked and the private correspondents from her email was leaked publicly. According to IMI report on the freedom of speech in Ukraine, 49 cyber attacks against journalists were performed in 2013.
The anti-government protests, that have sparked in Ukraine in late November 2013, had a great impact on the freedom of speech in the Internet. The protests have originated from users’ online activities and have been fueled with online discussions and dissemination of information through Twitter, Facebook and news sites. Consequently, the social networks and news sites became targets in the cyberwar – they have been placed under anonymous cyber attacks. The tactic of silencing the voices of journalists and civic activists through distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks has been widely used since Dec 2013 till now, Feb 2014.
On Dec 2, the site of Ukrainska Pravda was under a DDoS attack, the first one since the beginning of protests.
On Dec 13, Cityband.com.ua, a resources that had published a map of protests in Kyiv, was shut down. The notice on its front page said: “Our site is under DDoS attack. We had to close hosting. Sorry, friends. But we have created a more informative map on Yandex – Cityband Euromaidan.”
On Dec 14, 2013 journalists of Liga.net wrote on official page in Facebook: “We are currently under a very strong DDoS attack. Our technical team is fighting the whole night through.”
The site www.yanukovich.info, that publishes findings on corruption schemes of President Yanukovych’s family, has been shut down by DDoS attacks for couple of days in the middle of December 2013.
Other online news resources covering Ukrainian protests – Glavcom.ua, Censor.net, RadioSvoboda.org – have been attacked and hacked by unknown hackers.
Social media and the Internet play a decisive role in everyday life of 20 millions of Ukrainians, informing on different aspects of political and social life in the country. The Internet helps citizens to create and explore the tools of democratic governance and civil society. The Internet has been also seen as a last island of the freedom of speech in Ukraine, where traditional media were mainly controlled by pro-government oligarchs. It was unsurprisingly that Yanukovych government targeted the Internet providers and online media during 2013. Dozens of DDoS attacks against independent online news resources during the protests indirectly indicated the government’s engagement behind the attacks. At the same time, the freedom of speech has been strengthened by the launch of three online TV stations, since it expand the variety of independent voices in coverage of Ukrainian political life.
1. The professional standards of journalism remain one of the main issues for the majority of Ukrainian media owned by oligarchs, including online news sites. Thus, the discussion on journalism standards, accompanied by educational workshops and training should be the priority for the media community in Ukraine;
2. Journalists should better learn the opportunities provided by the Internet and social media for their everyday work;
3. Journalists’ solidarity and protection of their rights through trade unions should be strengthened to develop the traditions of independent media in Ukraine;
4. Journalists should also pay a special attention to the challenges of digital epoch – to learn the issues of cyber security to protect themselves and their editions;
5. Journalists and media activists should be encouraged to create media start-ups to diversify the media market.