The free Internet is a cornerstone of the broader processes of maintaining rule of law and democratic governance in Ukraine, while simultaneously fostering an integration of the country into a global information society. State of Internet freedom in Ukraine is a reflection of challenges brought to free speech and independent reporting under the conflict settings. Since numbers usually speak more persuasively than words, we will refer to the most trusted world rankings that measure Internet freedom around the globe.
According to the independent international Institute for Economics and Peace, Ukraine was ranked 156th in the Global Peace Index 2016 (1 – the highest rank, 162 – the lowest rank) and turned out to be in the group of countries with the lowest level of security, along with Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Central African Republic.
According to a report by the international non-governmental human rights organization Freedom House “Nations in Transit 2017”, since 2008 the ranking of media independence in Ukraine has gradually deteriorated and reached the point of 5.75 out of 7 possible (1 – the highest, 7 – the lowest) in 2017. The protracted conflict with Russia raises the question of the media freedom in Ukraine. The issue of the limits of legal restrictions on freedom of media in the context of the “information war” with Russia is a subject of constant debate, especially in terms of Russian propaganda TV channels, the broadcasting of which was prohibited in Ukraine since 2014.
According to another report by Freedom House “Populists and autocrats: the dual threat to global democracy” published in January 2017, Ukraine remained on the same position as in 2016 when it was ranked 61st (1 – the highest, 100 – the lowest) and was recognised as only partly free. Civil rights, including freedom of expression, are ensured at the 3rd level out of 7 possible (1 – the highest level of freedom, 7 – the lowest level of freedom). Ukraine joined the list of 28 countries that suffered the largest drop in the ranking of freedom during the past 10 years. For Ukraine, as well as for Russia, Nauru, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, the general index declined by 12 points.
Noteworthy that freedom of expression in Crimea became the subject of a separate report due to the peninsula being classified as the territory with disputed status. This distinction was caused by significant differences in the level of protection of political and civil rights within this disputed territory and the rest of the country. Crimea was ranked 9th in the overall table, which means no freedom. At the same time, according to the estimations by the Freedom House the level of execution of civil rights equalled to 6 out of 7.
In the ranking provided in the report “Freedom on the Net 2016”, Ukraine scored 38th out of 100 (0 – the best score, 100 – the worst score) and was recognised as partly free in the context of ensuring freedom on the Internet.
According to the recent World Press Freedom Index published by international non-governmental organisation “Reporters without Borders” in April 2017, Ukraine has improved its position by 5 points comparing to the previous year and was ranked 102nd among 180 countries with the global score of 33.19 (0 – the best indicator, 100 – the worst indicator), thus recognised as problematic with regard to ensuring freedom of journalistic activities.
In January 2017, an international non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch published a new World Report “Populism vs. Human Rights: Global Conflict”. It is mentioned therein that in 2016, the government of Ukraine continued to take controversial steps, which limited the media freedom and justified that mainly by the need to counter the anti-Ukrainian propaganda of the Russian Federation.
According to the international non-governmental organisation “Committee to Protect Journalists”, during the active phase of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, 5 journalists were killed while performing their professional duties. Such statistics put Ukraine on a par with Syria (17 deaths) and Iraq (5 deaths) that were deemed the most dangerous countries for journalists. During 2015-2016, two more journalists were killed in Ukraine.
In May 2017, OHCHR reported the ongoing deterioration of freedom of expression in conflict affected areas, particularly in territory controlled by armed groups. On both sides of the contact line, was observed intimidation of and attacks on media representatives and outlets, as well as self-censorship among journalists and bloggers. Impunity continued to prevail for those obstructing journalists’ activities, with only 7.1% of related criminal complaints reaching courts. Access to public information and open data is reported to be under threat, with particular dangers related to investigative journalists.
Therefore, in Ukraine the vast majority of threats to freedom of expression in general and Internet freedom in particular are related to the ongoing armed conflict. However, Ukraine managed to maintain intermediate positions in the above international rankings due to the fact that Crimea is often a subject of a separate analysis and takes an independent position in the overall score table. It is clear that lack of effective control by Ukrainian government over some areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions and Crimea does not allow Ukraine to guarantee and ensure the proper protection of freedom of expression on these territories. At the same time, people who live in the grey area have more urgent needs in housing, food, medical care and employment. Under such settings freedom of expression is often left neglected.
However, given the strong information component of the armed conflict, there is an urgent need to strengthen Ukraine’s information space and create, to the largest extent possible, safe and tolerant environment for Internet freedom both for ordinary citizens in private conversations or on social networks and for professional journalists, who often put their lives at risk in an attempt to report from the most dangerous parts of the country and to inform the public about the most complex and sensitive issues.