THE INTERNET AND MEDIA FREEDOM IN UKRAINE

Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 14

By Taras Kuzio

The internet is the only area of the Ukrainian media that still remains largely uncontrolled by the authorities. The internet still has a “clear image of being FREE from censorship, and even at times from self-censorship,” according to a February 6, 2002 report in the internet newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda.

As the October 2004 presidential elections approach, the authorities are showing increasing signs of concern that they do not possess full control of the internet. The authorities have always attempted to exert their control over the media during election campaigns. The difference now is that the 2004 presidential elections will be the first in which the internet plays a role.

INTERNET EXPANSION

The growth of the internet in Ukraine has been phenomenal over the past few years, and is the largest growth area in the Ukrainian communications market. Use of the internet in Ukraine has increased five fold since 1999. The average monthly growth of the internet was 5 percent in 2002, according to a brams.com survey funded by the Information Community Fund. The survey concluded that internet visitors would increase by 50-100 percent in 2003.

By the end of 2002 the number of users was estimated at 2.5 million, or 5 percent of the population. This is still low by Western standards but high for the CIS. The State Committee for Communications and Information estimates that there are one million “active users.” A March survey by GfK-USM gave the higher number of 6.4 percent for “active internet users,” or 3.1 million Ukrainians. The survey also found that 9 percent (4.32 million) of Ukrainians had access to the internet. Of these, half accessed the internet at least once per week.

THE INTERNET AS A THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY

During times of political crisis the number of internet users rises dramatically. The internet newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, for example, had over 80,000 daily hits during the height of the Kuchmagate crisis in November of 2000.

During the crisis the Security Service (SBU) was instructed to improve activities directed against “information aggression and specialist information-propagandistic operations” allegedly undertaken by foreign intelligence services. Former SBU Chairman and Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Yevhen Marchuk told Nezavisimaya gazeta that he regarded Western criticism of Ukraine–which sharpened after the Kuchmagate crisis–as “information aggression.” This phrase is reminiscent of the Soviet world outlook.

How is the internet defined as being a “threat” to national security? Oleh Yeltsov, editor of the Ukraina Kriminalnaya (www.cripo.com.ua) web site, had his house searched in November of 2002. The court order sanctioning the raid alleged that it was being undertaken in order “to prevent the release of confidential information.” After the search his computer was disabled. Yeltsov’s web site includes translations of articles from the freely available RFE/RL Crime, Corruption and Terrorism Watch. The SBU’s understanding of “threats to national Security” is still rooted in the pre-internet era. If Kriminalya Ukraina is closed down Ukrainian surfers can simply go to www.rferl.org to obtain the same information. It is also worth noting that the SBU believes the exposure of corruption in Ukraine to be a “threat” to national security–but not the corruption itself.

A major reason why the internet is seen as a potential threat by the authorities is the extensive use of it made by young people. The 2002 elections and subsequent opinion polls show that young people tend to support opposition parties such as Oleksandr Moroz’s Socialists and Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine. As in other post-communist sates, the only opposition party that is unpopular among young people is the Communist Party (pro-presidential centrists are also unpopular among young people). The internet is used by 15 percent of the 15-19 age group but by only 3 percent of those aged 50-59. The Communist Party is conspicuously absent from the internet. Many internet publications either oppose the authorities, such as Ukrayinska Pravda, or provide a free forum for debate (which oligarch and state-controlled television fails to do).

THE INTERNET AS AN OPPOSITION FORUM

A survey by brams.com published in Ukrayinska Pravda in June of 2002 revealed the ten most popular internet sites, based on the number of visitors recorded in January of that year. The opposition (Ukrayinska) pravda.com.ua and cripo.com.ua (Ukrayina Kriminalna) had 23 and 8 percent of the visitors, respectively. The balanced and politically neutral news services uatoday.net, elvisti.com and korrespondent.net had 26,13 and 8 percent, respectively.

There are only two pro-presidential web sites among the top ten, but both witnessed a steep decline in visitors between 2001 and 2002, after the Kuchmagate crisis. The site www.versii.com, which is linked to the Dnipropetrovsk Labor Ukraine clan and Andrei Derkach, had an 0.04 percent drop in visitors compared to 2001. Another web site of the Labor Ukraine clan, www.for-ua.com, had a 1.76 percent drop in visitors. The www.nedovira.com.ua site, owned by the Social Democratic Party United (SDPUo), which was active during the 2002 elections, has since closed. This is more likely due to a lack of visitors than to financial problems.

What has been termed the “revolution” in the psychology of Ukrainians since Kuchmagate has affected not only the internet but other media outlets owned by pro-presidential outlets. A poll in the March 18, edition of the parliamentary newspaper Holos Ukrayiny found that the most distrusted television news programs are those broadcast by 1+1 (channel 2) and Inter (channel 3), which are controlled by the SDPUo. Some 50 percent of the copies of the Labor Ukraine clan’s Kievskiy Telegraf newspaper and the SDPUo’s Kievskie Vedomosti newspaper are returned by state kiosks because they are unsold. By contrast, copies of Vechirnyi Visti, published by Tymoshenko, and Silski Visti, sympathetic to the Socialists, are typically sold out.

As is the case with civil society in general, Western financing plays a prominent role in the internet in Ukraine. SDPUo leader and Presidential Administration head Viktor Medvedchuk complained that American influence over Ukraine’s civil society is for this reason unrivalled. American influence is understood not in a philanthropic sense, but as support for anti-presidential and anti-oligarch groups. U.S. financing is given to the opposition web sites www.obkom.net ua (Renaissance Foundation), www.pravda.com.ua and www.telekritika.kiev.ua (National Endowment for Democracy), and www.zmi.kiev.ua (Freedom House). The site www.korrespondent.net is owned by the U.S. owner of the weekly Kyiv Post newspaper.

AUTHORITIES LAUNCH ATTACK ON THE INTERNET

This situation is disturbing to the authorities and they have reacted to it in several ways.

First, the SBU is attempting to take control of Ukraine’s “ua” domain. In May the most secret department in the SBU (Special Telecommunication Systems and Defense of Information) prepared a government resolution that would transfer the administration of “ua” to the newly created SBU-run Ukrainian Internet Information Center. The new Center would also “supervise” the registration of web sites.

The SBU incorrectly refers to guidelines issued by the U.S.-based ICANN (formerly IANA), which provide for a government role only in ensuring the internet follows local legislation–not for it to be run by security services. The domain “ua” was created in 1992 and has been run since then by IANA/ICANN, which works with the Ukrainian Internet Community that was established in 2002 as the largest internet NGO in Ukraine.

Second, the authorities have been closing down web sites. In February of 2002, the Tax Police seized computers from the opposition www.obkom.net.ua and closed the web site. Three of obkom.net.ua’s directors sought political asylum in the United States. The site was eventually re-opened in January of 2003 with funding from the Renaissance (Soros) Foundation. The site www.part.org.ua was closed the same month after its owner, Agency for the Humanities Technologies (AHT), refused to continue to finance it. AHT is controlled by Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Valeriy Khoroshkovskyi. He led the pro-presidential Winter Crop Generation (KOP) party in the 2002 elections; it obtained only 2.02 per cent support and did not enter parliament.

Third, the SBU is believed to be behind a new draft law submitted to parliament in July of 2003 entitled “On activities in the sphere of information services.” The aim is to take control of and regulate the growing internet in Ukraine. Important articles deal with the responsibility of internet publications to provide “honest, full and current information” that does not lead to “material, moral or physical damages.” Internet sites will not be allowed to circulate “illegal” and “unverified” information. In the West the state does not regulate the internet to the extent of issuing threats to fine and close down web providers and internet publications, with the exception of content pertaining to such things as child pornography.

Fourth, oligarchs are desperately trying to move into the internet market to compete with the opposition. As they take control over the internet (as with media in general) censorship invariably begins. In September of 2002 Viktor Shlynchak resigned as editor of the Segodnya newspaper, which is controlled by the Donetsk clan, in a protest against censorship. The site www.forum.ua was taken over by the Donetsk clan at the same time as Donetsk governor Viktor Yanukevych became prime minister in November of 2002. Five months later Andriy Myseliuk, political editor of www.forum.ua, was sacked for publishing materials on attempts to launch a court case in the United States against President Leonid Kuchma.

Fifth, there has been a general deterioration in media freedom in Ukraine since SDPUo leader Medvedchuk became head of the presidential administration in May of 2002. Medvedchuk created a new information policy department headed by Sergiy Vasylyev. Vasylyev’s department, which is one of the administration’s largest, maintains a data base of media criticism of Kuchma. Vasylyev has been issuing increasingly vocal threats to close down opposition web sites. A particular focus of Vasylyev’s attacks is Western (primarily U.S.) financing of the Ukrainian internet. He claims this financing is aimed not at supporting media freedom but at supporting the anti-Kuchma opposition. Interviewed in the Den newspaper of December 4, 2002, Vasylyev claimed these sites were encouraged by their financial backers (i.e. the United States) to present Kuchma as a “bad president.” Kuchma has also recently blamed Ukrayinska Pravda for worsening Ukraine’s international image. In March, the organization Helsinki Watch released a damning report on political censorship in Ukraine; it surveyed the growth of censorship under Medvedchuk and Vasylev (see http://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/ukraine0303/).

LOOKING TOWARD THE 2004 ELECTIONS

As American criticism of Kuchma and his authoritarian tendencies has grown since 2000, so too has there been a growth in Ukraine of anti-Americanism. Some of this has been imported by Russian image makers such as Gleb Pavlovsky, who were hired by the SDPUo during the 2002 elections. The United States has been accused of “interference” in Ukraine’s domestic affairs (especially during elections); of being behind a plot concocted by former U.S. National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to replace Kuchma with Yushchenko; and of financing the opposition. But accusations of this sort were never made against Russia’s open intervention in the 2002 elections, and especially the actions of Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin, who called upon Ukrainians not to vote for “nationalists” (that is, Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine).

Finally, the authorities have learned their lessons from the 2002 elections and from recent elections in other regions of the CIS. They are planning to ensure that the media are more tightly controlled in the 2004 presidential elections in order to prevent media access for the opposition. So far, the internet remains beyond their control. But for how much longer?

Dr. Taras Kuzio is a Resident Fellow at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto, and Visiting Fellow, Institute for Security Studies-EU, Paris.