Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko issued a decree on Monday last week blocking the social networking sites Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, as well as the email service mail.ru and the search engine Yandex.
At least 19 Russian news sites and 13 individual journalists were also on the list of 1,228 people and 468 companies targeted by new sanctions. These included most official Russian news outlets and others sympathetic to Moscow, but also a number of independent stations such as the RBC. The main Ukrainian providers have started blocking access to the sites.
“We are aware of the huge security challenges facing the Ukrainian authorities, but these in no way justify censorship of this kind,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“Blocking social networks, messaging services and entire news organizations is neither proportionate nor justified in light of the stated aims. With this decree Petro Poroshenko has dealt a serious blow to Ukrainian citizens’ right to information and freedom of expression and has turned his back on his international obligations.”
Freedom of expression, guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights -- of which Ukraine is a signatory -- is a right that can be curbed only by legal, legitimate and necessary restrictions in a democratic society.
The Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki networks are among the top 10 most visited sites in Ukraine, together with mail.ru and Yandex, and have respectively 12 million and 5 million users.
RSF frequently highlights abuses arising from the information war being fought between Ukraine and Russia. In January this year, the Ukrainian National Radio and TV Council banned the retransmission of the Russian independent TV channel Dozhd.
Kiev argued that the ban on the Russian sites was designed to protect the personal data of Ukrainian internet users. The surveillance measures deployed by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) are well documented but RSF notes that the government does not own such personal data and splitting up the Internet into different national segments would not protect it.
Moscow used the pretext of avoiding US surveillance in 2014 to justify new legislation requiring companies that process the personal data of Russian citizens should do so only on servers located inside Russia, thereby putting the finishing touch to its own surveillance mechanism.
Despite reforms in recent years aimed at making media ownership more transparent, state broadcasters more independent and information more easily available, the control by oligarchs over the news industry, as well as the information war with Russia, put Ukraine in 102nd place in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
The parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by separatists are no-go areas for freelance and foreign journalists. Crimea, devoid of journalists and news organizations that are critical of the Russian annexation, is turning into a “black hole” for news and information.