Freedom of Speech Barometer for February 2023
In February, IMI experts recorded nine crimes against freedom of speech in Ukraine. Five of them were committed by Russia against media and journalists.
This is evidenced by the monthly monitoring "Freedom of Speech Barometer" by the Institute of Mass Information.
As for Russia's crimes, these were mainly opening fire on journalists and cybercrimes. A detailed description of Russia's war crimes against the media is available here.
At the same time, IMI recorded four cases of freedom of speech violation for which Ukrainian citizens are responsible. These include cases of obstruction, restriction of access to public information, and cyber attacks.
February saw the deaths of three Ukrainian journalists who had gone to defend Ukrane.
- Pavlo Tymoshenko – a cameraman for the Cherkasy branch of "Inter", killed on February 5 near Vuhledar (Donetsk oblast). He been a cameraman at the Cherkasy offices of VIKKA, 1+1, and Inter since 2008. Pavlo Tymoshenko was 42 years old. He had three children.
- Serhiy Klymenko – "Suspilne Kherson" staff member, killed in a battle with the Russian occupiers in Maryinka, Donetsk oblast, on February 5. He worked in the tech division of Kherson radio and television company "Skifia" (now — "Suspilne Kherson") for many years. He is survived by his wife and two children.
- Oleksiy Borys – "Yurydychna Hazeta" journalist, a soldier of the 58th Brigade, killed in action on February 9 on the Bakhmut axis. Oleksiy Borys worked at "Yurydychna Hazeta" since the spring of 2021, previously he had been a Paralegal at Arzinger. He was 27 years old.
Among the cybercrimes, IMI recorded the Russian hackers streaming a fake address by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Channel 24. However, the channel managed to resume broadcasting quickly.
Hackers breached Ukraïner's Facebook pages of and took over them. In his comment to IMI, Bohdan Logvynenko said he did not rule out that Russians might have been involved in the hacker attack on the project's Facebook pages. Later, he reported that Facebook had restored access to all 12 pages of Ukraïner.
Another case of cybercrime: hackers played the USSR anthem on the air of Inter. This happened as Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of the National Security Council, was speaking on the "Unified Telethon". Inter Media Group's technical service reported that they have taken all the necessary measures to eliminate the threat of external interference in the operation of the broadcast servers.
The freedom of speech situation in Ukraine for which Ukrainian citizens are responsible
In February, IMI recorded four cases of freedom of speech violations for which the Ukrainian side was responsible. These include cases of obstruction, restriction of access to public information, and cyber attacks.
For instance, in Cherkasy, lawyer Ihor Holubchyk prevented journalists from the local newspaper "18000" from covering a public meeting of supporters of UOC (MP) Metropolitan Bishop Theodosius near the Cherkasy District Prosecutor's Office. At that moment, the clergyman himself was inside the Prosecutor's Office, where he was being interrogated for an investigation. Lawyer Ihor Holubchyk and some other unidentified persons were simply covering the journalists' cameras at first, and then started pushing the journalists away from the metropolitan, who was exiting the Prosecutor's Office, where he had spent a little over an hour.
Channel 5 journalist Hanna Rybalka faced cyberbullying after asking the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a question at his February 24 press conference. Unknown persons started texting her on Facebook Messenger with various insults. She was accused of "provoking the President for Channel 5's chocholate money," of "having earned a fortune and promoted herself," called a "journalist for sale."
Access restrictions were recorded in Kyiv and Mykolaiv. For instance, officials and managers of Mykolaiv communal enterprises cited the martial law to refuse to provide a journalist with information about the salaries received by civil servants and employees of communal enterprises in 2022.
Firing on journalists – 2
07.02.2023 On January 31, "Zaborona" filming crew came under Russian mortar fire on the road near Bakhmut, Donetsk oblast. Journalist Polina Vernyhor reported this on Facebook and gave a comment to IMI.
According to Polina, the mine fell next to their car and punctured the wheel.
"On the first day of the our trip, we went to Bakhmut and came under mortar fire a few kilometers from the city. Fortunately, it was just an ordinary mine, and not an anti-tank missile, which Russians are firing left and right around there. Fortunately, the debris did not hit the windows or the fuel tank. Fortunately, the car with a completely torn tire didn't just stop in the middle of the road," she wrote on Facebook.
Journalists were supposed to make a report about the Bakhmut children, who were forced to hide from the shelling in cellars.
In her comment to IMI, Vernyhor specified that there were three of them in the car: she, photographer Ivan Chernichkin, and cameraman Yevhen Zhulay. According to her, the shelling injured none of them, she only suffered a contusion in her right ear.
She also added that their car was marked with "PRESS" labels on the front and rear windows. At the same time, Vernyhor believes that the Russians were simply mass shelling the highway, not targeting the journalists.
12.02.2023 On February 12, the filming crew of the German Bild came under Russian fire in Bakhmut, Donetsk oblast. This was reported on the publication's website.
Journalists Paul Ronzheimer, Vadym Moysenko and Giorgos Moutafis were filming a story about the lives of Bakhmut locals who remain in the city despite the shelling.
According to the report, the filming crew witnessed Russian attacks while traveling through the city: "Russian soldiers are shooting with mortars at the neighbourhood where we have just been interviewing residents."
While filming the story and talking to locals, the filming crew came under fire and had to run for cover. As noted in the article, the explosion was "extreme" and not even 200 metres away from them.
"We run away while there are more explosions in our direct vicinity. It is sometimes only seconds that decide whether somebody is hit, or will continue to live," the article says.
After three hours in Bakhmut, which, as the journalists note, "has become hell in this war," the filming crew left the city.
Cyber attacks – 3
06.02.2023 Russian hackers streamed a fake address by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Channel 24. This was reported on the Channel 24 website.
Nevertheless, the channel notes, they managed to restore broadcasting quickly.
According to the channel, on February 6, the satellite station that transmits the Channel 24 signal through the AMOS satellite was attacked. "Unfortunately, some cable operators are still receiving this signal for further distribution, so this attack affected their packages," the channel notes.
At the same time, the channel says, all other channels delivering their signal – MEGOGO, KyivStarTV and other OTT providers, most cable TV operators and the ASTRA satellite signal, as well as online streaming channels – work as usual.
24.02.2023 Hackers played the USSR on the air of Inter. "Detector Media" reported this, posting a video recording of the broadcast.
This happened as Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of the National Security Council, was speaking on the "Unified Telethon". Also, as reported by social media users, the anthem was played on the media group's other channels: K2 and Zoom.
Inter's press office informed "Detector Media" that Inter Media Group's technical service had taken all the necessary measures to eliminate the threat of external interference in the operation of broadcast servers.
According to "Detector Media" sources, the attack allegedly occurred due to Inter's servers having online access and due to a virus on the computer of the news outlet's editor-in-chief.
Responding to a request for comment, the channel's press office reported that the necessary measures to eliminate the threats had been taken, and added: "At the moment, law enforcers are investigating into interference with the Inter and Zoom broadcasts, therefore, Inter Media Group cannot reveal any additional information about the situation or comment on this topic in more detail."
As IMI reported, on February 23, 2023, several web resources of Ukrainian state and local authorities suffered a cyberattack which led to the content of several pages on these resources being edited. According to the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine, the incident did not lead to any significant disruption of the system's performance and did not affect the performance of the state bodies.
24.02.2023 Ukraïner, an educational project about the Ukrainian society and culture, has been hacked: cyber criminals took over the project's Facebook pages. The project reported this on Instagram.
"Friends, our Facebook pages have been taken over by hackers. Both Ukraïner's main page and all our non-Ukrainian language pages are controlled by unknown persons," the post says.
The project's team notes that they are looking for any way to regain full control over the account, and warns that if there are any strange posts on the pages in the near future, or the names of the pages change, etc., it is not their doing.
"Please do not click any links that may be posted on our pages or sent to you in private messages. Do not send any money, because we are currently not doing any fundraising (the army auction where we invited you to support our volunteer Mykhailo, ended today)," the message reads.
Ukraïner noted that for the time being, they will be posting content on Instagram, Telegram, Twitter and Viber.
The project's founder, Bohdan Logvynenko, tweeted that hackers had gained access to the publication's pages by hacking the Meta Business Manager.
"Ladies and gentlemen, yesterday (February 24 – Ed.) Ukraïner's Meta Business Manager was hacked. All pages have been breached. There may be provocations. They are already changing names and deleting posts. Meta Support has provided no help since yesterday. The Digital Ministry is aware of the situation," he wrote.
At the same time, he added on Facebook, a preliminary check did not reveal any signs of the administrators' personal pages being hacked.
"We were hacked, but a preliminary check of our personal pages shows that there has been no attack on the admins themselves. From the insiders in "Meta": probably some gaps appeared in the Business Manager and there is simply no operational capacity to solve such problems. And even if the hacker attack happened due to an administrative error – it could take months (!) to fix a page hack. Seeing how quick the support is to respond and the how one has to have ties in Meta to 'talk things through', it is obvious that Facebook is the most risky place for communicating and accumulating social clout while there is an information war," Logvynenko wrote.
He added that Ukraïner will probably have to leave Facebook.
In his comment to the IMI, Logvynenko did not rule out that Russians might be behind the hacker attack on the project's Facebook pages. "At the moment, we do not rule out such a possibility. We are currently looking into this incident with experts at Meta. There was certain involvement of hackers from several countries. Russia is not on the list, but there are some of Russia's so-called friendly countries. This could be either a coincidence or a thoroughly planned operation. I'm not sure if we will ever know for sure, but we'll at least try," he said.
He said that he could not say which "friendly" countries were concerned and added: "It may not really matter because a VPN allows you to 'be' in any country."
Later, Logvynenko reported that Facebook had restored access to all 12 pages of Ukraïner.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH SITUATION IN UKRAINE FOR WHICH UKRAINIAN CITIZENS ARE RESPONSIBLE
Obstructing legal journalistic work – 1
21.02.2023 In Cherkasy, lawyer Ihor Holubchyk prevented journalists from the local newspaper "18000" from covering a public meeting of supporters of UOC (MP) Metropolitan Bishop Theodosius near the Cherkasy District Prosecutor's Office. This was reported on the newspaper's website.
At that moment, the clergyman himself was inside the Prosecutor's Office, where he was being interrogated for an investigation. His church's parishioners gathered in front of the building.
As the publication notes, Holubchyk, together with other representatives of the clergyman's support group, tried to prevent journalists Yelena Shchepak and Arthur Chemyris from legally doing their job, and eventually filed a statement against them to the police.
According to him, the journalists were invading his privacy by filming and taking pictures of the events, which were happening in a public space – the territory adjacent to the Cherkasy District Prosecutor's Office. At first, Ihor Holubchyk and some other unidentified persons were simply covering the journalists' cameras, and then started pushing the journalists away from Theodosius, who was exiting the Prosecutor's Office, where he had spent a little over an hour.
"I have seen people like you, people who smile, whose smile fades for some reason when they are invited not just for questioning, when a criminal case is opened against them," Holubchyk told journalists.
The journalists were not hiding that they were correspondents as they filmed, openly explaining that they were media representatives. However, Holubchyk, who not only introduced himself as Theodosius's lawyer, but also claimed to represent the entire community of parishioners, refused to give his last name.
As Yelena Shchepak told an IMI representative, she and her colleague Arthur Chemyris wanted the metropolitan to comment on his feelings about being handed a suspicion notice and whether he agrees with the allegations.
"According to the SBU, the clergyman possessed a document featuring Putin's portrait, which has been seized from him, and supervised the dirstribution of content about ruscism. As we approached the Prosecutor's Office, we were immediately intercepted by an unknown person who introduced himself as Theodosius's lawyer. The man claimed that we were invading his privacy (mind you that the events were taking place on the street) and forbade us to film not only himself, but also about a hundred of Theodosius' supporters, who were praying at that time. More yet: when Theodosius came out of the building, his supporters surrounded him and started waving hands and bags to cover the phone cameras, and some were simply trying to push us away, saying, "Get lost, lad." To finish off this incredible event, Theodosius's lawyer filed a police statement against us, and Arthur and I had to provide an explanation," the journalist said.
As IMI reported, on February 20, the SBU issued a suspicion notice for inciting inter-religious enmity to the head of the UOC (MP) Cherkasy Diocese. According to the investigation, the metropolitan has made public statements among clergymen and parishioners, as well as official comments, which contained calls that violate citizens' right to equality regardless of their racial, national, regional background and beliefs. Also, under his supervision, the administrator of the diocese's departmental website posted hostile content from the ROC's propaganda websites, such as patriarchia.ru and pravmir.ru.
CENSORSHIP. INFORMATION ACCESS
Information access – 2
08.02.2023 Officials and managers of Mykolaiv communal enterprises refused to provide a journalist with information about the salaries received by civil servants and employees of communal enterprises in 2022, explaining this by "force majeure circumstances" that arose due to the full-scale war in Ukraine.
Journalist Anastasia Mykhailova, "NikLife" editor-in-chief, reported this on Facebook, posting copies of the responses she received from the City Council.
According to the journalist, she wrote to the City Council with a request regarding the salaries received by civil servants and employees of communal enterprises in 2022. However, she only received excuses in response.
"I received several dozen identical letters from various city departments, offices, administrations and utility companies saying: 'There's a war.' 98% of all whom it concerns rejected my request. Nice! I am sincerely glad that we finally have such synergy, cohesion and camaraderie in local self-government bodies, from managers to experts and ordinary employees. I would like to take this opportunity to do a shout out to the entire journalistic community, which has been self-censoring, withholding questions, obeying all the rules and trying in every way from the very start of the invasion so as not to harm anyone or anything for the sake of our shared Victory. Friends, we seem to have missed something," Anastasia Mykhailova wrote.
At the same time, according to the IMI representative in Mykolaiv oblast, other journalists did receive comprehensive answers to their requests from the executive bodies of the Mykolaiv City Council as recently as January–February 2023. Therefore, the IMI representative noted, the the City Council failing to provide an answer to Anastasia Mykhailova may indicate selective approach and discrimination of certain media by Mykolaiv officials.
Earlier, IMI wrote that since the introduction of martial law in Ukraine, the Institute of Mass Information has recorded multiple instances of state bodies postponing the fulfilment of information requests until the martial law is lifted.
The situation with the delays can be explained by Article 22 Part 6 of the Law of Ukraine "On Access to Public Information", which reads: "Delay in satisfying a request for information is allowed if the requested information cannot be provided for viewing within the time limit provided by this Law due to force majeure circumstances." According to the Ukrainian legal doctrine, military hostilities are usually considered force majeure circumstances.
Whether the administration was objectively unable to provide a timely answer can be verified either by a higher state body or by the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner on Human Rights. Filing a lawsuit with the administrative court is also an option, but it should be noted that this is a long journey and one should have evidence that the hostilities do not prevent the relevant administrator from providing a timely response to the request.
27.02.2023 Censor.NET editor-in-chief Yuriy Butusov and BIHUS.Info editor Maksym Opanasenko reported that they were denied accreditation for the press conference with President Volodymyr Zelensky. Butusov wrote about this on his Facebook page and Opanasenko informed IMI of this.
"Mr. Zelensky was too scared to meet me, the head of an influential media outlet read by millions, because he realizes that he has nothing to say to my questions about the state's failure to prepare for the war, about state traitors receiving the highest positions in the government, which were the things I asked him about at his last big press conference in November 2021. I think the whole country would like to hear some answers regarding the President's responsibility for the loss of southern Ukraine, for not procuring enough shells and mines, for all that leads to such terrible toll on our citizens. But Zelensky wants to sit down in a warm bath and turn the press conference into a PR event, where the chance of asking honest questions and getting honest answers will be as limited as possible. A politician who tries to avoid uncomfortable questions is trying to mislead his voters," Yuriy Butusov wrote.
He also posted a screenshot of the response he had received via email. It states that "accreditation has been denied due to the limited number of seats and extra security measures."
In his comment to IMI, Maksym Opanasenko said that he had received the same refusal.
IMI requested a comment from the President's Office, but has not yet received one.
As IMI reported, on February 24, President Volodymyr Zelensky held the conference "February. The year of Invincibility".
Cyber attacks on journalists and media – 1
27.02.2023 Channel 5 journalist Hanna Rybalka faced cyberbullying after asking the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a question at his February 24 press conference. She informed IMI of this.
According to her, the insults started arriving to her private messages en masse on the morning of February 25.
"On Saturday morning, a massive wave of hate flooded my private messages and went on until the evening. These were some messages from people I didn't know. […] I blocked those accounts. Because they were calling me through Facebook at night," Hanna said, adding that now the bullying has subsided and many people were texting her words of support.
The journalist provided IMI with screenshots of the hatemail she received. She was accused of "provoking the President for Channel 5's chocholate money," of "having earned a fortune and promoted herself," called a "journalist for sale."
Hanna said that she had not contacted the police regarding the cyberbullying, as she "considers it to be a manifestation of hate and nothing more."
It will be recalled that at the press conference, Hanna Rybalka noted that since April, Channel 5, Pryamyi and Espreso have been excluded from digital broadcasting. She also asked whether the President regretted the address where he assured Ukrainians that there would be no attack, and whether he saw himself as personally responsible for the citizens being insufficiently informed about real threats. Furthermore, Rybalka brought up the responsibility of the then head of the SBU, Ivan Bakanov, for the alleged underestimation of the probability of a Russian invasion. The President's press secretary, Serhiy Nikiforov, interrupted the journalist, asking her to finish the question, after which the microphone was taken away from her.
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