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Freedom of speech under conditions of information warfare: the Ministry of Information Policy does not play a big role in forming media policy

On January 19, 2018 press conference “Freedom of speech under conditions of information warfare and armed conflict” took place in Kyiv. At the event, Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and Detector Media presented the results of their study.

Experts reached a conclusion that information warfare which actively accompanies the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea created a need for an overhaul of state information policy for the first time in many years. Two factors played a part in this. The first one is the fact that Russia is using every available method of information warfare quite vigorously: disinformation, propaganda, diversification of public opinion, manipulation, psychological or psychotropic pressure, rumors, etc. The second factor is that neither the government nor civil society are equipped to fight a hybrid armed conflict on the information playing field.

This has led to some uncoordinated attempts at information warfare by various entities. The government’s desire for victory on the information front resulted in failed and mostly unwarranted attempts to limit the freedom of speech, particularly by using extra-judicially introduced and unjustifiably rash sanctions against foreign media, as well as by opening criminal cases for disseminating or assisting dissemination of socially important information regarding the anti-terrorist operation.

Oleg Martynenko, head of analitycs at UHHRU
Oleg Martynenko, head of analitycs at UHHRU

According to head of analytics at UHHRU Oleg Martynenko, the Ministry of Information Policy does not play a big role in forming state media policy, since it is not the only player and far from the most influential, in the company of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Security Service of Ukraine and Ministry of Defense, all of which have more resources to impact the flow of information. “Another reason why the Ministry is not that active, as we discovered, is that while other players might not be interested, they sure don’t use techniques already known in the expert community to implement them in practice,” remarked Oleg Martynenko.

Lack of established state policy on information warfare resulted in ominous trends – such as the depiction of all Russian citizens as “bitter enemies of Ukraine” by media outlets, and lack of tolerance in stories on ATO progress toward people that live in temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. The conditions of the hybrid armed conflict have clearly outlined the need to use unified standards of objectivity and balance, which should be maintained by the government and non–governmental sector alike. These standards touch on three areas at the very least:

– counteracting hate speeches and warmongering;

– developing mechanisms for the government’s interference in the freedom of speech with consideration for the lawfulness and need of such interference;

– clear division of functions and powers among all information war entities.

Olexiy Matsuka, chief editor of the Donbas News website
Olexiy Matsuka, chief editor of the Donbas News website

According to Olexiy Matsuka, chief editor of the Donbas News website, the study was the first attempt at auditing the Information Policy Ministry, since no such audit has been performed in all the time the agency has been operating. He also brought up the issues considered in the course of the study but ignored, to the journalist’s knowledge, by the Ministry. These issues include hate speeches aimed at the residents of occupied territories on some Ukrainian prime TV channels, restricted broadcasting in uncontrolled territories, and stifling of certain TV channels by state officials, with the Ministry of Information Policy doing nothing about it.

Roman Shutov, program director at Detector Media
Roman Shutov, program director at Detector Media

Roman Shutov, program director at Detector Media, said that the Ministry neither on paper nor in practice restricts human rights, which, according to the expert, is already a good thing. It also seeks to increase the reach of Ukrainian media, works on securing the release of imprisoned journalists and provides assistance to them in the ATO zone. However, Roman Shutov also mentioned some alarming aspects, such as potential blocking of dangerous websites. He stressed that the Ministry’s role in blocking websites containing dangerous content is not fully clear, and neither is its mechanism.  As an advice for the government, the expert recommended implementing a more transparent mechanism for blocking websites.

Maxym Butkevych, coordinator of the No Borders project
Maxym Butkevych, coordinator of the No Borders project

Maxym Butkevych, coordinator of the No Borders project, noted that over the past three years many government agencies have created new challenges for human rights as well as compounded the old ones. According to him, first and foremost this includes violations of the right to assembly and dissemination of information in the form of internet restrictions and limited or banned import of Russian books. He stressed that there are no criteria for such restrictions that would be clearly defined, properly discussed and brought in line with human rights standards, and pointed out their extra-judicial nature and abuse of national security considerations, which, according to the activist, not only create favorable conditions for human rights violations, but also chip away at the freedom of Ukrainian society.

Photos by Oleg Shinkarenko

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