One of the first steps that the Russian and Russian-armed militants took on seizing control of Donbas cities in 2014 was to remove all access to Ukrainian television. Over the following months and years, Internet websites were also blocked, though here efforts seem to have been less systematic, and by 2019 the situation differs quite radically between the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [DPR, LPR]. The difference is curious, since Russia maintains the same grip on both pseudo republics and there is no distinction in the vast amounts of military weapons and hardware Russia provides them with. Yet, although DPR, which is holding two journalists prisoner, can certainly not be suspected of defending freedom of speech, it is LPR which is closely following Russia’s lead on censorship. The situation in LPR is only worsening, although it is not on the same level as Russia for a banal reason. If Russia know-how was doubtless used to replace Ukrainian TV with Russian or pro-Russian channels back in the spring and summer of 2014, LPR does not have access to the highly sophisticated and expensive censorship equipment that Russia applies to fully block its own citizens’ access to information on the Internet.
The results of recent monitoring by the Digital Security Lab Ukraine of sites available in four occupied cities: Donetsk; Torez; Snizhne and Luhansk, found that at least one provider blocked 162 Ukrainian sites and others over 100, mostly news sites. The most commonly blocked was 62.ua – the site of Donetsk city, though Channel 5; Radio Svoboda; Obozrevatel; Segodnya and Censor.net were also often targeted.
Donbas.Realii asked Roman Lazarenko from 62.ua why his site was blocked by virtually all Internet providers in occupied Donbas. Lazarenko notes that the blocking began immediately, and in the first DPR list of banned site, which in 2015 contained around 20 sites, 62.ua was in third place. He assumes the reason for such a place of honour is that that the militants first descended on their editorial office back on 26 April 2014. They arrived with bats and demanded that the journalists change their information policy. “We changed nothing, but we did have to close the editorial office in Donetsk”. Lazarenko says that they have always provided a truthful view of events in the city and were and, he hopes, remain very popular, and a site that people trust.
The monitors from DSLab Ukraine found that in general Donetsk providers blocked less than Luhansk, and they were unable to find a current ‘blacklist’ of sites banned by DPR, whereas such a list was published by the so-called ‘LPR ministry of communications’. What the root causes are is less clear, but the monitors note that it does seem to be LPR which is particularly copying Russian censorship.
Russia’s effective censor, Roskomnadzor and the FSB have very sophisticated equipment at their disposal, whereas in occupied Donbas, it is considerably easier to bypass such blocks.
This is important since one of the few plans that Volodymyr Zelensky openly discussed before being elected Ukraine’s President and which he has since mentioned again, is that Ukraine creates a Russian-language website particularly directed at Ukrainians in occupied territory or abroad.
The blocking of Internet websites is, of course, only one of the methods used to silence independent voices on occupied territory. Most pro-Ukrainian journalists left in 2014, some after being captured and tortured, and they know that there is no possibility of returning before full de-occupation. While the known bloggers, like Edward Nedelyaev, who were imprisoned in LPR were released in the December 2017 exchange, two journalists in DPR remain hostages to this day. Both Stanislav Aseyev and Oleh Halaziuk were doubtless seized for their pro-Ukrainian views and the articles they published in Ukrainian media. Both men have been imprisoned since mid-2017. In August 2018, Aseyev was shown on a Russian state-controlled television channel ‘confessing’ to working for Ukrainian military intelligence. The fact that this was for Russian television, in a program overtly presenting Ukraine as responsible for the suffering of the last four years, only confirmed the suspicion that Aseyev’s fate lies in the hands of people “close to Moscow”.
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