Freedom of Expression and Opinion in Wartime: Assessing Ukraine's Ban on Citizen Access to Russian-Owned Websites

By Holland, Natalie | American University International Law Review, August 10, 2018 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Expression and Opinion in Wartime: Assessing Ukraine's Ban on Citizen Access to Russian-Owned Websites


Holland, Natalie, American University International Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

In early 2014, Russian-backed forces seized control of Crimea, an autonomous territory of Ukraine, leading to an ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.1 On May 15, 2017, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a presidential decree banning Russian-run social media, email, and search engine services for three years.2 The ban applied to the social media sites VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki, the email service Mail.ru, and the search engine Yandex.3 These social media sites are widely used by the Ukrainian population with almost eighty percent of Ukrainian internet users signed up for VK and nearly twenty-one million Ukrainians using one of the two banned social media sites.4 Mail.ru estimated that twenty-six million Ukrainian users would be impacted by the ban.5 Altogether, these four Russian websites are among the top ten most popular websites in Ukraine.6

International actors like Human Rights Watch and the Council of Europe condemned Ukraine's ban, insisting that it is a violation of commonly understood freedoms and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Ukraine is a party.7

The ICCPR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force in 1976.8 It is an international human rights treaty ratified to preserve and protect basic civil and political rights.9 ICCPR Article 19 specifically protects rights and freedoms related to opinion, expression, and information and idea gathering and dissemination.10 However, Article 19 does provide for exceptions where such freedoms would impact the rights of others or impede national security, public order, health, or morals.11

This Comment argues that under ICCPR Article 19, Ukraine, as a signatory, is obligated to maintain its citizens' rights to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as rights to receive and impart information through any media platform. By barring citizen access to certain social media sites, email services, and search engines, without a sufficient national security justification, Ukraine has violated its obligations under the ICCPR.

Part II of this Comment describes Ukraine's actions in banning particular social media and internet access, and Ukraine's commitments to the ICCPR.12 Part II of this Comment also provides an overview of ICCPR Article 19, as well as the United Nations Human Rights Council's Resolution condemning governmental restrictions of Internet and social media.13 Part III of this Comment compares the language of Article 19 and Human Rights Council Resolution 32/13 to Ukraine's social media ban and the claim that the ban fits under the national security exception to the ICCPR.14 Part III will assess the legality of Ukraine's ban in relation to internet bans by other countries that have been condemned by the United Nations.15 Part IV recommends that the United Nations should issue a general comment condemning Ukraine's website ban.16 Furthermore, this Comment recommends that Ukraine should cease implementation of its ban and consider developing and encouraging non-Russian social media options.17

II.BACKGROUND

A. An Overview of Ukraine's Presidential Decree

On May 15, 2017, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed Presidential Decree No. 133/2017 banning Ukrainian access to Russian Internet, email, and social media platforms.18 The ban applies to the social media sites VK and Odnoklassniki, the email service Mail.ru, and the search engine Yandex.19 Presidential Decree No. 133/2017 enacted a National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) decision from April 28, 2017.20 According to President Poroshenko, the ban will remain in place for the next three years, or "after the termination of Russian aggression against Ukraine."21 One member of the Ukrainian parliament has called into question the legality of the decree saying that under Ukrainian law "blocking access to sites without a court decision is not allowed."22 This question of legality has not slowed the development of mechanisms to stop access to banned sites. …

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