Censorship in Ukraine: A Fight for Media Control

Reporter with prison ball attached to her ankle while reporting news
Click here for an overview of censorship in Ukraine
Quick Guide - How to Circumvent Censorship in Ukraine

The media landscape in Ukraine is under pressure from different sides, resulting in a lot of censorship and digital instability. Historically, both anti-Russia and anti-Ukraine rhetoric have been censored in the region, keeping Ukraine deadlocked between different ideological forces. Censorship tactics include:

  • Mitigating press freedom
  • Censoring the web heavily in the Crimea and Donbas regions
  • Filtering content associated with Russia as well as LGBTQ+ or feminist expression

Now, with the Russian invasion, journalists, activists, and regular civilians are looking for ways to keep in touch with independent media and protect themselves online, for example by using a virtual private network (VPN).

We recommend NordVPN as a VPN provider for Ukraine.

If you want to know more about censorship in Ukraine, as well as the digital information war that accompanies Russia’s military operation, read the full article below.

Censorship iconCensorship is a political tool. The power to restrict the internet and independent media is the power to control a political narrative. Especially when it comes to international conflict, censorship can be used to sway public opinion in favor of one side or the other.

While Ukraine has a long history of censorship, the current invasion of Russian troops has put significant pressure on its media landscape. With cities under military siege, Ukrainian journalists, activists, and regular citizens are caught in an ideological war of information that evolves in real-time.

The fight for media control between Russia, NATO powers, and independent Ukrainian journalists has been escalating since 2014. Those wanting to be informed end up having to sift through news, desperately trying to avoid misinformation, fake footage, and “hawkish” media manipulation.

It’s essential that people on the ground continue to have the means to access information and communicate freely. A digital tool that has proven useful in circumventing censorship in such situations is a virtual private network (VPN).

This article will look at Ukraine’s history of censorship, examine it in light of the current conflict, and provide insight into navigating the highly manipulated and censored media landscape safely.


The State of Media Freedom in Ukraine

Ukraine is familiar with censorship as a media control mechanism. Independent watchdog organization Freedom House has categorized government-controlled Ukraine as “partly free,” while the annexed peninsula of Crimea and the Eastern Donbas region are both labeled “not free.”

Freedom of the press

Freedom of the Press iconIn Ukraine, there is no state censorship in the strictest sense of the word, but Ukrainian media houses are owned by the country’s major oligarchs. Inevitably, they tend to promote the economic and political interests of their owners.

The Ukrainian press enjoyed a brief moment of relative freedom following the Orange Revolution of 2004, but media outlets critical of the government have generally faced a lot of censorship.

Ten years later, after the Euromaidan revolutionary wave in 2014 — a period of civil unrest and protests against the government’s decision to suspend signing the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement — misinformation, propaganda, and attempts to control the flow of information prevailed.

The annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas region, in particular, have posed a great threat to journalists. The Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) has expressed great concern about the violence, detention, intimidation, murder, and displacement journalists face.

In light of the current military operation in government-controlled Ukraine, this threat has only intensified.

Internet censorship in Ukraine

Censorship in Ukraine iconFor people in Ukraine, access to the internet is largely unfettered. Law enforcement, however, has been known to surveil without rightful authority.

In 2020, the Ukrainian parliament passed a set of laws that allow the government, under certain conditions, to control telecommunications and restrict access to the internet. During a state of emergency, which Ukraine is currently in, the government can augment surveillance and intercept private communications.

Moreover, Ukraine heavily censors Russian-affiliated online media. Any online publications that deny Russian aggression are prohibited. This is a clear example of how censorship, ideological propaganda, and misinformation can intersect.

Ukraine has become an information battleground, where pro-Russia, pro-Europe, and pro-independence ideological forces are all limiting public discussion and online freedom by censoring material they deem dangerous.

Crimea and the Donbas region

Crimea and the Donbas region censorship iconCensorship and propaganda are particularly heavy in the Crimea and the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

After the Euromaidan protests in 2014, unrest erupted in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. Separatist groups in Donetsk and Luhansk protested the new Ukrainian government. This quickly escalated in a Russian military campaign, which only grew following the annexation of Crimea.

A transformed media environment and a full-blown information war have been the result. Russian media hold a dominant position in post-annexation Crimea.

Criticism of the annexation is heavily repressed and journalists face harassment, violence, and abuse from paramilitary and security forces.

In the Donbas, separatist outlets control the stream of information. Anti-government propaganda is widespread. Pro-Ukrainian bloggers and professional journalists face detention and deportation.

But even Pro-Russia journalists who are critical of the separatist leadership face serious threats to their safety; often operating anonymously.


What Content Is Being Censored?

Infographic showing what content is being censored in Ukraine

While the Ukrainian media sector is pluralist, it is skewed in favor of economic and political power. In his presidential race, President Zelenskyy received significant support from media outlets owned by oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. This means that the Zelenskyy administration holds great power over the media.

In 2021, the independent Institute of Mass Information registered 197 freedom-of-speech violations against journalists. In previous years, international organizations such as Reports Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and the Committee To Protect Journalists have all condemned Ukraine for their banning of journalists, media, and websites.

Russian media, platforms, and software

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) is the governing body tasked to take down domains that spread what they consider anti-Ukrainian propaganda. In 2021, President Zelenskyy signed an order to block three TV channels controlled by pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk. In previous years, many Russian media outlets were already outlawed by the Ukrainian authorities.

Russian social media platforms VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki (OK) are both blocked in Ukraine. Yandex, the most popular search engine for the Russian-speaking world, is also blocked.

It’s been claimed that this is necessary to protect Ukrainians against cyber attacks and data collection. These platforms, however, are widely frequently by Ukrainians and the restrictions have been criticized.

Various software programs, such as the language processor ABBYY and accounting software 1C were also banned, despite the fact that many Ukrainians use them.

LGBTQ+ and feminist expression

While public opinion in Ukraine about LGBTQ+ rights has progressed in recent years, traditionally, the Ukrainian authorities restrict the rights and freedom of expression of sexual minorities.

In 2012, a law was drafted that would make it illegal to discuss homosexuality in public and in media. Breaking this law would lead to fines and incarceration for up to five years.

In 2015, the bill was removed from the agenda, but nevertheless, attacks on activists and censorship of LGBTQ+ content in media occur frequently. In 2014, Kyiv’s oldest movie theater was set on fire during the screening of a movie that was part of an LGBTQ+ program at the Molodist Film Festival.

Over the course of the last decades, Ukraine has seen a rise in the presence and activity of the radical far-right. They have grown popular against the rise of what they consider “impure” elements of society: the LGBTQ+ community and various religious, ethnic, and linguistic minorities.

The Ukrainian authorities formally and informally draw on the influence of these far-right groups. All this solidifies censorship, violence, and harassment. In 2021, nationwide women’s rights rallies were violently broken up by right-wing nationalist group Tradition and Order. Violence and intimidation of this nature goes with near-total impunity.


Why Does Ukraine Censor the Internet?

Why does Ukraine censor the internet iconThe media landscape in Ukraine is very polarized. This is because, from a geopolitical point of view, Ukraine is caught between two ideological spheres of influence. In order to mitigate an internal political crisis, Ukraine uses censorship to control the flow of information.

Since the end of the Cold War, both Russia and Western actors such as NATO and the European Union have wished to sway Ukraine’s political allegiance in their favor. On either side, this is often believed to be done out of a need to protect national security.

As a result, Ukraine has been deprived of the opportunity of political neutrality and its online information landscape is subject to manipulation.

Censorship is used as a tool to push back against propaganda and disinformation, which is a major problem in Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine’s media outlets are strongly influenced by their wealthy owner’s interest. This intersects with politically- and economically motivated jeansa, the phenomenon of paid-for content.


How Does Ukraine Censor the Internet?

Infographic showing how does Ukraine censor the internet

The Ukrainian Internet Association owns the biggest internet exchange network in Ukraine. In the early 2000s, they warned that increased government regulation would lead to censorship. Currently, the government has the following instruments at its disposal to censor the internet.

Telecommunications

The majority of people in Ukraine have free access to a telephone, mobile and/or internet connection. In 2017, former President Poroshenko, in cooperation with Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, ordered a major ban on Russian media outlets and companies.

Following the decree, state telecommunications company UkrTelecom started implementing the ban. This affected television and radio broadcasting. The National Radio and TV Council also made the decision to ban Dozhd, a Russian independent TV channel, for treating Crimea as part of Russia.

However, Dozhd was similarly outspoken in its criticism of the Kremlin and was widely transmitted in Ukraine.

To censor independent media is to severely restrict the free flow of information. Violations in annexed Crimea and the Donbas territories have been even more severe.

Internet service providers

When it comes to blocked domains, Poroshenko ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block Russian social media platforms VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, as well as email service Mail.ru and search engine Yandex. The former president claimed this was necessary “to protect Ukrainians from cyberattacks and data collection.” In 2018, ISPs in Ukraine blocked 192 websites.

The Ministry of Information Policy has requested the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to specifically block separatist media outlets through ISPs. The decree is sometimes vague; web pages can be restricted for any reason ranging from inciting hatred to advocating for war.

However, the Digital Security Lab has concluded that implementation is sometimes inconsistent. In some instances, Russian platforms are still accessible.

Self-censorship

When it comes to topics such as separatism, Russia, Europe, terrorism, and patriotism, many journalists and regular internet users in Ukraine have gotten into the habit of self-censorship. This is done out of fear for persecution and violence, both in government-controlled Ukraine, as well as in the occupied areas.

Russian censorship in Donetsk and Luhansk

In the Donbas region, the de facto authorities have gradually installed a local “state-owned” telecommunications industry. Ukrainian ISPs have been forced out, and separatist authorities have routed all internet traffic through Russia.

Russian censorship in Crimea

Russian telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor effectively eliminated all independent and pro-Ukraine media in Crimea. The peninsula is cut off from Ukrainian tv channels and ISPs.

Ukrainian radio has been overrun by Russian mass information programming on the same frequencies. It is encouraged by the Russian intelligence agency FSB to report people who express any form of opposition. Social media is monitored.


Online Freedom: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine (2022)

Infographic showing online freedom in Ukraine

In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, escalating the situation into a brutal and unlawful military conflict. While the war rages on the ground, digital technology plays a key role, too.

One of the advantages of cyber warfare is that it offers communication tools for journalists, protestors, and ordinary citizens. However, it also facilitates and accelerates the flow of disinformation, and opens up the way to digital attacks.

Internet monitoring organization NetBlocks reported that web traffic fell quickly after Russia’s invasion. This drop is partly the result of Ukrainian citizens fleeing Ukraine to get to safety. However, censorship, limited internet access as a result of sabotage, and interference of web infrastructure also play a large part.

Censorship of media outlets

Ukraine-based journalists are victims of serious crimes and have faced major setbacks in their efforts to report on the war. Russian troops have carried out physical attacks on the Kyiv TV tower in an attempt to silence reporting on the conflict.

Thousands of protesters have been arrested by Russian authorities, including journalists from independent media.

In Russia, media regulator Roskomnadzor has banned external coverage of the conflict and only allows the Russian Ministry of Defense to report. Media outlets have been warned that spreading “false reports about acts of terrorism” and “inaccurate socially significant information” can lead to websites being taken down. Ukrainian TVchannels are inaccessible.

On the other side of the war, the European Commission has banned Russia’s state-backed media in the European Union. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has stated that Russian television networks Russia Today and Sputnik “will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war.”

While pushing back against disinformation is an understandable aim, censorship of this type does restrict people from getting insight into what is being reported elsewhere and can be dangerous.

Social media

Social media is a digital weapon in Putin’s war in Ukraine. With eyewitness accounts reaching across the globe in seconds, it brings the conflict right into our pockets. However, social media platforms are also instruments of war propaganda.

The Russian government and tech giants such as Facebook (Meta), Twitter, and YouTube are struggling for control when it comes to political propaganda on social media. Russia has chosen to limit access to Facebook, and those who express dissenting opinions can face detention.

Meanwhile, tech giants themselves have also taken to censorship measurements. Following the European Commission, Facebook, and TikTok have blocked Russian state-controlled media in Europe. YouTube has been blocking Russian state-sponsored ads and is limiting video recommendations to Russian channels.

In order to respond to disinformation, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, established a “Special Operations Center” to monitor the military conflict and actively remove content that violates the platform’s policies.

Twitter, doing the same, ended up mistakenly suspending the accounts of several open-source intelligence reporters.

Cyberattacks

On February 23rd, Ukrainian authorities were hit by a wave of cyberattacks, including DDoS attacks. Since the invasion of Ukraine, various financial systems, defense systems, media houses, and governmental bodies have become destabilized by coordinated digital strikes.

Cyber-collectives on either side are hacking into enemy systems. Belarus-associated collective “Ghostwriter” has been identified to plant fraudulent information and target high-profile Ukrainians, including military and public officials.

In retaliation, hacker collective “Anonymous” declared a “cyberwar” on Russia, hacking into Kremlin websites and media.

These attacks have received both praise and criticism. Attacking critical infrastructure in a conflict like this can lead to a dangerous escalation of retaliation. This can have absolutely disastrous consequences for civilians.

Disinformation

Bot systems are effective tools to spread disinformation online. During the Ukrainian elections, Facebook removed 1,907 pages, groups, and accounts suspected of “engaging in spam and inauthentic behavior” to advance a Russian ideological agenda.

In 2022, Russian troll farms went as far as creating deep fakes to push their information campaign.

As a result of bots and trolls, a lot of disinformation is spread, also on the Western side of the conflict. Eye witness accounts have turned out to be fake, with Syrian war footage and manipulated explosion audio circulating online as coming out of Ukraine.

The following agencies currently provide up to date information on bot campaigns and actively debunk disinformation


How to Get Around Censorship in Ukraine

VPN shield icon on a dark laptopTo keep a tether to the independent news and be better protected online, a VPN can be an important tool for journalists, activists, and citizens in conflict areas. A VPN encrypts your data traffic and hides your real IP address.

This can help protect your identity online. Moreover, a VPN can grant you access to websites that have been blocked. Users in Ukraine and Russia alike have turned to VPNs to get access to independent media.

In most countries, using a VPN is legal, including Ukraine. In Russia, VPNs are often banned but authorities have not succeeded in blocking their use completely. It’s important to keep in mind that a VPN does not grant you impunity. What is illegal, is still illegal, even when you’re using a VPN.

However, in light of the heavy ideological war, a VPN is certainly a great tool to stay informed and protected online.


Top 3 Best VPNs for Ukraine

It might be tempting to choose a free VPN service, especially when you’re eager to get news updates in a conflict like this. Some free VPN providers do offer decent services. However, they are more likely to leak your data or sell it off to third parties. With an eye on Russia’s digital surveillance and harsh punishments, it’s highly discouraged to use a free VPN in Ukraine.

Instead, we recommend the following providers:

1. NordVPN: High-level security and anonymity with Ukrainian servers

Horizontal narrow screenshot of NordVPN website with logo in the corner

NordVPN is a provider with a large server network: over 5600 servers in 60 countries, including six servers inside Ukraine. In terms of encryption and security, it gives you bang for your buck: 256-bit encryption and the possibility to use OpenVPN, which is the golden standard of VPN protocols.

In terms of safety features, NordVPN also offers a kill switch, which will automatically block your traffic from leaking in case your VPN connection suddenly drops. They also have a no-log policy and offer DNS leak protection.

If you’re looking for a fast and budget-friendly VPN with a wide server network and optimal encryption, NordVPN is your pick.

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2. CyberGhost: Online freedom worldwide with countless servers

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CyberGhost is our second suggestion for a reliable VPN in Ukraine. It has a large server network of over 6800 servers in 90 countries. This gives you a wide range of options to access international media. It’s also a VPN that’s very user-friendly.

When it comes to security, CyberGhost also offers 256-bit encryption. Protocols include OpenVPN, IKEv2, and WireGuard. It also offers ad-blocking and anti-malware features. It’s a high-quality VPN that does not collect information and will keep you safe online.

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3. Surfshark: An affordable pushback against Ukrainian censorship

Surfshark VPN provider website homepage with added logo to the corner

Finally, we recommend Surfshark as a VPN for Ukraine. Surfshark has a smaller server network than NordVPN and CyberGhost, but it’s still very respectable, offering 3200+ servers in 65 countries. It’s a very affordable VPN that offers top-tier security and speeds.

Surfshark offers MultiHop, which allows you to connect to two VPN servers simultaneously for optimal security. It has a kill switch and does not keep any logs.

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Communicating Safely and Anonymously

Anonymity and privacy iconBesides using a VPN, people in Ukraine and Russia who want to communicate safely and privately might benefit from the following advice:

  • Use an encrypted messaging app. While Telegram is the most popular messenger in Ukraine, it currently appears to be somewhat vulnerable to Russian surveillance of online activities. Cybersecurity experts generally consider Signal to be a strong end-to-end encryption service.
  • If you want to communicate via email, it’s best to use a secure email provider.
  • Browse the web via the Tor Network for extra anonymity. It throttles your speed, but hides your activity.

For more information, check out our article with tips for reporters in Ukraine and Russia.


Final Thoughts

The Russian military operation in Ukraine is an unlawful escalation of a conflict that’s been intensifying for years. It’s a war that’s not only developing on the ground but also online, with different forces trying to control the flow of information.

Ukraine has a history of censorship and political interference. Anti-government rhetoric and pro-Russian propaganda have been censored. Moreover, the nation’s oligarchs who own media outlets act in their political interests, limiting journalists’ freedom and free speech.

In Crimea and the Donbas, Russia has effectively eliminated the Ukrainian telecommunications industry and replaced it with state-sponsored or separatist media outlets. Self-censorship motivated by fear is a result.

With the current war being fought out partly through cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, people in Ukraine are looking for ways to protect their identity online and access truthful international media.

Using a VPN is a helpful tool for circumventing censorship in Ukraine, especially when different geopolitical blocs wish to sway public opinion in their favor. This is also true in Myanmar. Here’s our report on censorship in Myanmar.

Censorship in Ukraine: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have any questions about censorship in Ukraine? Find the answers below.

Ukraine has freedom of speech, but there are geographical and political limitations. In government-controlled Ukraine, those who speak out against the government or promote “dangerous pro-Russian rhetoric” face censorship.

In annexed Crimea, freedom of speech is extremely restricted by Russian authorities. In the Donbas region, pro-Russia separatists dominate the media landscape. Read our full article for more information about censorship in Ukraine, freedom of the press, and consequences for journalists.

The media in Ukraine is owned by major oligarchs. Inevitably, the media houses promote the interests, political and otherwise, of these owners.

Because many politicians, including president Zelenskyy, have good ties with the wealthy oligarchs, the Ukrainian government holds significant sway over the media. This can lead to jeansa — paid-for content.

There are two regions in Ukraine that are not (completely) government controlled: the peninsula of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and the Donbas region that comprises Donetsk and Luhansk, which are ruled by pro-Russia separatists.

In February 2022, Russia recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent self-proclaimed republics. Subsequently, Russia advanced into government-controlled Ukraine with military forces.

The current war in Ukraine is paired with a wave of cyberattacks. Various Ukrainian government websites, media outlets, and defense systems were attacked right after the invasion.

In response, hacking collectives on either side are targeting enemy cyberspace. People fear for an escalation that will affect critical web infrastructure.

International Censorship & Security Journalist
Lauren Mak is an internal censorship and security-focused journalist with a keen eye for how technology affects society. With a background in International Relations and North American Studies, Lauren brings a unique perspective to the VPNOverview team. Lauren has a passion for helping others understand the importance of privacy, freedom, and internet safety and brings that passion to VPNOverview.