UCLA International Institute, May 7, 2019 — “There is an inevitable limitation of freedom of speech during times of war. Any country which is at war has some restrictions, and Ukraine is not an exception,” said Mykola Riabchuck, senior research fellow at the Ukrainian Center for Cultural Studies in Kyiv and and co-founder and member of the editorial board of Krytyka, a leading Ukrainian intellectual magazine.
Riabchuk spoke at recent event sponsored by the Center for European and Russian Studies and the Department of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Languages and Cultures. He addressed the international perception of Ukraine as a practitioner of media censorship due to the country's ban Russian state-funded media outlets, their journalists and books.
The war between Ukraine and Russia began after Russian soldiers seized the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, with Russian troops soon entering the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. The war was been described as hybrid, said the speaker, because it consists of both conventional and unconventional warfare. In addition to territorial occupation, Russia uses propaganda and spreads fake news about Ukraine within its borders.
In recent years, Ukraine has been rated as one of the top countries practicing media censorship, with international organizations criticizing the Ukrainian government for inhibiting freedom of the press. The government and its supporters, however, argue that this censorship has helped protect democracy from Russian intervention and the spread of false propaganda, noted the speaker.
Ukraine. Based on UN Map No. 3773, Rev. 6, March 2014.
Riabchuk specifically denounced international criticism of the ban on Russian-language books [many by Russian nationalist authors] printed in Russia, contending that many countries around the world impose restrictions on the freedom of expression during times of war.
Not only did the United States introduce some restrictions during the Cold War, it also detained Japanese and German citizens during World War II, he said. Today, he added, countries around the world are cautious of Russian propaganda and interference. For example, France has banned Russian media from events on certain occasions.
Ukraine, he explained, has banned the commercialization of works that its government believes help spread Russian propaganda. People can still possess and bring up to ten copies of such works into the country from Russia without incurring arrest or harassment by the government. “This restriction applies to Russian propaganda, products which undermine Ukrainian identity and integrity and [promote] hate speech,” noted Riabchuck.
Complete censorship occurs, he continued, when a government retaliates against people who read prohibited works or watch prohibited media. In Ukraine, people can still access such sources, even though it takes a little bit more work.
Riabchuck affirmed the importance of international human rights watchdogs, but urged them to focus on more important problems, such as corruption and the harassment of journalists. “Censorship is not the main problem in Ukraine,” he insisted. “That doesn’t mean there are not problems of freedom of speech, but these are not related to the restrictions introduced by the government because of the war with Russia,” he remarked.
In conclusion, Riabchuk said Ukraine is not perfect when it comes to freedom of the press, as is the case for many countries, and urged international organizations to analyze a country’s specific circumstances in depth before rating its level of censorship.