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Information sphere of Kherson region under Russian occupation

Kherson City has been occupied by Russian troops since the beginning of March 2022. Russian soldiers started installing checkpoints on city outskirts on March 1. The city was encircled on March 2 whereas the building of Kherson Oblast State Administration was occupied on March 3. As on other temporary occupied territories of Ukraine, Russian occupants try to suppress civic resistance and impose total control over minds and opinions of Ukrainians living on occupied territories.

By restricting access to reliable information, Russian occupants create information vacuum filled with fear and hopelessness. It makes Ukrainian inhabitants vulnerable to the Russian propaganda. Occupants torture people and seize territories and property of the state and citizens secretly, without public exposure.

The «cleansing» of Ukrainian media in Kherson region started on March 3 when Russian troops seized premises of the Kherson branch of the Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (Suspilne TV). As the Institute of Mass Information reported, occupants searched the office and stole modern equipment. They also installed traps with grenades near the building of Suspilne TV. Occupants were looking for information about personnel of Kherson branch, broke into their houses and forced them to cooperate. For example, that is what happened with Oleksii Vorontsov, engineer of Suspilne TV. He was abducted from his apartment on May 16 and detained until May 22. [1]

The TV center was seized in March. The signal of all Ukrainian TV channels was switched off. On the opposite, occupants launched broadcasting Russian propaganda channels, including Crimean «Pervy Krymsky» and «Krym 24». Cable operators broadcast Ukrainian TV channels for some time but then they were also shut down.

Ukrainian printed media is not available in Kherson oblast. Ukrainian FM radio also does not work.

The journalist work is very risky on occupied territories. It is impossible for Ukrainian journalists to make video reportages or conduct any other journalist activity. There were a number of cases when Ukrainian journalists were abducted by Russian occupants (for example, Oleg Baturin was abducted in Nova Kakhovka). Other journalists reported they were threatened and they were put into Russian occupants’ lists «for cleansing».

Representatives of the Russian Guard or police regularly break into the houses of journalists and civic activists.[2]

Oleg Baturin, journalist. Photo: investigator.org.ua

Access to Internet worsened almost immediately after occupation. Access through Ukrainian providers was completely shut down on April 30. At the same time, the majority of Kherson region lost connection through Ukrtelecom. Access was then restored but the traffic was directed via the Russian Federation. People could use services of Ukrainian provider «Kyivstar» only in a few rural districts.

As netfreedom.org.ua reports, if the Internet traffic is directed through telecommunication infrastructure of the Russian Federation (in particular, through «Miranda» provider working in occupied Crimea), then, it falls under Russian regulation – surveillance and censorship [3].  The State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine informed about occupants’ pressure on local providers with the requirement to join Russian Internet networks [4].

SIM cards of Russian operators and operators working on other occupied territories of Ukraine (like «Lugacom») are sold on the territory of Kherson region. Their sale is possible only after collection of passport data. It strengthens occupants’ control and results in massive collection of personal data of Ukrainian residents.

In order to increase the impact of restrictive measures, occupation authorities declared about «closure» of borders of Kherson region with neighboring regions under Ukrainian control before May 30. They justified it by «security reasons». Checkpoints were located on streets and all exits of Kherson City. Drivers must have shown their documents as well as mobile phones. Messengers, phone books and last photos were thoroughly checked. In accordance with Sergii Nikytenko, representative of the Institute of Mass Information in Kherson region, occupants have special application recovering information recently deleted from the phone. Occupants also force people to delete Ukrainian governmental application «Dia» at checkpoints.

Activity of Ukrainian media

Ukrainian regional media chose one of three options to act under Russian occupation (with one exception). Some keep working distantly, some try to work under occupation (though, the majority of media left the region by the middle of July). Other media do not exist anymore. Overall, media trying to work for residents on occupied territories ran into serious loss of revenues.

Team members of «Suspilne. Kherson» work in Odessa since March 2, 2022. They manage website, accounts in social media and telegram channel. Number of its subscribers grew from one thousand to 57 000, in accordance with «Detector Media». The website of «Suspilne. Kherson» contains news about war and actions of occupation authorities as well as statements of Ukrainian authorities about their policies towards residents on occupied territories.

The website of TV channel «Tvii PLUS» does not exist anymore. The website of «Pershy regionalny» presents news about Ukraine and Kherson region but their update is rare and irregular. The website of «Kherson plus» keeps publishing news and information for residents on occupied territories and stories about activity of volunteers.

News sites «Most», «Kavun.City», «Vgoru», «Kherson Depo», «Novamedia» keeps working for Kherson inhabitants. As Yvgenia Virlych, the editor of «Kavun.City» said, their approach towards content changed: «Before the occupation, «Kavun.City» published a lot of funny, entertaining and easy content. Now people do not want to read it. We started writing more about local collaborators, short local news important for the life of the city. For example, we post schedules of public transport, sale points of certain goods etc. Earlier we did not write about it». [5]

Yevgenia Virlych, editor of online media «Kavun.City». Photo: detector.media

Significant role is played by media accounts in social media as well as channels in messengers and telegram. We already mentioned that number of subscribers of telegram channel of «Suspilne. Kherson» grew by 57 times. In her interview to «Detector Media», Yevgenia Virlych also told that more people read media materials in social media than on the website.

Sergii Nikitenko, the editor of «Most» media, said that a lot of materials published on the website were further disseminated by telegram channels without indicating the primary source.

Telegram channels, presumably connected to Ukrainian law enforcement bodies and active before the Russian invasion, also enjoy popularity.

However, there are a number of local rural communities in Kherson region where Internet access is absent altogether [6].

Only one Ukrainian TV channel – VTV+ started working for Russian occupants. But there are just a handful of Kherson journalists collaborating with occupants. Their pro-Russian position was known before the Russian full scale invasion.

Russian measures and their effectiveness

Russian occupants try to shape the mind of Ukrainian residents on occupied territories. They switched on their own propaganda channels. They attempt to launch regional propaganda channel «Tavria» on the stolen premises of «Suspilne». Lidia Makarova, former cleaner of «Suspilne», was appointed as the manager of «Tavria».

Ukrainian journalists did not agree to collaborate with occupants. Occupants declared «Tavria» started working on June 27. [7] However, as Sergii Nikitenko, Kherson representative of the Institute of Mass Information, reported, local inhabitants told him there was no broadcasting of «Tavria» as of July 10, 2022.

Occupants urge Kherson people to listen to pro-Russian radio stations. Crimean propagandist and general producer of TV and radio company «Krym» Oleg Kruchkov informed in his telegram channel on May 26 that Crimean engineers completed works on launching three Russian radio stations  in Berdyansk. As he said, radio «Krym» broadcast news from Kherson and Zaporizhzhia every hour.

Oleg Kruchkov, general producer of TV and radio company «Krym», advisor of «head of Crimea» Sergei Aksenov, Crimean correspondent of Russian NTV channel in 2014

Occupants develop actively their network of telegram channels. Many of them were set up on the starting date of occupation. The State Security Service of Ukraine compiled a list of Russian propaganda telegram channels. At least ten of them target Kherson region, in accordance with «Most» media [8].

Member of Kherson Oblast Council Sergii Khlan stated that «after capturing pro-Ukrainian activists, occupants stole their accounts in social media and posted their propaganda materials as if «on behalf of activists».

One of key propaganda messages targeting residents on occupied territories is despair and distrust of Ukrainian authorities, accusations of the Ukrainian government that it abandoned Kherson people and that nobody would fight for them. As Igor Kolykhaev, legitimate mayor of Kherson, put it, Russians told that «look, Ukraine abandoned you, nothing works, no salaries», «Ukraine does not organize green corridors for refugees», «come to us, to Russia, we will help» [9]

Ukrainian policy

Ukrainian authorities already have an experience of counteracting the occupation of Crimean peninsula and parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Today they act more timely than in 2014. However, their measures have little impact on expanding an access of inhabitants of occupied territories to alternative sources of information.

As the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine declares that the state policy of Ukraine is aimed at securing citizens’ access to information, including occupied territories [10].

When occupants switched off Ukrainian internet, radio, TV and mobile communications, the State Service urged citizens to listen radio at medium frequency bands (1278, 1404, 873, 657 кГц) using old radio receivers. But this measure has limited effectiveness. As residents of occupied territories say there are just a few Soviet style receivers left whereas modern receivers do not have necessary settings.

Photo: Facebook Sergii Kostynsky

Then, in accordance with the State Service, Ukrainian TV channels transmitted through satellite were decoded, in order to make them freely accessible to occupied territories. It is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of this step. We do not know how many residents of Kherson region have access to satellite TV and are aware about accessibility of Ukrainian TV channels.

Further argument is about the content of Ukrainian national TV broadcasts. As a rule, they focus on national news and do not supply local information whereas residents of occupied territories require local content, above of all.

The General Prosecutor’s Office in Kherson oblast reacts actively to illegal actions of occupants. For example, it started investigating the Russian occupation and mining of «Suspilne. Kherson» on March 5. [11]. Then, it launched investigations of abduction of Oleg Baturin on March 13,[12] the seizure of towers of mobile operator «Kyivstar» in Kherson region etc. [13]  Certainly, these investigations are very important but they do not help restoring control over telecommunication equipment on occupied territories.

The National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine called all TV and radio companies on temporarily occupied territories «to inform immediately the Council about cases of pressure or seizure of editorial boards, equipment and transmitters, about any pressure on personnel of companies». [14] Collection of this information is important for bringing to justice those who committed these crimes. But it does not have direct impact on citizens’ access to information.

The National Council also developed the draft law allowing the Council to cancel licenses in simplified way of those companies which decided to collaborate with occupants. The draft law was submitted for the parliamentary consideration. However, it will also have rather symbolic effect on access to information on occupied territories.

The Decree of the Cabinet of Ministries of Ukraine # 265 from April 1, 2022 regulates the work of municipalities under occupation (its full content was not disclosed as it is placed under state secret regime). In accordance with this Decree, the Ministry for Reintegration of the Temporary Occupied Territories of Ukraine should develop measures to support citizens on occupied territories [15]. The Ministry also compiles the list of territories the residents of which (internally displaced persons, IDPs) will be entitled for the state support. The final list is approved on the basis of proposals from oblast and Kyiv City military administrations and upon consent of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine.[16]

As the Ministry for Reintegration informed, «it increased number of operators at its call centers by four times and improved technical capacity to accept calls from IDPs, in order to secure timely consultations of IDPs and Ukrainians residing on temporary occupied territories. As a result, the Ministry is able to process and provide timely answers to over one thousand calls per day».

Messages of Ukrainian authorities

Representatives of the Ukrainian government started mentioning Kherson region more often since June. They talk about possible Ukrainian counteroffensive and liberation of the region. Some Kherson inhabitants blame them for shaping unrealistic expectations which have negative consequences for the people on occupied territories.

«We need actions, not words. Otherwise, it is irresponsible behavior. How many times did Kherson people trust words of Arestovych (eloquent public speaker and advisor at the Office of the President of Ukraine) and Kim (head of Mykolaiv  Oblast State Administration) about counteroffensive? How many people decided to stay on occupied territory in May-April after they trusted them but later could not get out to Ukraine?» – as Kherson resident asked in Facebook.

Protests of Kherson residents against Russian occupation, 13.03.2022 Photo: facebook.com/vgoru

Some Kherson residents are also irritated by calls to evacuate as there are no «green corridors» and opportunities for free evacuation. As reported by one journalist who left Kherson recently, advices given by Ukrainian public officials are unrealistic. Her opinion is confirmed by interview of local inhabitant to «Bukva» media: «Overwhelming majority of those who stay in Kherson do not have financial resources to evacuate. The trip from Kherson to Zaporizhzhia costs 5 thousand UAH whereas the trip through Crimea to Poland – around 20 thousand UAH. Many people do not want to leave their property as they are afraid of marauders. The same situation is with aged people or people who should care about their aged parents whom they cannot move or leave alone». [17]

Communication is not only about information and messages which residents of occupied territories receive from Ukrainian public officials. It is not less important that these residents are able to inform Ukrainian public officials and decision-makers about problems they encounter. One of them was inability to receive salaries from the Ukrainian State Treasury. As Kherson people could not reach Kyiv public officials, the problem has not been solved for four months.

Conclusions

Possibility to inform residents of occupied territories will remain significant challenge for Ukraine. Telecommunication infrastructure is under control of Russian occupants whereas independent information activity on occupied territories is very risky.

At the same time, residents can be informed through Ukrainian mass media working for people of Kherson region and using social media and messengers.

It is also important for residents of Kherson region to have feedback channels with Ukrainian authorities as it will undermine occupants’ attempts to persuade people that they are abandoned by the Ukrainian government.

Ukrainian authorities should establish close cooperation with Ukrainian mass media working for the residents of Kherson region. It is important to provide financial support to these media. It can be done through international donors or from the state budget on competitive basis.

Secure channels of communication between residents of occupied territories and local authorities should be launched. Representatives of local authorities should have direct access to the central government, in order to solve problems of residents of occupied territories in timely manner. Collection of information and documents about crimes of Russian occupants on occupied territories should be continued.

Material is prepared by non-profit «Information press center» within IWPR project under the support of the European Union and the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Посилання:

[1] https://imi.org.ua/news/okupanty-vidpustyly-vykradenogo-inzhenera-suspilne-herson-oleksiya-vorontsova-i45707

[2] https://detector.media/infospace/article/197446/2022-03-13-v-okupovanomu-khersoni-peresliduyut-zhurnalistiv-i-aktyvistiv-radio-svoboda/

[3] https://netfreedom.org.ua/article/rosijski-zagarbniki-zalishayut-bez-zvyazku-ukrayinciv-na-okupovanih-teritoriyah

[4] https://t.me/dsszzi_official/3461

[5] https://detector.media/community/article/199154/2022-05-12-ievgeniya-virlych-kavunsiti-zhurnalistiv-yaki-spivpratsyuyut-z-okupantamy-v-khersoni-odynytsi/

[6] https://www.ukrinform.ua/rubric-regions/3498166-na-hersonsini-zvazok-iz-bilsistu-gromad-vstanoviti-ne-vdaetsa-ova.html

[7] https://imi.org.ua/news/rosijski-vijskovi-rozikraly-filiyu-suspilne-herson-ta-stvoryuyut-propagandystskyj-kanal-i45594

[8] https://most.ks.ua/news/url/opublikovanij_spisok_prorosijskih_telegram_kanaliv_skilki_z_nih_pro_herson_i_oblast

[9] https://www.dw.com/uk/mer-khersona-de-yure-my-ukraina-a-de-fakto-v-okupatsii/a-61454777

[10] https://cip.gov.ua/ua/news/okupanti-vidklyuchili-zv-yazok-ta-internet-v-khersonskii-ta-chastini-zaporizkoyi-oblastei

[11] https://www.facebook.com/100064562117837/posts/322277883267613/?d=n

[12] https://www.ukrinform.ua/rubric-regions/3428435-prokuratura-rozslidue-jmovirne-vikradenna-zagarbnikami-zurnalista-na-hersonsini.html

[13] https://kherson.gp.gov.ua/ua/news.html?_m=publications&_c=view&_t=rec&id=312557

[14] https://www.nrada.gov.ua/hersonskyj-vtv-rozpochav-movlennya-na-rosijskomu-suputnyku/

[15] https://minre.gov.ua/news/pidtrymka-gromadyan-yaki-opynylys-v-okupaciyi-odyn-z-priorytetiv-diyalnosti-minreintegraciyi

[16] https://minre.gov.ua/news/onovleno-aktualnyy-perelik-gromad-u-rayonah-boyovyh-diy-na-tot-ta-tyh-shcho-v-otochenni-1

[17] https://bykvu.com/ua/mysli/chym-zhyve-khersonshchyna-interv-iu-z-mistsevoiu-meshkankoiu/