In the information-driven contemporary world, any interstate conflict becomes a virtual confrontation, where information and dissemination are equally important. However, despite 6 years of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and large-scale aggression, Ukrainian authorities and society have not paid proper attention to information and communication and related human rights on the occupied territories, as reported by Borys Babin, professor, PhD.
Various NGOs made such conclusions, in particular with regard to efficiency of television and radio broadcast from the territories controlled by Ukraine to those occupied by Russia. In 2018, the Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea analysed the situation and brought up its proposals to the relevant parliamentary committees for further discussion . The state, however, did not take any consistent steps in this direction . The only actual response was adding several Russia-controlled information and communication institutions to the sanctions list. The relevant resolution was passed by the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine on 19 March 2019 and brought into force by presidential decree No. 82/2019 .
The resolution imposed sanctions on the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company and its office in Kyiv, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media of the Russian Federation, such Russian web entities as Yandex, Reksoft, Labirint.Ru and LitRes, and Russian and off-shore telephone companies: Sattelite Innovation, ITX, Bimersano Services LTD (Cyprus), Demosena Investments LTD (Cyprus) and SPitch AG (Switzerland). The list is, of course, non-exhaustive and selective.
Since 2014, Russia has been imposing its own information and communication laws and implementing the Strategy for the Development of IT Sector in the Russian Federation for 2014-2020 (with an outlook for 2025) in Crimea. The Strategy was adopted by governmental decree 2036-р on 01 November 2013. Moreover, Russia has been also implementing the state programme Information Society (2011-2020), approved by governmental decree No. 313 on 15 April 2014, and has established responsible occupation authorities: the Committee of the State Council of the Republic of Crimea on Information Policy, Communications and Mass Communications and The Ministry of Internal Policy, Information and Communications of the Republic of Crimea.
Pursuant to the above mentioned documents, Informatisation Concept for the Republic of Crimea was adopted in 2015, and Informatisation Convention for the Headquarters of the State Council of the Republic of Crimea — in 2017. The Concept of 2015 envisaged implementation of the Republican Educational Network, satellite navigation system GLONASS, ‘health-care multiportals’, unified automated information system Crimea – Tourism Territory, automated social payments etc. .
In 2017, the so-called ‘ministry’ of ‘the Republic of Crimea’ initiated approval of ‘the state programme’ Information Society (2018-2020) by ‘decree’ No. 702 of the occupation government as part of the information policy and informatisation. The programme foresees seven areas: information and telecommunication infrastructure of the information society and services provided on the basis thereof; development of the republican state television and radio broadcast; informatisation of executive bodies of the Republic of Crimea and local authorities; e-government of the Republic of Crimea; implementation of satellite navigation technologies using GLONASS and other space products for social, economic and innovative development of the Republic of Crimea; development of mass-media, publishing and printing houses of the Republic of Crimea and raising public awareness of cultural, historical and information events and achievements of the Republic of Crimea; development of a high-tech science park in the Republic of Crimea .
‘Government’ funding was estimated as RUB 3 850 000 – 4 230 000 annually, which is definitely not much. However, similar programme Information Society 2016-2018 allowed occupant authorities to develop ‘state information system Data Centre of the Republic of Crimea’, to launch secure interagency data exchange network for ‘executive authorities’ and to create a standard intra-agency information system for ‘executive public authorities’, the Regional Interagency Electronic Communication System and the State and Municipal Service Portal of the Republic of Crimea.
Those activities, curated until 2019 by Dmitry Polonsky, deputy head of the so-called Council of Ministers of the Republic of Crimea and at the same time head of the mentioned ‘ministry’, provided IT support to occupation authorities in line with Russian standards in this area. The ‘ministry’, however, is responsible not only for informatisation, but also for the media controlled by the occupation.
For example, by 2018, the ‘ministry’ founded ‘autonomous non-profit organisation’ TV and Radio Company Krym and started five media under its umbrella: two TV channels Pervyi Krymskyi and Krym 24, and three radio channels: Krym (100.1 FM), Krym.Tochka and Sea. The ‘ministry’ was also indirectly involved in starting Crimean Tatar channels controlled by occupation authorities, e.g. Civic Crimean Tatar TV and Radio Company, TV channel Millet and radio channel Vetan. The mentioned media are optional for the ‘ministry’, since three packages of Russian TV channels provide the main content for the Crimean population. There are also electronic media in Crimea, e.g. more than ten news outlets, including Crimean News Agency .
The first multiplex includes Russian national mandatory public TV channels (Channel One, Russia-1, TV-Centre etc.), the second contains a range of other federal channels (Including Spas, NTV + Sport, Zvezda), while the third embraces regional channels, e.g. Pervyi Sevastopolskyi and STV in Sevastopol. More than 250 transmitters are used for the mentioned broadcast. Additionally, 18 facilities are involved in digital broadcast covering up to 85% of the population. Apart from that, there are 200 cable operators and more than 30 radio channels, including federal retransmissions in Crimea controlled by the ‘ministry’ and punitive bodies.
It should be noted that the occupation blocks all Ukrainian analogue and radio broadcasts — only a small number of Crimean towns located closely to administrative boundary line are able to get signals from TV towers in Chaplynka and Chonhar. Since 2019, a powerful radio broadcast centre in Mykolaiv has been no longer used for medium wave coverage of Crimea due to ‘unnecessary power consumption’. Ukrainian satellite broadcasting has been inefficient in Crimea since 2002, when broadcasters introduced coding for their signals.
Meanwhile, in 2018 the occupation launched radio and television station Salt Lake near Chonhar to cover a significant part of Kherson region adjacent to Crimea. Despite all transformations the Ukrainian Government and National Television and Radio Broadcasting Agency have undergone since 2018, this problem remains silenced and ignored. For some unknown reason, the easiest method to solve this problem, i.e. jamming broadcasters from the peninsula with the available equipment, has been neglected.
Although the aggressor has no major barriers in implementing its TV and radio information policy, it faces certain challenges with network and mobile telephony and related Internet connection. These problems are caused by reluctance of mobile phone operators to provide services and to use available equipment, which in 2014 was ‘nationalised’ or simply seized by occupation authorities, or is still actually controlled by the mobile operators.
For example, Russian operators MegaFon and Beeline are not directly involved in providing mobile communication services in Crimea. Their subscribers in occupied Crimea are in ‘internal roaming’. In spring 2014, residents of Crimea were offered service packages of mobile network operator Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) that used available MTS infrastructure in Crimea. When the EU and other states imposed sanctions, the infrastructure was handed over to ‘another company’ K-Telecom (Win Mobile). MTS phone cards were connected to K-Telecom system, subscribers got Russian phone numbers registered in Krasnodar Krai to make calls on roaming .
MTS faced problems with ‘roaming’ costs later on, when the occupation required from operators not to increase tariffs for residents. One more operator KTK-Telecom (Volna Mobile) offered ‘roaming’ services in Crimea using property of Ukrainian mobile network operators. A bit later, local mobile phone operators Krymtelecom and Sevmobile appeared in occupied Crimea using ‘nationalised’ facilities of Ukrtelecom JSC in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) and Sevastopol and a local landline network. They are controlled by occupation authorities and provide services ‘on their own’, supposedly without federal networks and property of Ukrainian mobile phone operators [1; 2].
These companies provide services in the ARC and Sevastopol alongside K-Telecom and KTK-Telecom. There is also a minor operator Elemte-Invest. Krymtelecom and Sevmobile offer 3G only, while K-Telecom and KTK-Telecom — both 3G and 4G (in cities). In 2019, over 200 powerful mobile stations were registered in Crimea. Most stations ‘belong’ to K-Telecom. More than 7,000 antennas were operative in Crimea in 2018, including up to 3,000 of K-Telecom and up to 3,500 of KTK-Telecom (each of these operators having up to 150 LTE antennas).
Because of ‘roaming’ costs and constant risk of Western sanctions that have been threatening beneficiaries of federal parent companies of K-Telecom and KTK-Telecom since late 2019, these operators plan to gradually leave the peninsula and hand their subscribers over to Krymtelecom and Sevmobile. Meanwhile, Krymtelecom and Sevmobile obtained licences in Krasnodar Krai of the Russian Federation to preserve phone numbers of subscribers during the transfer planned (around 200,000 for K-Telecom and KTK-Telecom).
State unitary enterprise of the Republic of Crimea Krymtelecom became operational in 2016. Its UMTS (3G) network covers main Crimean cities and regions using base stations that provide mobile Internet speed up to 42 Mbps. Krymtelecom planned to have more than 1000 stations that would completely cover cities, highways and the whole southern coast of Crimea (there are 700 such stations at the moment, which are Ukrtelecom’s property).
Majority of ‘Crimean Internet providers’ are Russian legal entities. They are still registered as Ukrainian providers in RIPE NCC and continue buying Internet traffic in Ukraine, which is delivered through Chonhar and Armyansk to Crimea by three fibre optic lines. There are around 20 Internet providers in Crimea: Miranda-Media (a subsidiary company of Rostelecom), KST, Telesystems, ER-Telecom, Apeks-Krym, Ardinvest, Gigabyte, SevStar, SuperSky, EvpaNet, Krymtelecom etc. [1; 2].
In 2014, Crimean landlines switched to Russian telephone numbers. Telephone companies received more than 530,000 numbers with the new code ABC=365, handled by Krymtelecom and Sevtelecom. Since 2014, satellite services on the peninsula have been provided by TIS that uses network resources of Yamal-402 and Yamal-300K satellites.
It should be added that on 28 March 2018 the Ukrainian Government approved the Action Plan to Implement Some Principles of the Domestic Politics Regarding the Temporarily Occupied Territory of the ARC and Sevastopol (decree No. 218-р). The Action Plan contains Objective 6: Creating Conditions for Persons Residing in Temporarily Occupied Territories to Realise Their Right to a Free Choice of Media Consumption Language and Objective 10: Ensuring Access to Ukrainian and International Information Products in the Temporarily Occupied Territories by Means of TV and Radio Broadcast, Print Media and the Internet. These tasks envisage a range of informatisation and connection issues, including:
– to ensure stable service of national TV and radio companies in the temporarily occupied territories (TOT) that broadcast in the official and other languages (including languages of indigenous peoples and national minorities of Ukraine, residing in the TOT) (Measure 1, Objective 6);
– to develop and/or restore TV and radio infrastructure and to install necessary equipment (transmitters, amplifiers, TV towers etc.) in order to expand coverage of Ukrainian radio and TV companies in the TOT (Measure 1, Objective 10);
– to install telecommunication equipment in service zones near checkpoints that will provide high-speed Internet access (4G) (Measure 2, Objective 10) .
As of 2020, none of these tasks has been fulfilled, no budget funds have been provided.
On 20 June 2018, the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea approved the Immediate Action Plan to Counter Russian Aggression from the TOT of Ukraine in Crimea and to Protect Interests of the State, Ukrainian Citizens and Ukrainian Legal Entities in Crimea for 2018-2019 (Order No. 17). The Plan contains the following informatisation and communication tasks:
– to counteract illegal TV and radio broadcast from Crimea to the adjacent territories of Kherson region and to organise TV and radio broadcast from the territory of Kherson region to Crimea (Objective 9.2);
– to take measures limiting access to websites of occupation institutions and other Internet resources (Objective 9.4);
– to organise effective and complex legal prosecution of companies that provide or assist in providing landline and mobile services in Crimea (Objective 9.5) .
As of 2020, none of these measures has been implemented, except for limiting access to occupation websites and other Internet resources in 2018.
In conclusion, it should be noted that Ukraine takes no actions with regard to informatisation and communication that are necessary not only to prepare to de-occupation of Crimea, but also to counteract Russia’s current aggression from Crimea. The only deterrent that holds the occupation from complete implementation of its information politics on the peninsula is fear of Western sanctions against Russian major information companies.
Key actions that Ukraine could take to have a significant impact on the further negative development of the situation and stop the abuse of rights of Ukrainian citizens on the temporarily occupied territories should be the following:
– to block Russian TV and radio broadcast from Crimea to Kherson region;
– to suspend Internet communication with Crimea through backbone fibre-optic cables;
– to impose sanctions against mobile phone operators and Internet providers operating in Crimea and beneficiaries thereof;
– to discuss the mentioned issues as part of the work of the International Telecommunication Union;
– to make an international arbitration claim on behalf of Ukrtelecom and Ukrainian national mobile phone operators against the Russian Federation in the framework of the current bilateral investment treaty.