Media: Conservative reform/migration

Arkadz Nesciarenka

Summary

Narrowing of the media space can be considered one of the results of the year 2012. Belarus sees no new bright, ambitious, up-to-date nationwide media projects. Foreign money and foreign brands cannot come to the Belarusian market and “freshen up” the situation. It is also premature to forecast a success of the ongoing governmental press reform, specifically the creation of two major media holdings.

The overall picture of the media market in 2012 can be described as a standstill phase. The lack of economically sound projects, which could build up public opinion, is a determining factor. Duplication of content is typical of most sociopolitical media outlets.

Trends:
Introduction: a weak growth without qualitative changes

In 2012, the quantitative and qualitative composition of the Belarusian media space did not undergo a fundamental change. A certain increase in the number of print outlets was observed. Seventy-nine new ones were registered 1 that however did not enhance the quality of the media in general. The trend of the past three years – a small quantitative growth amid declining influence of the general interest media, and falling demand for the products they had to offer – remained in place.

As of January 1, 2013, the total number of print media outlets registered in Belarus amounted to 1,482 (1,403 last year). The number of state-controlled newspapers, magazines, bulletins, catalogs and almanacs increased insignificantly from 406 in 2011 to 411 in 2012. The number of new non-governmental media was a little higher: 1,071 against 997 in 2011. The number of news agencies remained the same: nine in total (two state-controlled and seven independent). 2

State-controlled press: a reform for correcting the ratings

In May, 2012 Uladzimir Makei, then presidential chief of staff, promised an ambitious reform of the media market in Belarus. “Instead of scattered editorial offices, this segment will be occupied by two media holdings of sociopolitical and cultural orientation. The consolidation and concentration of efforts will enable the print media to work effectively in the current political and economic conditions,” he said. In his opinion, “as a result of the reform, a quality modern information product will be provided by the print media and the Internet.” 3 The sociopolitical holding will be established on the basis of Sovietskaya Byelorussia – Belarus Today (SB) newspaper of the Presidential Administration, and the cultural one has already been created on the basis of Zvyazda daily.

The merger of four state-controlled newspapers with Sovietskaya Byelorussia was announced in early June 2013. Respublika, Belorusskaya Niva (‘Belarusian Grain Field’), Znamya Yunosti (‘Banner of Youth’) and Narodnaya Gazeta (‘Popular Newspaper’) are to join the SB.

Commenting on this decision, Minister of Information Aleh Pralaskouski said the merger was aimed at increasing their competitiveness in new conditions of the developing information market considering that the governmental print media were losing their mobilizing and stimulating potential. They did cope with their ideological tasks either in the offline or online environment because the governmental print media are perceived as propaganda tools and therefore do not have much credibility in society.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) in December 2012, only 38.1% of respondents trust the state-controlled media, which correlates with the 30% trust rating of Alexander Lukashenko. 4 Supporters of the president appear to be the target group of governmental propagandists, which is totally understandable, whereas opponents to the president are indifferent to what those outlets say.

In turn, the nongovernmental media could not boast high trust ratings throughout 2012. In fact, the independent media have almost the same trust rating as the one enjoyed by the president probably because Lukashenko is still the top newsmaker in Belarus and the trust ratings of the media reflect approval or criticism of presidents’ decisions or policy of the state. Below are the results of IISEPS sociological monitoring in 2012.

Do you trust the following governmental and nongovernmental institutions?
Institution Trust Don’t trust Don’t know/No answer Index
March 2012
Nongovernmental media 34.3 46.1 19.6 –0.119
Governmental media 33.9 53.1 13.0 –0.193
President 42.2 48.5 9.3 –0.063
June 2012
Nongovernmental media 35.5 48.1 16.4 –0.127
Governmental media 32.4 58.4 9.2 –0.261
President 38.5 51.9 9.6 –0.135
December 2012
Nongovernmental media 48.1 38.2 13.7 +0.099
Governmental media 38.1 50.8 11.1 –0.128
President 39.1 49.1 11.8 –0.101
Ideological priorities

Two ideological tasks relevant to the governmental print media in 2012 can be pointed out:

  1. to blur the boundaries of responsibility for the impaired quality of life in people’s perception;
  2. to show the meaning of a strong state amid shrinking social benefits.

In other words, people should be provided an explanation for a number of issues, which top the agenda, for instance, why labor migrants do not get free-of-charge health services, or why those who stand in lines in employment offices hoping that the state will give them jobs and decent wages are welfare bums, etc.

Several well-tried techniques are applied to cope with these tasks: a responsibility shift model and creation of a parallel reality. The image of stable Belarus however differs from the real picture too much. Therefore, replication of media illusions has no effect. The addressee often does not take seriously what the media offer as an ideological product. It is impossible to endlessly appeal to the middle class, which used to be carefully educated by government ideologists, in the spirit of Soviet ideological traditions.

Task No.1: To blur the boundaries of responsibility

It is more and more complicated for state propagandists to shift responsibility to lower levels, because people do not believe that medium and lower-level public officers are involved in decision-making processes. In the public opinion, the president is the only person who really makes decisions and therefore bears responsibility for the outcome.

The responsibility shift model has been used for years and it is fair to say that it has exhausted itself completely. Criminal cases against directors and functionaries indicate that the mass media are looking to explain why they should be prosecuted, rather than who should be on the list of those who can be shifted responsibility to. Only political and ideological opponents used to be the target before.

Task No.2: To answer the question why a strong state deprives more and more of its citizens of social benefits?

Classical Soviet cliches are usually used to attain this objective: ignoring those thrown overboard of the ship of modernity and showing happy people who love the lives they lead. For example, look at the article “Learn, Learn” in Respublika (¹205 (5620) of October 27, 2012), which tells about young girls, residents of Salihorsk, who do not hesitate to link their future with the mining industry. If someone would like to move to another place, it is not about Yulia Symonenko and Yulia Tkachene. They only see their future in Salihorsk and one of Belaruskali Concern branches, where 80% of graduates of the Salihorsk State College of Mining and Chemistry are sent for compulsory assignments. Three messages in just one paragraph: the quality of education is high and students are happy about it; they are not going to leave their native city/country; they are happy with the post-graduate job placement.

IISEPS opinion polls show a totally different picture. The national poll conducted in July 2012 shows that more than a half of Belarusians (53.7%) are ready to go abroad seeking jobs or education, and 41.4% would like to leave the country for good. 83.4% of young people (18 to 29 years of age) gave a positive answer to the question “Would you like to work/study abroad?” 5 These figures provide a mirror image of those 80% of students who, according to Respublika, are happy with the job placement.

The idea to reform the state-run print media by uniting several periodicals for creation of a collective information product was talked about more than once. The pace of the reform thus indicates the lack of strategic vision when it comes to necessary changes in the media market. Higher effectiveness of information policy was the only target of the media holdings articulated in 2012.

Creation of the two media holdings could lead to a certain reduction in government expenditure owing to optimization of manpower and technical costs (printing, marketing services, etc.). However, from the ideological point of view, these steps will not resolve problems of the state-controlled press.

As concerns the main task to enhance competitiveness of the media, the ideological and economic competitiveness should be considered separately. Liquidation of a number of periodicals entails weaker economic competition between governmental media outlets. In turn, the field of competition has shrunk to the minimum. The existing periodicals are not business projects. Therefore, it would be an overstatement to say that the governmental and independent print media compete economically.

The number of periodicals is thus irrelevant when it comes to ideological competitiveness if old communication patterns are used. It is a matter of perception of a media reality, a matter of credibility or trust, in a manner of speaking. If the reader does not trust Respublika or ZnamyaYunosti, united editorial boards will not have credibility either. The situation could be remedied by at least minimum freedom in editorial policy of the governmental print media, presence of not only jingoistic materials, but also criticism and questions like “Why the quality of life is declining, while the cost of living is forced up?” But the government is unable to adopt such reform in any way.

Migration of the independent online media

The moving of Charter’97 6 editorial board to Warsaw was a very meaningful event of 2012, which marks a turning point of formation of cross-border media broadcasting centers outside of Belarus. Attempts were made earlier to create such centers in Vilnius, Stockholm, and Moscow. Until now, the cross-border media (such as Vilnius-based Radio Baltic Waves) worked without pronounced public political support of local political groups.

The current situation stands out because Warsaw officially supports Belarusian (cross-border) projects. The Foreign Ministry of Poland openly funds a number of media projects (Belsat TV channel, Charter’97 website, Radio Racyja, European Radio for Belarus), which criticize Belarusian government’s policy. The list of the outlets to be supported is expanding. By doing so, Warsaw proves to be a key ideological media opponent to official Minsk throughout the year.

Establishment of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), which among other things offers support to the Belarusian media, is also noteworthy. Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Jerzy Pomianowski was appointed EED executive director. In this case, there is no question of non-profit, privately-funded Belarusian media initiatives.

Russian media in Belarus

The presence of Russian information and cultural products in the Belarusian media space remains strong, but events in Belarus are covered sporadically. Besides, Minsk has an opportunity to censor and filter Russian informational materials provided by Russian TV channels.

The informal interest of Russian Gazprom in acquisition of Belarusian media assets was quite a new trend of the year. In the second half of 2012, representatives of Beltransgaz (a subsidiary of Russian Gazprom) addressed some nongovernmental media offering advertising contracts. Referring to the Gazprom management, they requested detailed information about the founders and owners of the outlets, including the ultimate beneficiaries. A number of Belarusian outlets interpreted it as an industrial overture of the future purchase of some Belarusian media assets. This initiative however did not go any further.

Conclusion

Further developments in the media space will directly depend on the sociopolitical climate in the country. If the current political situation remains unchanged, it makes sense to expect the Ministry of Information and law enforcement agencies (such as the Presidential Operative Analytical Center and the KGB) to establish tighter control over network media projects managed from within Belarus. It is also possible that there will be fewer independent sociopolitical periodicals, which will tend to transform in Internet resources.

The outflow of journalists and repressive political climate entails gradual deprofessionalization of the media space. As a result, agitprop materials have become relevant. The audience response is manifested in the opposition to most information products of the Belarusian sociopolitical media. The audience switches to entertainment content, usually of Russian origin. In general, this process leads to weakening of the Belarusian media. This process is alarming because against the background of the weakening Belarusian mass media, the influence of external media centers supported by Warsaw and Moscow on Belarusian society is becoming dominant.