The structure of media consumption in Belarus changes slightly: the role of traditional media with the dominant position of the TV on the country's media market hardly decreases. Meanwhile the events of 2014 and their reflection in the public conscience showed the whole weaknesses of the national media. As for the Russian-Ukrainian conflict a pro-Russian position which was broadcast by foreign, mainly Russian, media was dominant in public opinion.
The situation with the freedom of speech has deteriorated significantly with the adoption of amendments to the Law “On Mass Media”. The new law imposes additional restrictions on the activities of Internet resources and traditional media. The economic crisis which started in 2014 will contribute to the further degradation of the Belarusian media system.
- The lack of preconditions for development of the media market;
- The reduction of the role of social media, primarily newspapers;
- The formation of a dominant public opinion regarding the Russian-Ukrainian conflict contrary to the position of the national state and independent media;
- Substantial restriction of freedom of speech connected with the adoption of the new Law “On Mass Media”.
Introduction: quantitative characteristics and the structure of media consumption
In recent years, the structure of media consumption in Belarus has slightly changed. The role of traditional media has not practically decreased with a clear dominance of television in the information market of the country.
Changes in the structure of use of information channels can be considered inconspicuous in comparison with 2013, which is confirmed by the results of Media Sphere Study carried out by the experts of Information-Analytical Center (IAC) at the Presidential Administration. 1 According to the study, answering the question: “Where do you usually get the necessary information about life in Belarus and abroad?” 85.6% of respondents named TV (see Figure 1). This indication has remained stable: 2011 – 85.0%, 2012 – 86.0%, 2013 – 86.1%.
The popularity of television remains high despite the growing number of people who consider the worldwide web a primary source of information: for four years their share has increased from 32% to 53%. On the one hand, this suggests that in real terms consumers combine the use of different communication channels. On the other hand, on the background of a rising demand for Internet information the coverage of online news resources does not increase.
Along with the continued leading role of television, the popularity of other traditional means of communication does not reduce or reduce slightly over time. In 2014, 43.8% of respondents named printed press the primary source of information (in 2011 – 40.6%), 28.2% gave their vote to radio (in 2011 – 31.3%).
In the state segment of the traditional media the steps to improve the quality of the service are taken but we are talking only about the technical improvement. According to the State Program for the Introduction of Digital Television and Radio Broadcasting in the Republic of Belarus up to 2015, in the last year the range of broadcasting of digital television expanded; the process of gradual switch-off of analogue television broadcasting began. The official website of the Republican Unitary Enterprise “Belarusian Broadcasting Center” informed that the broadcasting of “public compulsory package of TV programs” is carried out throughout the whole territory of Belarus.
Moreover there is a gradual abandoning of wired radio. “Taking into account the big financial costs necessary for maintenance of the wire broadcast and in order to provide the public with a technical possibility of full-time reception of RUE Beltelekom sound programs we regularly organize a number of measures to optimize the network”, says the Beltelekom website. 2
One of the main motives of the technology revision is the optimization of costs.
For the same reason, related to the optimization of costs, the changes in the structure of the management of state-controlled print media are introduced. At the moment the Ministry of Information plans not only to unite the editorial offices of the leading national editions, but also to reduce their number. It is intended to issue a single Republican socio-political edition by efforts of the media holding Sovetskaya Belorussia, which currently publishes the following newspapers SB, Belorus Segonia, Respublika, Belorusskaya Niva, Znamya Yunosti, Narodnaya Gazeta.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that the printed media market is growing. As of the end of 2013, the total number of publications registered in Belarus was 1,555, including 1,145 private and 410 state ones; in 2013, 3 82 publications were registered. On October 1, 2014 the number was 1,572 titles. In Belarus, according to the study “Media Sphere in Belarus. The Sociological Aspect” the influence of newspapers in the print media decreases. The authors note that at the beginning of 2014, in comparison with 2012, the number of magazines increased by 2.7% and the annual circulation increased from 65.4 to 75.7 million copies. While the number of newspapers decreased by 1.2%, and the annual circulation fell down from 467.3 to 455.0 million copies. 4
To save resources it is planned to centralize the printed media market. This may have a negative impact on the competitiveness of non-state publications. The movement from pluralism and segmentation to centralization of print media reduces the effectiveness of advertising in this type of mass communication, which can have a negative impact on the financial position of the printed media in general. Furthermore, the role of socio-political editions which are primarily newspapers is reducing compared with magazines that offer thematic or entertainment content. Plans to optimize the market of political media can lead to the fact that this trend will only intensify.
Public opinion: the fiasco of the national media
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict and its reflection in the Belarusian public conscience demonstrated an extremely low efficiency of the national socio-political media both state-controlled and independent. Despite a cautious, balanced position of national media in coverage of the events in Ukraine, the majority of Belarusians took the ‘pro’ point of view. According to the June study made by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) 5 answering the question: “How do you assess the annexation of the Crimea to Russia?” 26.9% of Belarusians chose the answer “This is imperialist occupation” and 62.2% said “This is the return of the Russian land to Russia, the restoration of historical justice”. Answering the question: “How do you assess the events that happened in the spring of this year in the East of Ukraine, primarily in Donetsk and Luhansk regions?” 65.5% of respondents said: “This is the people's protest against the illegitimate government”, while only 23.2% said that “It is a rebellion organized by Russia”. 6
It is possible to suggest that the “pro” point of view is a ‘primary’ and clearly articulated position that is why it is shared by a majority of Belarusians. Domestic independent media were unable to have any decisive influence on public opinion, while the official media could not offer any clearly stated position to their audience. Further on this dominant point of view had an impact on the choice of information sources by the Belarusians. In 2014 there was a growing popularity of the Russian information resources. In August 2014, according to GemiusAudience data the reach to audience by news agency RIA.ru exceeded the reach by Naviny.by resource. 7
The data of IAC study Media Sphere in Belarus. The Sociological Aspect also point to the growing popularity of the Russian media. The monthly reach to the audience by ONT TV-channel, according to the survey decreased from 72.1% in 2013 to 67.7% in 2014, by Belarus-1 TV-channel accordingly – from to 64.6 to 62.3%, while the reach by the Russian NTV-Belarus TV-channel increased from 57.0 to 59.4%, and the Russian RTR-Belarus TC-channel increased from 49.7% to 53.6%. 8
The process of redistribution of the Belarusian audience in favor of the Russian media and, consequently, promotion of the pro-Russian position in relation to the events in Ukraine is becoming self-sustaining. Because of their weak capacity the Belarusian media do not have a significant impact on this process, which is largely determined by the effects of the ‘spiral of silence’, in Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s terminology. Due to the fact that the pro-Ukrainian position is not articulated in the national media, including public figures whose opinion is easy to appeal to, it is much easier for the citizens of Belarus to demonstrate their commitment to the dominant pro-Russian position.
However, we cannot say that this position corresponds to the underlying beliefs and worldview of Belarusians. The growth of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s rating who during the past year tried to remain neutral and generally spoke in support of the new Ukrainian authorities testifies to this. The fact that Belarusians do not identify themselves with the Russians or Soviet people, is confirmed by the results of the June poll connected with the Annual President's Address to the Belarusian People and the National Assembly (see table 1). 9
|Answer||I agree||I disagree|
|“We are neither pro-Russian nor pro-Ukrainian or pro-Polish, we are not Russians, we are Belarusian!”||71.3||19.4|
|“In the society there should be tolerance towards the diversity of views, discussions and criticism”||72.1||20.8|
Some contradiction between the pro-Russian position and the growth of Lukashenko’s rating with his ‘isolationist’ statements indicates that the support of the Russian side by the Belarusians is mostly informational and propaganda-like, which testifies to the ill-preparedness of the national media system to the external information intervention.
Law “On Mass Media”: the deterioration of the situation with the freedom of speech
One of the effects of the loss of control over public opinion by the state was the emergency adoption of the new law “On Mass Media”. On December 17, 2014 the draft law on amendments to the Law “On Mass Media” was adopted in two readings by the House of Representatives, on December 18 approved by the Council of the Republic, on December 20 it was signed by the Belarusian President. Analyzing the basic changes to the Law “On Mass Media” the Deputy Chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) A. Bastunets lists the main limitations for mass media. 10
In the new law the owners of Internet resources are defined as “distributors of mass media production” instead of “mass media editorial office”. They are deprived of the right to give their employees the ID of a journalist, as well as other rights of an editorial office. At the same time they are required to publish contradictions and track comments to the posts. The official authorities get the legal right to block access to Internet resources of the Belarusian segment of the network, as well as of sites located outside the country. Blocking is carried out by the Ministry of Information on an out-of-court basis, and the law says nothing about the possibility of judicial appeals against such decisions.
In addition to the control over Internet resources, there appeared additional levers of control over the media in general. The State Registers of Distributors of Print Media and Distributors of Television and Radio Media are introduced; the activity that is not included in the Register will be considered illegal. Also the list of information prohibited for distribution is extended. The criteria of the definition of ‘prohibited’ information are blurred, which provides the authorities with opportunities to bring pressure on the media and distributors. The periods of sanctions and the time limits of the suspension of the release of the media by the Ministry of Information are increased.
In the annual monitoring of the situation with the freedom of speech 11 the specialists of BAJ note some decrease in the number of detentions of journalists (from 50 people in 2013 to 23 in 2014). However, the persecution of journalists, a restricting access to information, obstructing the work of journalists working with foreign media and economic discrimination against independent media organizations continue.
In addition, in 2014 new illegal practices of pressure on the media were used. After the devaluation of the national currency on December 19, 2014 more than ten online resources were blocked and the authorities took the responsibility for blocking only onliner.by. The general conclusion of the authors of monitoring, with account of the adoption of the amendments to the Law “On Mass Media” is that last year the situation with the freedom of speech in Belarus deteriorated.
In 2014 in Belarus no prerequisites appeared for the development of the media sphere, moreover the factors of its degradation became more evident. One of the characteristics of the domestic media market is the dominance of external sources of information (Russian propaganda) in the aspect of public opinion formation.
The policy regarding the state-controlled media is directed primarily at saving resources rather than at the development of the national system of mass media. Modernization of the media is largely of a technical nature.
With the adoption of the new Law “On Mass Media” the conditions of the functioning of independent media worsened. To influence independent resources some illegal methods were used, such as the blocking of Internet sites at the end of December 2014.
A tougher policy towards independent media against the background of a deepening economic crisis will lead to the compression of the media market, which may jeopardize its future development.