Media: A lack of consistent media policy in a changing geopolitical situation

Elena Artiomenko

Summary

In 2017 Belarus faced the problem of information security. The tension in relations between Belarus and Russia affected the media sphere. In the Russian media the number of unfriendly materials about Belarus increased, which forced the Belarusian authorities to react in various ways: to modestly increase the diversity of content on state media, or to press journalists of Russian media, shifting emphasis in the propaganda and as usual restricting independent media.

Information security is under threat also due to reduced funding. In 2016, as earlier the reduction in media advertising continued, and so did donor support of the independent media. However, experts predict the recovery of positive dynamics, which will impact primarily the market of television and Internet advertising.

The parliamentary election campaign did not cause any increase in pressure on the independent media but state media traditionally covered it very poorly.

Trends:
The growing problem of information security

The post-Soviet countries faced the problem of information security connected first of all with Russian propaganda after the start and during the development of the conflict in Ukraine. The Belarusian media system did not have the resources to resist Russian influence, and therefore propaganda techniques influenced significantly public opinion in Belarus. In 2014, the main target of Russian propaganda was Ukraine; in 2016 Russian media began to spread more content aimed at the aggravation of relations between Russia and Belarus.

The creation of “a common information space” is one of the goals of the Union State of Belarus and Russia: another action plan for 2016–2020 was approved on May 12 at the meeting of the Councils of Ministers of the USBR. At the same time Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Ihar Buzouski in an interview on May 15 expressed a note of warning concerning the Russian media content from the point of view of “preservation of national culture and information security”. 1

On November 24 Belarus 1 channel aired the talk-show “Neighbors. Time Will Tell” where the participants expressed their concerns about the allegedly Russophobic tendencies in Belarus in the mould of such resources as IA Regnum. If previously the information security issues were raised by independent media experts, 2016 showed that representatives of the Belarusian authorities are also concerned. In December on suspicion of inciting ethnic hatred Belarusian citizens Jury Paulaviec, Dmitry Alimkin and Siarhiej Shypcienka who wrote under pseudonyms for the resources of the Russian news Agency Regnum, lenta.ru and eadaily.com were detained.

Early in 2016 the persecution of the Belarusian journalists cooperating with foreign media resumed. Before that there had been some easing of pressure, particularly during the Presidential campaign of 2015, which was associated with the orientation of the Belarusian authorities to improve relations with Western partners. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) monitoring, in January-March 2016 in Homiel region, journalists of foreign mass media were brought to administrative responsibility seven times (journalist Konstantsin Zhukouski six times, Larisa Shchiryakova one time for their materials at Belsat satellite TV channel). 2

Positive trends could be attributed to the release of Eduard Palchys and the termination of the criminal prosecution of Aleksander Alesin. However, the beating of the journalist of the TUT.by portal Pavel Dabravolski at the courthouse and the fine imposed on him do not allow talking about any improvements in media freedom.

Internal and external financing of traditional media

Just as in the previous year, the economic crisis in 2016 continued to affect the size of the media advertising market. In 2016, it decreased by 14% in dollar terms 3 (in 2015, the comparable figure was 33%) (Figure 1). The decrease in the rate of decline of the advertising market gives hope for the restoration of positive dynamics in 2017. According to experts, the market growth could reach 6%. This figure correlates with the general economic growth forecasts. At least the reduced rate of decline in GDP, reduced household consumption and capital investments give such a hope. 4

Figure 1. The evolution of the advertising market size in Belarus, 2010–2016, million USD

A reduction of expenditures on advertising primarily affects the traditional media. The market size of Internet advertising dropped just a little (from USD 18.1 million in 2015 to 17.9 USD in 2016). The TV advertising market decreased from USD 38.5 million to 33 million, respectively. In 2017 the growth of media advertising market may lead to the growth of the TV advertising market up to USD 37 million, but it will not affect the dynamics of the size of radio and print advertising (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Distribution of advertising budgets over communication channels

According to the Ministry of Information, the number of publications barely continues to increase (1% during 2016). 5 However, due to the slowdown of the economic downturn and the decline in the advertising market the trend of reduced proportion of other major magazines and periodicals suspended: in 2016, their number increased from 867 to 878 items (newspaper ads increased from 724 to 729 items) (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Evolution of the number of print media

Not only economic factors influence the reduction of funding of media in Belarus. Independent media traditionally are incapable (primarily because of discrimination by the authorities) of supporting themselves, experiencing a reduction in donor funding. The most noticeable event in 2016 was the announcement of Polish Minister for Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski about the plans to reform Belsat TV channel i. e. to reduce the funding of the channel and further to replace it with a common channel for Poles abroad. As the BAJ statement said in connection with the situation around the channel, it happened despite the fact that the channel had become “one of the most important elements of the national system of mass media”. 6

The reasons for the reduction of foreign funding are clear: the more significant internal problems, refugees from the Middle East, the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine come to the fore. Problems of financial sustainability of independent media, the reduction of the advertising market and the inability of state media to compete with Russian editions lead to greater vulnerability of the national information space.

The coverage of the parliamentary elections

The Presidential election of 2015 was accompanied by a reduction of pressure on the independent media to create a favorable image of the election campaign. This practice continued during the parliamentary elections in 2016. As stated in the BAJ report, during the campaign “new cases when journalists were brought to administrative responsibility for cooperation with foreign mass media without accreditation (which has been one of the most serious problems of the Belarusian independent journalism recently), massive obstructing of the work of journalists during elections and other forms of apparent pressure on the independent media were not reported”. 7 Although according to experts, a fundamental improvement of the situation of media in Belarus is not happening.

According to the results of the monitoring Covering the 2016 parliamentary elections in the Belarusian media BAJ experts recorded the main trends how the electoral process was covered in the official media. In particular, they pointed to the extremely limited attention of state media to the elections throughout the whole period (July-September 2016). Experts also compared the amount of airtime dedicated to sports news (sports were taken as a benchmark) and the elections. The results of the monitoring were as follows: in the program Panarama on “Belarus 1” channel 30.0% of airtime was dedicated to sports and only 2.9% to the election; in the program Our News on the ONT channel the figures were 19.0% and 1.1%, respectively, in the program Radiofact – 13.0 and 6.0%. 8

Another feature of election coverage in state media touches the subjects of the election process. According to the monitoring results, most often the media presented the Central Election Committee in the face of its head Lidija Jarmoshyna and Secretary Nikolaj Lozovik instead of potential candidates or their organizations. If it was about the real participants of the process, most often they were mentioned as ‘action groups’ and non-personified ‘potential candidates’. The candidates’ speeches on television were not covered and were not promoted: candidates’ names were not indicated in the program titles.

Conclusion

In Belarus conditions for ensuring information security have not been created for quite a long period. The authorities are aware of threats but they do not take any strategic steps to develop the market. Media policy remains inconsistent.

On the one hand, the processes of integration with Russia involve the integration of information space. On the other hand, it is necessary to protect the public opinion in Belarus from Russian influence. On the one hand, it is important to demonstrate the reduction of pressure on the independent media in the development of relations with the West. On the other hand, the authorities have to treat journalists of foreign publications in a tough way due to a certain way of their understanding of information security.

The economic crisis and the decline of Western finance do not allow developing either state or independent media. The independent media continue to be discriminated against and severely controlled. The stabilization of the economic situation and restoring growth in the advertising market give hope for some improvement in the national media. However, the lack of a unified strategic approach to the information policy and structural changes in the media system are unlikely to lead to significant progress in this direction. In the coming years, the country's information security will remain under threat.