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Belarusian Media: Between the State and the Nosy Neighbor

Lukashenka’s government is steadily enlarging its sphere of control over domestic media while trying to limit Russian influence.

by Veranika Laputska 23 July 2018

For the first time since Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was elected in 1994, the authorities this year allowed public celebrations of the anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic of 1918. In what some foreign observers and media interpreted as a possible further sign of his opening to the West, Lukashenka also for the first time took part in the annual Minsk Dialogue security forum, where he spoke about information security and global security issues and called for a “Helsinki 2” peace process.  

 

In June, Lukashenka hailed the “friendly partner relations” with the European Union, which lifted most sanctions on his government in 2016, although he emphasized that issues such as the state of democracy and freedom of expression must take second place to developing economic ties.

 

Such hints of a more “liberal” mindset in Minsk must, however, be set against official attitudes toward the media and information security. In recent months the regime has shown signs of adapting to the changing media landscape even as it develops new mechanisms to clamp down on new media and exerts even greater control over state-run media.

 

Russian Media in Belarus Most Trusted

 

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Belarusian Analytical Workshop in April 2017, state-owned TV channels are the primary source of information for most Belarusians (71.3 percent). Russian TV channels are listed in third place (43.8 percent), following relatives and friends (62.1 percent) as a source of information. Social networks and blogs (42.4 percent) also ranked high. Independent media websites are mentioned only in the sixth position, just after state-owned newspapers.

 

The poll underlined other findings that the Russian media enjoy a high level of trust among the public. In the same survey, 75 percent of respondents said they either fully or partially trusted the Russian media, while the figures for the domestic independent media and the state-owned media stood at 73 percent and 67 percent respectively. The influence of the Russian media is strengthened by a relatively weak national identity and the critical situation as regards the Belarusian language. There were only 32 media outlets in the Belarusian language in 2016, while 837 media outlets used Russian exclusively, and 526 outlets ran material both in Russian and Belarusian.

 

Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Image via kremlin.ru.

 

The internet remains the only environment where independent media attract the largest and most loyal readers (for example, the TUT.BY, Onliner.by, and Charter97.org portals). But the authorities have developed a large set of legal and technical means allowing them to block any critical media, including digital outlets.

 

Belarus has no independent in-country TV and radio broadcaster. State-owned TV channels not only show Russian movies, series, and entertainment programs; they also broadcast the prime time newscasts and political talk shows produced by the Kremlin-controlled media.

 

The so-called “hybrid” channels present a peculiarly Belarusian media phenomenon. These channels, including the very popular ONT, combine Russian content with domestically produced programs. When the authorities launched the first hybrid channels in the early 2000s, a main concern was to pre-moderate their content and stifle any messages emanating from Russia that would criticize Lukashenka's regime.

 

Several experts interviewed by the EAST Center, a Warsaw-based think tank, stressed that a large part of the public does not distinguish between genuine Russian TV channels and those modified by the Belarusian authorities. RFE/RL political commentator Valery Karbalevich last year commented on the influence of Russian TV on the public:

 

“The opinion of Belarusians about the most important issues in international politics, geopolitical issues, conflicts in the region, and even the most important questions of Belarusian national identity is formed by Russian TV. Opinion polls show that 60-65 percent of Belarusians look at the world through the lens of Russian TV channels. I think even Alyaksandr Lukashenka is worried about it, because he realizes that he does not control the information policy on his own territory.”

 

Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014 and the growing number of Russian information attacks, the Belarusian authorities have been trying to limit the political content on the hybrid channels. For instance, Russian TV host Vladimir Solovyev’s show rebroadcast on RTR-Belarus and the talk show Vremya pokazhet (Time will tell), shown on ONT, were moved from prime time to late night. Nevertheless, Russian content clearly dominates the Belarusian media. Among the most popular TV programs in Belarus, almost all are produced in Russia.

 

The Russian information presence on the Belarusian internet is also far from negligible, owing mainly to the high popularity of Russian social networks. The most popular social networks are the Russian Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, with Facebook trailing behind.

 

Pro-Kremlin trolls are entrenched in Belarusian social media. The chief moderator of the forum section of the largest Belarusian web portal, TUT.BY, recently admitted that coordinated groups of politically engaged commentators from Russia are permanently present there. In the 2017 Freedom of the Net report, Freedom House also noted the increased activity of Russian trolls.

 

A Full Array of Control Mechanisms

 

The state monitors and controls the media through three main bodies: the Operational Analytical Center (OAC), the presidential administration, and the Ministry of Information.

 

Lukashenka established the OAC in 2008 as a branch of the presidential office. Its tasks include setting standards in and monitoring the field of information security, and informing the president of its findings on a regular basis. As Lukashenka acknowledged in 2013, the presence of his eldest son, Viktar Lukashenka, at the head of this body demonstrated its significance. In practice the OAC pays particular attention to the Belarusian internet, including online media. Together with the Ministry of Information, the OAC regularly drafts laws that have restricted access to the internet, including the controversial amendments adopted by parliament on 28 June, which require all authors of online posts and comments to be identified and that media owners ensure moderation of comments. The amendments permit social media to be blocked if there is no technical means of eliminating certain content or if the site owner refuses to cooperate with the authorities.

 

The presidential administration also plays an informal role in controlling and monitoring the state media. In addition to making personnel decisions and setting ideological policy through weekly meetings with editors of the main state media outlets, the administration has at times given direct orders to editors in chief on an ad hoc basis, informed sources have said.

 

Finally, the main duties of the Ministry of Information include direct control over several state-owned media outlets and the monitoring of the rest of the national media. The ministry has wide authority to punish media outlets for spreading allegedly misleading messages. However, this ministry is primarily focused not on fighting foreign disinformation, but on controlling domestic ideological opponents – who are hardly to be found in the ranks of the government-controlled media – and sanctioning those it considers to be overly critical of the authorities. Rarely launching initiatives itself, the ministry rather executes orders from the president’s administration and thus primarily carries out the role of a supervisor.

 

Late last year Lukashenka signaled his will to extend even greater oversight of the information space, setting up an inter-agency commission on information security comprising representatives of the security bodies, the presidential administration, the minister of information, and two representatives of state-run media.

 

The makeup of the body, and its exclusion of the independent media, reveal the government’s reluctance to share the information security sphere with other actors and its lack of understanding regarding how important cooperation between the entire media sector and the state apparatus is on this matter.

 

A Bleak Outlook

 

At the turn of 2017-2018, Lukashenka made a raft of personnel changes in the upper echelons of state media. The reshuffle began in December with the appointment of the former head of presidential security, Andrei Paulichenka, to lead the Operational Analytical Center.

 

In February the president appointed new directors of three leading state-owned media outlets – Belarusian TV and Radio (Belteleradio), ONT, and the newspaper SB Belarus Segodnya (Belarus Today).

 

Belteleradio’s new head is TV host Ivan Eysmant – the husband of Lukashenka’s spokeswoman Natallia Eysmant – and a former deputy minister of information, Ihar Lutski, is in charge at ONT. A close Lukashenka confidant, Iryna Akulovich, was named to head the state-owned news agency BelTa in April.

 

Such a whirl of activity strongly suggests that the authorities realized the need for a new approach and a younger leadership at the main media outlets.

 

The reshuffle also sheds light on two recent notable trends in the Belarusian media. First, the authorities are starting to take independently-made domestic news and comments more seriously. This was signaled last December, when the Information Ministry blocked one of the most popular independent news outlets, Belaruski partisan. The site had to change its domain in order to resume publication. Then in January, international observers criticized the blocking of the widely read site of the opposition Charter 97 group.

 

At the same time, the authorities are growing more suspicious of the main Russian media. In January, for instance, the hybrid station STV stopped re-transmitting some of the more conspiratorial and anti-Western programs from Russia’s REN TV.

 

Lukashenka himself made a pointed comment about Russian television when he announced the new state media directors, saying “We shouldn’t adopt the approaches and the kind of work seen on Russian TV.”

 

The common aim in these two strategies, of gradually reducing the amount of Russia-produced content and restricting the independent media, is clearly to strengthen the position of the Belarusian state media.

 

The structure and personnel of the state media underline that information security remains a very closed sphere monopolized by the state where no external actors such as independent journalists or associations are welcome. The state bodies play a restrictive role in monitoring and controlling the Belarusian media landscape. The authorities have developed a range of regulations restricting the freedom of the press. They have built up a centralized hierarchical system of institutions headed by the presidential administration that secure state propaganda and control over the media sphere in the service of perpetuating the regime’s control of the levers of power. And that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Veranika Laputska is a research fellow at the EAST Center, a Warsaw-based think tank for post-Soviet and East European studies. Her research interests include disinformation and propaganda, the media, and Jewish studies.

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