BELARUS
Written by Daria Gordeeva

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Profile

  • Area: 207.595 square kilometers
  • Population: 9,5 million (2016)
  • Capital: Minsk
  • State form: presidential republic
  • Official language: Belarusian, Russian
  • Religion: Orthodoxy (82 per cent, 2011)

  • Flag of Belarus

    Analysis
    Abstract
    Ruled by the president Alexander Lukashenko for the past 22 years, the Republic of Belarus is widely regarded as Europe’s last dictatorship and sometimes described as the most Russia-dependent post-Soviet country. Maintaining the autocratic political system, Lukashenko and his government attempt to control the civil society and independent media in the country. The dominance of state-owned and state-controlled media, restricted access to public information, culture of secrecy, restrictive media laws as well as self-censorship prevent journalists from producing quality reporting and presenting alternative points of views. The Constitution of Belarus guarantees freedom of speech and expression, media law guarantees editorial independence of media outlets. However, media legislation allows the Ministry of Information to close down politically unpleasant outlets, block websites, harass and punish journalists, rather than protects media professionals. Low pay levels as well as financial and legal difficulties impact the quality of journalism. Thus, Belarusian media fail to meet high standards of professional journalism and the Belarusian press remains not free. Despite government attempts to maintain tight control over the internet, access to alternative sources of information from abroad continues to increase. The following report is based on document analysis, annual reports of the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders as well as interviews conducted with experts who have superior knowledge about the media system of Belarus.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Political Environment

    Many of the interviewed journalists describe the media environment in Belarus under the President Alexander Lukashenko as extremely restrictive. According to Freedom House, Belarus has a “not free” press. Reporters Without Borders ranked Belarus 157th out of 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index (2016). The journalist working for the local edition of the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda talked about a strict ideological division between state-owned and independent oppositional media. “It is difficult to find something in between”, he said. The state-owned media follow government-mandated editorial guidelines, tend to glorify the government of the president Lukashenko and vilify the political opposition, while oppositional journalists tend to criticize the president and the government and to discuss dysfunctional government policies.

    The largest and most read daily newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya ‒ Belarus Segodnya is an official newspaper of the Presidential Administration of Belarus and serves as an instrument for government information policy (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010). The journalist working for the independent channel Belsat TV said that journalists of the state media work as government’s mouthpieces, justify all presidential decisions and engage in propaganda. Meanwhile most independent media can’t stay impartial and don’t provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise, because they are suppressed and intimidated by government. The interviewee told that after arbitrary detentions, arrests and confiscation of video cameras and other devices as well as closing down of their media outlets oppositional journalists became aggressive and don’t provide balanced reporting anymore. As a result, most of the Belarusian media fail to meet professional standards: They provide opinion journalism instead of fair, objective and impartial reporting. However, private newspapers “are more likely to offer unbiased coverage and alternative viewpoints” (IREX, 2016: 194).

    Legal Environment

    The legal basis of activity of mass media in Belarus comes from the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, the Law of Belarus about Media, international obligations and treaties and by-law regulations. Article 34 of the Constitution of 1994 guarantees citizens of Belarus “the right to receive, store and disseminate complete, reliable and timely information on the activities of state bodies and public associations, on political, economic, cultural and international life, and on the state of the environment”. Even if censorship and monopolization of the media are prohibited and freedom of thought, belief and expression are guaranteed by article 33 of the Constitution, this is voided in practice by other repressive and restrictive laws. According to Belarus laws, criticism of the president or the government is punishable by high fines or imprisonment.

    The media law requires registration of all media outlets. However, “both registration and licensing procedures remain cumbersome and politicized” (IREX, 2016: 189). Interviewed journalists told that the Law of Belarus about Media is just a law for media professionals, which doesn’t matter for officials, government agencies and public representatives. Thus, journalists usually have to explain to the officials that they have a right to ask questions and get access to the public information. Even if the access to government records is guaranteed by several laws, lack of legal assurance in practice leads to difficult working conditions of editors and reporters. Media outlets, which contain vaguely defined “extremist” materials and “threaten the interests of the state”, can also face blockage, accreditation can be denied or they can get closed down under the counter-extremism law, as happened in 2007 (Sokolova, 2014).

    The interviewees also mentioned amendments to the already restrictive media law, adopted by the Belarusian parliament in December 2014. This amendments expended the range of sites with mass media status and imposed stringent regulations on online media outlets. Now “any website that distributes information ‒ including blogs and social networks ‒ is considered to be a media outlet” (IREX, 2016: 189). One interviewed professor of journalism had a positive view of this legislation and said that bloggers and citizen journalists should take more responsibility for their words. However, other interviewed journalists were mostly negative: They doubted that this legislation will improve the quality of reporting, because these amendments to the media law allow the Information Ministry to close down the media outlets after two warnings, just like traditional media, and extend the government’s power to control the internet resources and to block websites for coverage that can harm national interests of Belarus. According to some journalists, such legislation targets independent journalism and pressures most outlets into self-censorship.

    The Belsat TV journalist claimed that journalists in Belarus are punished by the Ministry of Information just for their normal journalistic work. The Komsomolskaya Pravda editor said that she doesn’t feel safe and has no legal and social protection as a journalist. Some media professionals stay in prison for many days for unclear reasons and their rights, guaranteed by law, don’t matter in reality.

    Trade unions

    There are two trade unions for media professionals in Belarus: the Belarusian Union of Journalists (BUJ) and the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). Their members are obligated to follow professional codes of ethics, to promote quality journalism and to produce quality reporting. BUJ was established in 1958 as an official organization for journalists and now unites around 2.000 media professionals who mostly made their career during the Soviet period and work for state-controlled mass media (IREX, 2016: 196). BAJ was established in 1995 as an alternative to the existing BUJ and is “a domestic press freedom watchdog”, which, inter alia, promotes the professional journalism development. This voluntary, non-governmental association brings together more than 1.000 journalists, mostly young, pro-Western oriented and employed by private outlets (ibid.: 190).

    The Belarusian information minister Ananich belongs to BUJ, while BAJ is supported by oppositional politicians. Thus, BUJ is “largely subservient to the government” (IREX, 2016: 196), while BAJ is often perceived as an oppositional organization and faces the same difficulties in work as independent journalists. Compared to BUJ, BAJ is much more active in protecting journalists’ rights and trying to influence the legislation to defend the freedom of speech. It also provides legal assistance and financial support to journalists and editors, organizes further education seminars and runs several professional development programs. However, the professor of journalism described BAJ as too political and too critical. The association “monitors and publicizes information about violations of free speech” (ibid.) and often criticizes the situation on Belarusian media market. The interviewees said that these trade unions are more likely to be a platform for discussion and exchange of opinions and don’t have any real influence, because their rulings and recommendations are not binding.
    Media offers
    National media market: media outlets, ownership and resources

    At first glance the media landscape of Belarus seems to be very diverse. According to the Ministry of Information, as of 1 June 2016, there were in total 1.864 media outlets in the country, including, inter alia, 724 newspapers, 823 magazines, 173 radio broadcast stations and 100 television broadcast stations. The majority of radio broadcast stations (86 per cent, n=149) are state-owned. Although most TV channels broadcasting in Belarus (59 per cent, n=59) are private, the main TV channels are under state control. More than two thirds of print media outlets (73 per cent, n=1155) are private. Taking a closer look at the print media, it should be noted that only a very few media outlets focus on social and political issues and offer news or analysis. Most private newspapers and magazines focus almost entirely on entertainment. They offer practical advice on cooking or gardening as well as articles for particular target groups ‒ automobile manufacturers, fashion-conscious customers and so on (IREX, 2016: 194; Wolf & Rakhlei, 2012: 2). Thus, it can be concluded that “the quantity of outlets does not translate into a variety of viewpoints offered within the Belarusian media landscape” (IREX, 2016: 192). The majority of print media is published in Russian language (73 per cent of newspapers and 81 per cent of magazines in Russian vs. 26 per cent and 17 per cent, respectively, in Belarusian, in 2011) (Belarus-Analysen, 2013: 12).

    The distribution of financial resources between state-run and independent media is highly unequal. State media are supported by subsidies from the state budget and have significant advantages over their independent competitors: The state TV and radio broadcasting service Beltelradio and the national TV station ONT are exempt from taxes (IREX, 2016: 195). State-run media outlets also “enjoy indirect subsidies in the form of discounted newsprint, printing, and postage fees, lower rent, etc.” (ibid.). The circulation of state newspapers and private newspapers under state control is underpinned by state-imposed subscriptions (Wolf & Rakhlei, 2012). Due to their high circulation the state media outlets dominate the Belarusian media market in terms of audience. Furthermore, only state and indirectly state-owned TV stations broadcast nationwide.

    Privately-owned, pro-opposition newspapers such as Nasha Niva or Narodnaja Volya have a very low circulation of thousands or tens of thousands only. (For comparison: The official newspaper of the Presidential Administration of Belarus Sovetskaya Belorussiya ‒ Belarus Segodnya has a daily circulation of over 400.000.) Their access to state-run printing plants and sources of newsprint is restricted and controlled. Privately-owned newspapers are also suffering of price discrimination. Copy sales and advertising sales are essential for independent outlets. However, “the advertising market is small and shrinking and is […] not free of political influence” (IREX, 2016: 194). Thus, oppositional media often depend on financial support from abroad. According to IREX, “many outlets do not have the resources to implement best practice and allocate sufficient time for journalists to produce quality reports” (ibid.: 192).

    National key media and influential foreign media

    Any key media in Belarus couldn’t be unambiguously identified in the interviews. However, the German TV correspondent said that television, which remains the main source of information for Belarus citizens, is the dominant media. The journalist working for an independent business newspaper Belorusy i rynok talked about a distinction between newspapers with high and low circulation as well as respected and less trusted media outlets, but couldn’t recognize any “newspaper of record”. The Belsat TV journalist emphasized the largest and most read and influential daily newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya ‒ Belarus Segodnya.

    Foreign media are also widely represented in Belarus. “Russian pro-Kremlin media continue to play a significant role” (IREX, 2016: 193). Russian TV channels offer news and entertainment shows. Local editions of influential Russian newspapers Komsomolskaya Pravda and Argumenty i Fakty are very popular, too. The interviewed professor of journalism said that many Belarusians prefer to surf Russian websites like yandex.ru or mail.ru.

    Western TV and radio stations also broadcast from nearby countries as an alternative to state-run Belarusian media. They are intended, inter alia, to provide Belarusians alternative points of view, to deliver factual, current, independent, trustworthy and up-to-date information about events in Belarus and in the world and to promote Western democratic values. The most interviewees mentioned the satellite channel Belsat TV, Radio Racja and European Radio for Belarus. These independent broadcasters transmit from Poland, are financed from abroad and face various forms of harassment from Belarusian government. The interviewed Belsat TV correspondent said that the work of their journalists is a constant stress and a challenge because all their repeated and annual requests for accreditation of the TV channel have been refused.

    Foreign ownership of mass media outlets is restricted by Belarusian law, which forbids foreign citizens and companies to hold more than 20 per cent stake in Belarusian media business (30 per cent until December 2014) (IREX, 2016: 194). One interviewee claimed that this legislation impedes foreign investments in Belarusian media sector.

    Media access and consumption

    According to the media consumption data from the 2014 Media Sustainability Index (MSI), “an average Belarusian is watching seven television channels, […] reading three newspapers and listening to three radio stations”. Television remains the “favorite medium” and the most popular source of news, followed by radio. 84,9 per cent of respondents said that they use TV to receive news and information. However, all traditional media demonstrate declines as compared to previous years (IREX, 2016: 193). The internet grows in importance and the number of users is increasing from year to year: More than 60 percent use it “to receive news and analysis” (ibid.: 187) and 61 per cent of users surf the web every day (ibid.: 197). The internet is often used as an alternative source of information, whereby news content provided by non-governmental, independent and foreign media is predominant. Social networks are platforms for discussion about politics, economics and international events, whereby people often click, share and discuss posts of media outlets trying to offer alternative viewpoints. (Shirokanova, 2011; IREX, 2016: 193).
    Journalists' autonomy
    Journalism education, career and salary

    Access to the journalistic profession is unrestricted. The Journalism Institute at the Belarusian State University and other private institutes and state universities in Minsk, Brest, Gomel, Grodno, and Vitebsk offer journalism degrees. According to IREX (2016: 196), the institute has 1.500 students and “offers courses in print, broadcast, and online journalism, as well as editing, media management, and international journalism”. The interviewed professor of journalism emphasized that practical experiences are the main focus of study and students do an internship every year. However, the Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist criticized the curricula and described the education as “too theoretical”, because of the strong focus on literature, philosophy, and theories of journalism. As a result, graduates don’t have the necessary background knowledge and are not job-ready.

    According to interviewees, traineeships and freelance jobs are less common. Furthermore, not all graduates work in the media industry, because employment prospects are bleak and pay levels remain low. One interviewee assumed that online media are in a better situation than newspapers funded primarily by advertising. Many interviewees suspected the variation between state-owned and private media outlets, whereby state media sometimes pay twice as much. According to IREX (2016: 192), there is also a difference between pay levels in national and regional media outlets: “Reporters in regional outlets can expect around $150 to $200 a month and up to $400 to $500 in the capital, and editors earn 30 to 50 percent more”. For this reason, many graduates and journalists work for multiple outlets, take part-time jobs or choose other sectors, e.g. public relations or advertising.

    Journalists’ working conditions

    The journalist of Komsomolskaya Pravda compared journalists’ working conditions in Belarus with a hippodrome where journalists, like horses, have to overcome certain obstacles. And obstacles get more difficult every day. All interviewed journalists told about problems which they are facing.

    Receiving information is one of the major difficulties mentioned by all interviewees, although access to and distribution of public information is guaranteed by law. The most trouble have private media outlets which criticize government policies. However, state journalists also experience situations in which they can’t get access to documents and politicians, government agencies and public representatives refuse to release information keeping as much information as possible behind closed doors. Some of them have the right to qualify their information as secret. According to IREX (2016: 190), “government public affairs officers (in many cases still named ideology officers) have been imposing more barriers onto journalists’ reporting practices for years”. The professor of journalism explained it by the culture of secrecy in post-Soviet states.

    Another problem concerns media accreditation. Many independent outlets are denied accreditation, which is required, inter alia, for using professional photo and video equipment in the streets, getting access to some events or reporting for a foreign media outlets. Press credentials are usually checked by the police. “So-called exiled Belarusian media (registered and broadcasting from outside of Belarus) struggle the most.” (ibid.: 191) The Belsat TV journalist told that their illegal work without accreditation is always associated with stress. Their journalists face lots of criminal, civil and administrative cases, are warned, arrested by the police, questioned, fined and have electronic devices and documents confiscated. As a result, these barriers prevent journalists from presenting alternative points of views and reporting on important issues, such as corruption or the economic crisis, as well as damage standards of accuracy and fairness. Interviewees also mention deadlines and topic selection when asked about challenges.

    Journalists’ role perceptions

    The objective of almost all interviewed journalists was to meet standards of professional journalism: to inform people about what is happening in the world and provide unbiased facts; tell the truth and report fair, objective and well-sourced; to separate facts from opinions and offer multiple viewpoints; to reveal problems and make the public aware of them; to understand complicated interrelationships and explain them to the public; to entertain and help people in solving their daily problems, provide orientation and give them valuable advices as well as the opportunity to make effective decisions. The interviewees also emphasized the social responsibility of journalists. Thus, journalists should be responsible for the accuracy of any information they provide, for issues they cover and words they choose. Some of them ask experienced colleagues for advice, search for examples in high-quality foreign media, read reference books and specialist articles.

    The Vecherniy Brest editor said that the journalist should be an “information lighthouse” for people. Thus, they always try to do their best despite certain difficulties which they are facing. However, the ZDF correspondent claimed that the affirmation of professional journalism in Belarus is difficult, if not impossible, because of the state control and problems discussed above. The Belsat TV correspondent emphasized their aim to provide viewers an alternative perspective on major issues despite strict censorship and government control over independent media. Journalists criticize the “hurray-journalism” as well as the fact that state-run media completely overlook serious issues such as economic crisis in Belarus, economic dependence on Russia or consequences of the Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime for Belarusian citizens, economy, industry and media. While state media glorify the president and his ideology and try to convince people that Lukashenko’s policy is the only proper way to go, oppositional media want to show other opinions, other movements and other economic programmes. The Belorusy i rynok editor said that even though the journalists in Belarus know ethical standards, they often don’t follow them, therefore only a few high-quality articles can be found.

    Reputation of media and journalism in society

    The opinion journalism instead of objective reporting leads to a loss of trust of citizens in the national media. Thus, recipients estimate the quality of news programs on state-owned and private TV channels as low. However, regional print outlets and regional radio broadcasters have a better reputation because of their direct references to people’s daily lives and ability to provide them orientation and to offer solutions to their problems (Mediakritika, 2013). The Belsat TV journalist said that people sometimes don’t trust in the media, because Belarusian media don’t represent the fourth estate and don’t exert any significant influence on public policies. The ZDF correspondent explained why journalists, in her opinion, mostly have a bad reputation in Belarus: While the state-run media engage in propaganda, the oppositional media are discredited and often seen as a fifth column paid by and reporting to foreign enemies. The Belorusy i rynok editor said that people trust in the state media when everything in Belarus is relatively stable and use more independent media in a time of crisis.
    Sources
    This country report is largely based on a seminar paper composed by Yauheniya Hurynchuk and Niels Bula at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich in 2015. All interviews have been conducted by them from January to February 2015. The author thanks Ms. Hurynchuk and Mr. Bula for their work, without which this country report wouldn’t have been possible.

    Interviewed experts (remote via Skype, telephone, email)
    • Editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, a daily Russian tabloid newspaper
    • Editor of Belorusy i rynok, the main business weekly newspaper published in Belarus
    • Editor of Vecherniy Brest, a regional socio-political newspaper published in Brest
    • Correspondent of Belsat TV, a satellite television channel aimed at Belarus and based primarily in Poland
    • Foreign correspondent of ZDF, a German public-service television broadcaster
    • Professor of online journalism at the Belarusian State University
    References
    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Daria Gordeeva: Belarus. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. http://mappingmediafreedom.de/belarus (access date)