The report summarises the findings of the monitoring of the 2016 parliamentary election coverage in the Belarusian media.
The main objective of the monitoring was to promote unbiased coverage of the parliamentary campaign that would meet high professional standards in journalism.
The monitoring was conducted by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), which endeavoured to draw the attention of the journalist community to the importance of giving the electorate undistorted, unbiased and comprehensive information about the election, the candidates’ agendas and their supporters’ and opponents’ opinions.
The methodology of the monitoring enabled us to reveal both the overall model of the election coverage and instances of poor professional standards. We offer both quantitative and qualitative analysis of media items. The decisive criteria for their assessment were based on internationally accepted standards of reporting on elections and ethics in journalism.
The report encompasses the data accumulated throughout the monitored time span.
The state-owned media covered the 2016 parliamentary campaign in their conventional manner, as described below:
- It was the CEC and other election commissions that remained the dominant figures of the election field as presented in the state-run media. Their representatives (most commonly their chairpersons) had the highest share of airtime among all the personified monitored actors. At the same time the state-owned media presented the election commissions as the most competent source of information about the election.
- The news programmes adhered to predominantly depersonalised coverage of the candidates. However, once in a while the state-owned media offered a group portrait of the candidates, dividing them into different categories.
- The state-run media still did not turn the spotlight on the political parties standing for parliament, presenting them under the generic heading ‘political parties’ and giving them a marginal proportion of election-related airtime and space.
- Any debates between voters were non-existent. The electorate was typically presented in a depersonalised manner.
- The state-run media gave about the same amount of their attention to the CIS observers and the OSCE/ODIHR Mission, assessing their work in a predominantly neutral light.
- The share of election coverage in the news programmes was either commensurate with that of sport and weather or even smaller. When the Summer Olympic Games came to an end, it entailed neither a fall in the airtime given to sports nor a significant increase in election-related issues.
- Although the candidates were able to address the electorate on TV and on the radio, the state-owned printed and electronic media did not draw the voters’ attention to their media appearances. TV guides presented them under the heading Election’2016 or Speeches of candidates standing for the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus of the sixth convocation. No names or exact time of each candidate’s TV and radio appearances were given.
- The websites of the leading state-run media did not offer any precise information on the date and time of the candidates’ broadcasts, either.
- The independent media focussed more on the candidates and political parties standing for parliament. However, neither www.tut.by nor the independent printed media were able to become real competitors of the state-run TV and radio stations.
- After the voting day, the state-owned and independent media differed in their assessments of the voting procedure, ballot count and election as a whole.
When the candidates were campaigning, the state-run media began to give them more attention, presenting them nevertheless in a predominantly depersonalised manner. At the same time, the CEC and regional election commissions remained in the lead in terms of their share of coverage. According to the aggregated findings for the period between 11 July and 11 September, 2016, they had nearly 44% of the airtime given to all the monitored election actors in Glavny Efir weekly programme on Belarus 1, 17% in Nashi Novosti on ONT and about 34% in Radyjofakt on the 1st Channel of the National Radio. The regional TV programmes, such as Naviny. Homiel of the Homiel Regional TV and Radio Company and Naviny-rehijon of the Mahiloŭ Regional TV and Radio Company were dominated by the regional election commissions and polling station boards, which received up to 40% of the airtime given to all the monitored election actors.
The charts show that the state-run media, as well as the observers of the CIS Mission and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) were unanimous in their positive assessment of these bodies. For example, the spokesman for the CIS Mission Tashinbaev said, ‘We would like to point out that the chairpersons of the constituency commissions are well prepared and the heads of the polling station boards show high professional skills.’ (Radyjofakt, 02/08/16.) Meanwhile, CIS observer Viktor Meleshko said, ‘During my time in Słonim district, I have visited a number of polling stations, both urban and rural, and observed the work of the constituency election commission. The election process in Słonim district meets high organisational standards.’ (Słonimski Vieśnik, 14/09/16.) The members of election commissions spoke positively of their work, too.
In contrast to the election commissions and state officials, the nominees and registered candidates were presented in the monitored programmes mostly in a depersonalised manner, i.e. without their names or political affiliation. Here is a typical report given by a journalist of Naviny-rehijon on the Mahiloŭ Regional TV and Radio Company, ‘Besides the intelligentsia, people employed in industry, transport and construction, are going to stand for parliament; they account for 8% of all the candidates. Representatives of state institutions also make up 8%. A quarter of all the candidates are women. 8% are young people under thirty. It was said at the news conference that eighty five prospective candidates submitted to the constituency commissions of the region one hundred and eight applications for registration. The distribution of the types of nomination was as follows: forty two were nominated by voters’ signed endorsements, and eighteen were nominated by the staff of organisations and companies.’
On 21 August, 2016 the Chairperson of the Belarusian TV and Radio Davydźka divided the candidates in Glavny Efir into three groups after watching their media appearances, ‘The first group are, you know, successful and experienced people, such as school headmasters and CEOs of production companies. They are self-confident. As a rule, they are well prepared to make an address; they know what they are doing and why they are going to parliament. And the camera loves them.
‘The second group are those to whom their party said, “you must do it,” and they answered “yes,” to put it plainly. They may not really believe in their victory, but they are trying to make their brands, their parties and themselves recognisable, well, to the best of their abilities.
‘Finally, the third group is the most interesting sample, in my opinion, of new people that have made their way in our electoral history in general. These are “happy-go-lucky” candidates. They do not rely on any experience, they don’t know why they are standing for parliament, actually, they cannot present themselves and they often talk nonsense.’ His evaluation of each of the three groups explicitly prompted the voters for whom they should cast their ballots.
Another participant in the discussion, the Editor-in-Chief of the Źviazda state-run paper Karlukievič, offered an addition to this classification, ‘I think there is also a category of very well-known individuals in the information field… Their agendas are shaped by their pre-conceptions that people know that the authors of these agendas are only going to criticise and put forward certain slogans, that these slogans without any grounds are enough.’
Mr Jakubovič, the Editor-in-Chief of the Belarus Segonya, aired an opinion that responsible candidates ‘must give up all rhetoric and say things like, “I’ll help the authorities with the parking lots, for example, if I am elected, I’ll help the authorities to put the following things right in the district…”’ The proposal evidently limited the prospective parliamentarians’ status as lawmakers; moreover, it undermined the principle of the division of powers in Belarus.
By describing the candidates in this fashion, the monitored programmes allotted to them a considerable share of their election-related airtime (between 7% and 14%, depending on the programme). This created an impression of the candidates’ presence in the media field, but did not give the voters any information about the candidates’ and their parties’ political agendas.
As for the political parties’ media presence, it was not just less pronounced but marginal, if any at all. For instance, Nashi Novosti on ONT, Panarama on Belarus 1 and Glavny Efir on Belarus 1 avoided referring to definite political parties whatsoever. When they were mentioned, their shares of airtime and space were less than 0.5% (see, for example, the Charts for www.belta.by or Radyjofakt).
Instead of definite opposition parties, the state-owned media presented the ‘opposition’ as a depersonalised actor. All the same, it received a meagre amount of media attention, as compared to the earlier elections.
It was the Belarusian National Youth Union (BNYU) that became a real personified actor of this parliamentary campaign. It had not played such a prominent role in the previous year’s presidential race. This pro-governmental organisation was presented in a positive light exclusively and its representatives were given an opportunity to appear on air in Nashi Novosti on ONT on 3 August, 2016, to give just one example, by contrast with all the opposition political forces and NGOs.
The increased media attention to the BNYU can probably be attributed to the organisation’s versatile activities during the election. According to its First Secretary Andrej Bielakoŭ, ‘the Youth Union has always taken quite an active part in all political campaigns, including the current one… Six BNYU members have been included in the regional and Minsk City election commissions, ninety BNYU people are members of constituency commissions and about thirty-five hundred are on polling station boards. As of 1 August, one hundred and eight observers have received their accreditation and we are planning to have accredited at least fifty-five hundred BNYU members by 20 August… we are going to join in the campaigning.’ (Radyjofakt, 08/08/2016.) In other words, the BNYU was not only engaged in mobilising young voters, counting ballots and observing the count, but also campaigned for its candidates. As it eventually turned out, the BNYU leader has been appointed member of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament.
Voters were for the most part presented anonymously. Their voices were heard mainly in the context of mobilising the electorate to go to the polls.
As we have mentioned above, the CIS observers and the OSCE/ODIHR Mission received a commensurate amount of coverage. Every now and then the state-run media briefly interviewed their representatives, featuring them in a predominantly neutral manner. At the same time, it is necessary to point out that the representatives of the CIS Observer Mission aired their opinions in the electronic media more often than their OSCE/ODIHR counterparts. To give just one example, Panarama granted the CIS observers direct access to air, rather than let reporters interpret their words, according to the data for the period between 25 July and 10 September, 2016. Moreover, the CIS observers featured on air twice as much as their western counterparts and the opinions of the latter were sometimes assessed negatively.
The state-owned electronic media also presented the opinions of observers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, albeit much less prominently.
Even though the monitored media offered quite a lot of information about the election, or, to be more precise, its organisational technicalities, election-related issues were far from their priority list. As we have pointed out in our interim reports, the four-year cycle of parliamentary elections in Belarus is in sync with that of the summer Olympics. However, in 2004, 2008 and 2012 candidates were registered when the Olympics had finished, but this time the key stage of campaigning coincided with Olympic broadcasts. As a result, the share of time allotted to the parliamentary election was either lower than that of sports news, as in Nashi Novosti on ONT or Naviny on Radyjo Stalica or commensurate with the latter, as in Radyjofakt on the 1st Channel of the National Radio or Naviny-rehijon of the Mahiloŭ Regional TV and Radio Company (see the Charts). Furthermore, election-related items did not open the news broadcasts but were sandwiched between other reports. In some instances, the shares of election-related issues were commensurate with those of weather forecasts.
The candidates were able to appear in the electronic state-run media, such as Belarus 3 and CTV TV stations and the local radio as well as had their programmes printed free of charge in the state-owned papers appointed by the CEC. The candidates’ appearances were televised from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. and broadcast on the radio from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. on weekdays.
They were presented in the TV guide for Belarus 3 as Election’2016. It deserves mentioning that not only the candidates’ speeches but also debates were televised under this generic heading. The TV guide did not give any information as to what was to be expected on air or who the guests were.
Admittedly, the TV guide for CTV did highlight the candidates’ appearances on air – Speeches of candidates standing for the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus of the sixth convocation. However, it did not give the candidates’ names or the exact time of their addresses. The TV guide also had a heading Election’2016 followed by inconspicuous ‘Debates’. Neither this specific type of infographics nor the heading itself, which encompassed the candidates’ appearances on Belarus 3, drew attention to these broadcasts.
While the TV guides were not precise enough about the candidates and debates, they did not only highlight the titles of feature films and series in bold capitals but also provided their brief strips with the virtual names of the protagonists. For example, this is how the TV guide for Belarus 2 presented DECEIVE ME-2 series: ‘CRIME. Murder Squad of the Municipal Criminal Police. The most high-profile cases are to be looked into… by Captains Filippov, Lerner and Ilyinsky and Senior Lieutenant Strelnikova.’ (Belarus 2, 29/08/16.)
Last but not least, it should be pointed out that neither the TV stations themselves, nor the information portal Election’2016 (http://vybory2016.by/), which had got a lot of hype in the state-run media, nor the BelTA special project called Parliamentary Election’2016 (http://parlament2016.belta.by/), nor the official website of the Belarusian Television and Radio Company gave comprehensive information about the candidates’ media appearances or debates, including the date, time and names. Moreover, none of the candidates’ media appearances were uploaded on the website of the Belarusian Television and Radio, which deprived the voters who could not watch or listen to these broadcasts of the opportunity to get an idea of the candidates’ agendas.
To sum it up, the absence of any meaningful informational support of the candidates’ media appearances and debates or comprehensive information about who exactly was going to speak and when fitted perfectly into the general trend towards depersonalised coverage of the key election actors in the state-run media. Furthermore, Belarus 3 also showed Soviet Russian documentaries under the heading Election’2016, for example, a forty-minute-long film featuring the construction of an old Soviet car ZIL on 29 August, 2016. Such a vague heading as Election’2016 was misleading for the electorate, as it hindered the voters from forming an informed opinion of the candidates and their agendas.
The independent media obviously focussed less on organisational details and technicalities of the election procedure. Moreover, they tried to avoid the depersonalised manner of presentation. This was particularly true of www.tut.by and the Narodnaja Vola paper. These media outlets tried to minimise references to generalised notions and depersonalised actors, such as ‘political parties’, a ‘candidate’ or the ‘electorate’.
Following the official registration of candidates, www.tut.by began giving a lot of candidates’ names and information about them. The same can be said of the political parties, which were more or less presented under their official names. The portal had a special video programme Госць.tut.by, which showed interviews of the leaders of the parties participating in the election. Each programme lasted between 35 and 55 minutes, the guests being one to three leaders of both oppositional and pro-governmental parties. The host normally took a critical stance on the parties’ agendas and candidates.
The online information portal featured the candidates predominantly in a neutral tone, with balanced positive and negative assessments.
Unlike www.tut.by, the Narodnaja Vola nationwide paper offered more polarised assessments of the CEC, the government, the present parliament, the president, the polling stations, etc., for the most part showing them in a negative light. At the same time, the paper gave individual candidates mainly neutral coverage.
The ‘thick’ edition of the Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii for a certain monitored time span did not publish any election-related contributions. When it eventually began writing about some candidates, they received only a negligible amount of space and the political parties were only mentioned in passing.
At the initial stage of the parliamentary campaign the regional independent press, such as the Intex-press and the Hazieta Słonimskaja, did not bring the election in the spotlight, either. Later on, however, they quite often featured their local parliamentary candidates, writing about them neutrally.
Assessments of the Election
According to the tradition that has run for decades, journalists working for the state-owned media and their interviewees assessed the election positively.
‘It has been the most liberal election in the past twenty years,’ said the CEC Chairperson Lidzija Jarmošyna in Glavny Efir on Belarus 1 on 11 September, 2016. The Head of the CIS Observer Mission Lebedev described the election as democratic: ‘It was democratic and transparent. Most importantly, it guaranteed the citizens of Belarus the right to free vote.’ (http://www.belta.by/politics/view/lebedev-proshedshie-vybory-stali-svidetelstvom-dvizhenija-belarusi-po-puti-demokratizatsii-209855-2016/).
The SCO Observer Mission described the election as a model to be used by others: ‘What we have seen certainly qualifies as a model parliamentary election.’ (http://www.belta.by/politics/view/missija-nabljudatelej-ot-shos-nazvala-vybory-v-belarusi-obraztsovymi-209817-2016/).
The state-run media were ambiguous in their interpretations of the position taken by the OSCE/ODIHR Mission.
For example, Belarusian officials claimed, ‘We have implemented all the OSCE/ODIHR recommendations. There were 75% of transparent ballot boxes and observers were able to see the vote count. They were standing right at the tables were the ballots were being counted and were allowed to see the procedure at every polling station.’ (Nashi Novosti, 12/09/16.) However, a few days later the state-run online information resource www.belta.by wrote, ‘Lidzija Jarmošyna stated that she had received a photo from Staravilenskaja constituency in Minsk, which was ranked among the most liberal ones, showing the backs of the polling station board counting the ballots.’ (http://www.belta.by/society/view/ermoshina-nedovolna-chlenami-komissij-kotorye-spinami-zakryli-ot-nabljudatelej-protseduru-podscheta-210558-2016/).
‘Belarus has a long way to go to meet the OSCE standards,’ said OSCE PA Ad Hoc Working Group on Belarus Chair Kent Härstedt. ‘The Belarusian authorities have partially fulfilled their promises. There was progress in some areas, while in others the same old practices were still at work… We are disappointed at the slow progress. A lot could have been done this year, but it was not.’ (http://news.tut.by/politics/511771.html).
The Narodnaja Vola independent paper gave voice to independent Belarusian observers. For example, according to Mr Kalakin, one of the coordinators of the campaign ‘For Fair Elections’, ‘The officially announced parliamentary election returns do not correspond to the actual choice made by voters.’
Mr Uchnaloŭ, another coordinator of the campaign ‘For Fair Elections’, said, ‘There was no transparency or objectiveness, the candidates nominated by the oppositional parties faced tough discrimination.’ According to him, the observers recorded ‘numerous instances when polling station boards skewed upwards the numbers of voters who had gone to the polls’ during the early voting.
‘Blatant violations were recorded in all the constituencies,’ confirmed Dzianis Sadoŭski, the coordinator of the campaign ‘The Right to Choose’. (Narodnaja Vola, 13/09/16.)
Last but not least, the independent online information resource www.tut.by quoted one more opinion, ‘US Doubts Fairness of Belarus’ Parliamentary Election’: ‘The United States welcomes the peaceful conduct of the September 11 parliamentary elections in Belarus. We recognize some improvements in the electoral process, and we note that alternative voices will be represented in parliament for the first time in 12 years. Still, the elections fell short of Belarus’ international obligations and commitments to free and fair elections,’ noted John Kirby, Assistant Secretary and Department Spokesperson for the Bureau of Public Affairs. (http://news.tut.by/politics/511849.html).
The mode of election coverage invariably practiced by the state-run media for decades leaves no room for any serious engagement of the voters in electoral campaigns. This premise is supported both by the depersonalised coverage given to candidates and the absence of any sufficient information about their media appearances during campaigns.
When technical and organizational details are accentuated and the key election actors are depersonalised, it results in voters’ detachment from elections and has a negative impact on their political engagement.
Another tangible element of ‘low-key’ elections is the marginalisation of the political parties, particularly those opposing the current regime, who have no voice in the mainstream media. As parliamentary elections overlap with the Olympics, the former are in fact overshadowed by sports news.
As neither the electorate nor the expert community discuss the political parties’ platforms or the candidates’ agendas, elections are depoliticised and deprived of any meaningful political competition.
By contrast with the state-run media, the independent ones have a more productive strategy of election coverage. They have been more oriented towards featuring the candidates and their political forces. However, the influence of the independent media is not strong enough to have any sufficient impact on parliamentary campaigns and their outcomes. The atmosphere of predetermined election results does not only have its impact on the candidates’ activities but also frames the mode of election coverage in the media.
The state-owned and independent media practise very different modes of election coverage, which becomes particularly evident in their assessments of elections after the voting day.
The monitoring covered Panarama (Panorama) news programme on Belarus 1 TV station; Nashi Novosti (Our News) news programme on ONT TV station; Glavny Efir (Most Important Air) weekly programme on Belarus 1 TV station, Radyjofakt (Radiofact) on the 1st Channel of the National Radio; news on Radyjo Stalica radio station, Naviny. Homiel of the Homiel Regional TV and Radio Company, Naviny-rehijon (Regional News) of the Mahiloŭ Regional TV and Radio Company; Viciebski Vieśnik. 7 dzion (Viciebsk Herald. 7 days) weekly programme of the Viciebsk Regional TV and Radio Company; www.tut.by and www.belta.by online media; and such printed media as the Belarus Segodnya (Belarus Today), the Narodnaja Vola (People’s Will), the Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii (YCL Truth in Belarus), the Zarya (Dawn) (Brest) and the Mogilevskaya Pravda (Mahiloŭ Truth); the Hazieta Słonimskaja (Słonim Paper), the Intex-press and Słonimski Vieśnik (Słonim Herald).