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The Coverage of the 2016 Parliamentary Election in the Belarusian Media. Report 2 (25 July – 14 August, 2016)

17.08.2016 Source: BAJ Monitoring Group

See illustrations and methodology in attached PDF

1. Introduction

This report sums up the findings of the second stage of the parliamentary election monitoring, which was conducted between 25 July and 14 August, 2016. It was a time span when the potential candidates’ teams finished collecting voters’ signatures to endorse their nomination, the election commissions checked the validity of the documents submitted by the hopefuls seeking registration and registered them as parliamentary candidates, and campaigning began.

2. Summary

Just like in the previous time span, the Central Election Commission and constituency commissions remained the key newsmakers of the election. Their chairpersons were the main sources of information about the upcoming election, the hopefuls and the political parties standing for parliament. As for the political forces, they had no voice in the state-run media, which gave no essential information whatsoever about them.

The state-owned media most commonly gave depersonalised presentation of the prospective candidates and political parties – a tactic that made their recognition by the electorate highly problematic. The information in the state-run media did not give a clear picture of the political forces’ standing or each party’s support base.

As a rule, the state-owned media referred to the depersonalised ‘opposition’, presenting it in a predominantly negative light.

At the same time the trend towards overtly promoting some pro-governmental organisations became more pronounced. This was particularly true of the Belarusian National Youth Union (BNYU). Unlike the political parties and movements, its members were granted immediate media presence, while the BNYU and its role in the parliamentary campaign were highly praised.

In terms of the amount of airtime, such topics as sport and weather either prevailed over the upcoming election or were commensurate with it in the state-run media during the analysed time span. Quite often sport received much more coverage than the election.

As for the national and international observers, the state-owned media mainly portrayed both of them in a neutral or positive light.

As we have pointed out in the previous report, the independent media, by contrast, endeavoured to avoid depersonalised representation of various election actors. They did not only speak of the political parties standing for parliament or ignoring the election, but also featured some highly recognisable hopefuls who stood good chances of gaining voters’ support in the Belarusian political field. At the same time, some independent printed media did not focus much on election-related issues, either.

 

3. Key Findings

3.1 State-run Media

 

Panarama programme on Belarus 1 TV station allotted about 22% of its election coverage to the Central Election Commission. This actor also received 17% of the election-related airtime on Nashi Novosti on ONT and 23% on Radyjofakt on the 1st Channel of the National Radio. No other monitored actor except the BNYU had anywhere near the same share of airtime. For purposes of comparison: at the previous stage, between 4 July and 24 July, 2016, Nashi Novosti on ONT and Radyjofakt had allotted the CEC 24% and 54% of the total coverage given to all the election actors, respectively.

These findings support our premise that the CEC and constituency commissions remained the key actors of the election and were the main newsmakers for the state-run media. Their decisive role became even more explicit when contrasted with the anonymous presentation of the other election actors. More often than not, reporters made use of such generalised terms as a ‘prospective candidate’, a ‘candidate’s team’, ‘political parties’ and ‘non-governmental organisations’ without giving the names of the hopefuls, political parties or NGOs.

In describing the hopefuls, the state-run media limited themselves to giving the statistics about their gender, social status and age and just said whether they were nominated by the staff of organisations and enterprises or by political parties. 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.’

The officials in charge of organising the election spoke in the same manner. For example, this is what the CEC Chairperson Lidzija Jarmošyna said on Glavny Efir on 7 August, 2016, ‘Just have a closer look, all our parties have increased the numbers of their members nominated to stand for parliament. This means that the parties are not dead, they are functioning. Even those that we normally think of as ‘couch parties’, because one can hardly hear of them between elections, have still made an effort… and nominated a certain number of candidates.’ 

Here is another example of this characteristic style employed by reporters and officials, as presented by a Panarama reporter, All the parties that have declared their willingness to participate in the election commissions in Minsk and have their representatives in the election commissions in Minsk have their representatives there,’ said Pavieł Skałaban, Head of the Chief Department of Ideology of the Minsk City Executive Committee to reporters today. In so doing, he disproved the information that had appeared in some media which claimed that representatives of certain political parties were not included in election commissions.’ (Panarama, Belarus 1, 29/07/2016; bold type by the BAJ).

In line with a long-established tradition, the ‘opposition’ was also presented in a depersonalised manner. However, this actor either received minimal media attention or was ignored altogether. Its activities most commonly did not receive positive assessment.

It is the Belarusian National Youth Union (BNYU) that has become a real central character of the 2016 parliamentary election. It was not so much under the spotlight during the last year’s presidential campaign. The work of this pro-governmental organisation was presented in a positive light and its representatives were given an opportunity to appear on air on Nashi Novosti on ONT on 3 August, 2016, to give just one example, by contrast with their counterparts from 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 is not only mobilising young voters, going to count ballots and observe the count, but is also planning to campaign for their candidates.

On 27 July, 2016 the Słonimski Vieśnik allocated a whole page to an interview with the Słonim deputy of the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly Ała Sopikava, but it did not give any information about the other candidates standing for parliament in this constituency, nor did it say that Ms Sopikava was seeking re-election. This was an instance of covertly campaigning for a pro-governmental candidate while ignoring her contenders. By contrast, the independent Hazieta Słonimskaja published a complete list of all the parliamentary candidates in the local constituency twice.

We noted in the previous report that that 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 they have obtained registration while the Olympics are still in full swing. For this reason, the parliamentary campaign is going to overlap with Olympic TV broadcasts. As a result, the respective proportions of the airtime given to sport and the election in the nationwide electronic media during the monitored time span looked as follows: on Glavny Efir – 18% v 1.3%, on Panarama – 35% v 2.2%, on Nashi Novosti – 16% v 2.5% and on Radyjofakt – 10.5% v 3.5%. The tension of the competitions in Rio de Janeiro has so far been much higher than that of the parliamentary race in Belarus.

The parliamentary campaign in Belarus also overlaps with the presidential race in the USA. Some programmes of the Belarusian national TV gave a lot of their attention to the latter. For example, Glavny Efir reported on Donald Trump’s campaign for 5’ 7’’ on 24 July, 2016, whereas the parliamentary election got a meagre three-second mention in passing. The next Glavny Efir on 31 July, 2016 covered Hillary Clinton’s campaign for 11’ 46’’, while the parliamentary election in Belarus received 6’ 27’’, i.e. nearly twice less airtime.

Panarama on Belarus 1 also reported on the US presidential campaign in some of its news broadcasts, for example, on 28 July, 2016 and even covered the referendum in Thailand on 1 August, 2016, but these news broadcasts completely ignored the Belarusian parliamentary election. Panarama said nothing on the subject on 25, 27 and 30 July, 2016, either. Election-related issues were conspicuous by their absence in some other issues of the monitored programmes and papers.

The state-run media covered the CIS observer mission and its work in a positive or neutral light. They also gave mainly neutral or positive coverage to the western observer missions of the PACE and the OSCE/ODIHR, though there were some instances of negative assessment of their work. In the 2015 presidential campaign, some journalists were convinced that the western observers were biased in their assessment of the election in Belarus. This time a reporter claimed, for instance, that ‘the CIS mission’s western counterparts attempt to impose their own rules and criticise some standards and criteria that guide the CIS mission in election monitoring’. (Radyjofakt, 08/08/2016.)

The national observers received less media attention, but they were also presented in a neutral or positive light.

3.2 Independent Media

Unlike their state-run counterparts, the independent media gave markedly less attention to the organisational and procedural aspects of the election. On the contrary, they focussed more on the political parties and movements taking part in the election. For example, www.tut.by allotted 6% of its total space given to the election actors to ‘Tell the Truth!’ campaign, 2.4% to the United Civic Party, 1.9% to the movement ‘For Freedom’, 1.7% to the Belarusian Christian Democracy, 1.2% to the BPF Party, etc.

The Narodnaja Vola paper tried to avoid such depersonalised terms as a ‘potential candidate’ or a ‘candidate’s team’, too.

The regional independent press, such as the Intex-press and the Hazieta Słonimskaja gave little coverage to election-related issues.

The Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii did not publish anything on the subject of the upcoming election.

4.    Conclusions

The depersonalised and anonymous presentation of the key actors in the election, i.e. the political forces and individuals supported by voters does anything but bring them in the spotlight. A situation in which the state-owned media make them unrecognisable by no means helps the electorate make a well-informed choice. When the agendas and positions of different political parties are presented in such a manner that they all appear to look the same, it deprives all political competition between them of any meaningfulness in the eyes of the voters.

Until candidates are registered they certainly cannot launch their campaigns. At the same time, each prospective candidate is at least entitled to their name, a brief description of their political affiliation or its absence and other neutral media information.

When the media use election commissions and their spokespersons as the main source of information about the upcoming election, it undermines the value of reporting. Moreover, such practices result in an oversimplified picture of the election. The other side of the excessive focus on procedural and organisational issues is the inevitable marginalisation of the key election actors, such as political forces and individuals standing for parliament.

When monitoring the 2015 presidential campaign, we pointed out that the mode of its coverage in the state-owned media aimed to promote just one runner, namely the incumbent. For this reason, ‘In the long run, this mode invariably undermines the political importance of elections and hinders competition between political ideas and agendas, so the election turns into a ‘low-key’ and ‘easy’ event. As opponents of the current regime are marginalised, the voting becomes a meaningless ritual, in which ‘voters perform their honorary public duty,’ to quote an old Soviet cliché,’ we concluded in 2015. A similar framework is manifest in the 2016 parliamentary election. The only difference is that this time the state-run media favour pro-governmental candidates and the organisations supporting them.

The independent media, in their turn, may have given a more varied coverage of the upcoming election and its key actors, but they did not prioritise the parliamentary campaign. This could testify to its marginal importance in the political field, at least at the present stage of our monitoring.

This pro-governmental organisation received 17% of the total airtime allotted to all the monitored election actors on Radyjofakt.

While interviewing the CEC Chairperson Lidzija Jarmošyna on 13 September, 2015, the Glavny Efir presenter asked her the following question concerning the OSCE/ODIHR and PACE observers, ‘Do you have an impression that their reports have already been written a long time before the election, as was the case earlier?’

For purposes of comparison: state-owned www.belta.by gave 0.5% of the total coverage of the election actors to ‘Tell the Truth!’ campaign, 0.5% to the United Civic Party, 0.5% to the BPF Party and some other political forces.

 

The Coverage of the 2016 Parliamentary Election in the Belarusian Media. Report 1 (4–24 July, 2016)

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