The Coverage of the 2016 Parliamentary Election in the Belarusian Media. Report 3 (15 August – 6 September 2016)

07.09.2016 Source: BAJ Monitoring Group

See illustrations in attached PDF

1. Introduction

This report gives an overview of the third stage of the monitoring, which lasted from 15 August until 6 September, 2016. It was the time span when parliamentary candidates were running their campaigns.

2. Summary

The monitored stage was not marked by any essential changes in the traditional election coverage model practiced by the state-owned media. Here are its key characteristics:

  • It was the CEC and other election commissions that remained the dominant figures of the election field as presented in the state-owned 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-run media presented the election commissions as the most competent source of information about the upcoming election.
  • Although the candidates were able to address the electorate on TV and on the radio, the state-owned printed and electronic media practically did not advertise 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 major state-run media’s websites did not offer any precise information on the date and time of the candidates’ broadcasts.
  • Just like at the previous stages, the news programmes kept to their 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.
  • Voters were not given any voice. They were typically presented in a depersonalised manner.
  • At this stage, the state-owned media focussed much more on both OSCE/ODIHR and CIS observers.
  • At the same time, technicalities and organisational details of the election process dominated the monitored media.
  • When the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro were over, it entailed neither a fall in the airtime given to sports nor an upsurge in election-related issues.
  • At this stage, the independent media offered a different picture of the campaign, focussing much more on the candidates and political parties than their state-run counterparts did.

3. Key Findings

State-owned Media

In terms of the share of airtime and space, the CEC remained in the lead alongside the regional election commissions. It received 16% of airtime given to all the monitored election actors in Panarama on Belarus 1 and 18% in Nashi Novosti on ONT. It is the regional election commissions that featured most prominently in 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, which gave them respectively 31% and 25% of the total airtime allotted to all the election actors. As for the presidential paper Belarus Segodnya, it allocated just a slightly higher proportion of its space to the ‘depersonalised candidate’ than to the CEC, regional commissions and polling station boards, namely 29.4% and 29.2%, respectively.

Just like at the previous stages, the election commissions were often assessed in a positive key. For example, ‘We would like to point out,’ said the spokesman of the CIS Observer Mission Tashibaev during the second monitored time span (25 July – 14 August, 2016), ‘how well-trained the heads of the constituency commissions are and what high professional standards the heads of the polling station boards ensure.’ (Radyjofakt, 02/08/16.) A few weeks later, a reporter of the same programme claimed that the CIS observer Yury Andreev had ‘given credit to the election commissions for their high professional skills’. (Radyjofakt, 24/08/16.)

The CEC Chairperson Jarmošyna said, ‘I think we are moving towards more and more perfection in holding elections, and they are becoming more and more civilised.’ (Panarama, Belarus 1, 23/08/16.) Meanwhile, Mr Darhiel, Chairperson of polling station board no. 2 in Barysaŭ spoke highly of the festive atmosphere permeating the campaign, ‘The election is being held wonderfully, so it is a real joy.’ (Radyjofakt, 01/09/16.)

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 being 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 general heading. The TV guide did not give any information about 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 with inconspicuous ‘Debates’. Neither this specific type of infographics nor the heading itself, which encompassed the candidates’ appearances on Belarus 3, facilitated perception of the information by voters.

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.)

Finally, 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 is misleading for the electorate, as it hinders the voters from forming an informed opinion of the candidates and their agendas.

At the same time, the monitored state-owned media were abundant in all kinds of expert opinions and covert hints as to the ‘right’ candidates. 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.’

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…”’  It is evident that this proposal limits the prospective parliamentarians’ status as lawmakers; moreover, it undermines the principle of the division of powers in Belarus.

When the candidates began campaigning, it did not result in an increase in the share of airtime allocated to them in the monitored programmes. Moreover, the state-owned media continued to offer general and depersonalised information about the candidates, giving their collective profile, political affiliation, social background and the number of contenders for one seat in parliament. For instance, www.belta.by during this time span allocated to the ‘depersonalised candidate’ 26% of its space given to all the monitored election actors.

The political parties were either presented as the eponymous depersonalised actor, receiving no more than 1% of election-related airtime in Radyjofakt and Nashi Novosti on ONT, or mentioned in passing, getting from 0.01% to 0.06% of space allotted to all the monitored election actors on www.belta.by.

Both western observers and their CIS counterparts received quite a lot of media attention, i.e. about 10% or slightly more. They were portrayed in a predominantly neutral or positive light. The national observers also got a certain amount of media coverage, though not as much as the former.

The monitored news programmes continued to feature sporting events prominently. Even though the Olympics were over, the proportion of coverage given to sports and the election did not undergo any sufficient changes. During the previous monitored time span between 25 July and 14 August their respective shares were 35% v 2.2% in Panarama, 16% v 2.5% in Nashi Novosti on ONT, and 10.5% v 3.5% in Radyjofakt. This time, the corresponding figures were as follows: 30% v 2.9% in Panarama, 19% v 1.1% in Nashi Novosti on ONT, and about 13% v 6% in Radyjofakt.

3 Independent Media

We pointed out in our previous report that the independent media were using a different model of election coverage. 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 has a special video programme Госць.tut.by, which shows interviews of the leaders of the parties participating in the election. Each programme lasts from 35 to 55 minutes, the guests being one to three leaders of both oppositional and pro-governmental parties. The host normally takes a critical stance on the parties’ agendas and candidates.

At this stage, the monitored regional independent press, such as the Intex-press and the Hazieta Słonimskaja, showed much more interest in the parliamentary campaign, featuring individual candidates and adhering to a neutral manner of presentation.

The Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii also wrote about the campaign and some candidates in a neutral light and mentioned some of the political parties standing for parliament.

4. Conclusions

The mode of election coverage practiced by the state-run media leaves no room for any serious engagement of the voters in the campaign. This premise is supported both by the depersonalised coverage given to the candidates and the absence of any sufficient information about their media appearances during the campaign.

When technical and organizational details are accentuated and the key election actors are depersonalised, it results in the voters’ detachment from the election and has a negative impact on their engagement in the campaign.

Another tangible element of a ‘low-key’ election is the marginalisation of the political parties, particularly those opposing the current regime, who have no voice in the mainstream media.

As neither the electorate nor the expert community discuss the political parties’ platforms or the candidates’ agendas, the election is depoliticised and deprived of any meaningful political competition. This is a major hindrance to the development of the Belarusian political system.

By contrast with the state-run media, the independent ones have a more productive strategy of election coverage. However, their influence is not strong enough to have any sufficient impact on the parliamentary campaign and its outcome.

For purposes of comparison: during the 2012 parliamentary election, the candidates’ speeches were televised at the same time, while the radio addresses were broadcast from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

A tell-tale fact: when some of the candidates uploaded their media appearances on the Internet, this was how the Belarusian TV and Radio Company reacted, ‘Certain participants in the campaign even went so far as to decide to promote themselves at the expense of our media holding by uploading their TV appearances, professionally recorded by the Belarusian TV employees, on the Internet, without asking permission from the proprietor of the video materials, namely the Belarusian National TV and Radio Company,  and then went on to blame it for blocking the illegally uploaded content.’ (http://naviny.by/new/20160819/1471612696-bt-vozmushcheno-razmeshcheniem-...).