The report summarises the findings of the monitoring of the 2019 parliamentary election coverage in Belarusian media.
Belarusian Association of Journalists
Coverage of the 2019 Parliamentary Elections in Belarusian Media
(16 September — 26 November 2019)
The report summarises the findings of the monitoring of the 2019 parliamentary election coverage in Belarusian media.
- Key Findings
- Facts and Data
- State-run Media
- Direct Access
- Independent Media
- Assessments of the Election
- 1. Charts
- 2. Monitoring Methodology
The monitoring aimed:
– to draw journalists’ attention to their duty to provide unbiased and comprehensive information about the election process, candidates’ agendas, as well as to present their supporters’ and opponents’ opinions;
– to find out to what extent media contributions met the internationally recognised principles and standards of election coverage and ethics in journalism;
– and to reveal the overall nature of election coverage, assessing the roles played by state-run and independent media in this process, on the basis of qualitative and quantitative analysis.
The monitoring covered fourteen Belarusian media, both state-run and independent, electronic and printed, nationwide and regional.
The monitoring was conducted by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).
2. Key Findings
Throughout the election, the state-run media focused their attention mainly on how the CEC and other election commissions were working and how the election process was being organised. These media’s priorities included the arrival of observers, the country leader’s opinions about the future composition of parliament, and the role the executive played in the campaign. During the final week of campaigning, the state-run media actively promoted early voting.
As the state-run media put the spotlight on election technicalities, which were essentially insignificant, this prevented the electorate from forming an opinion about the nation’s most burning problems, different political forces’ standing and their visions of possible solutions to these problems.
The state-run media did not offer a wide range of opinions, presenting one-sided information. Reporters only gave voice to the official stance, which they sided with. Guest experts’ opinions ignored criticisms of the current regime and alternative views held by voters and government opponents.
A number of state-run outlets were obliged to provide equal media access to all candidates. However, their media appearances were not publicised in advance. TV and radio guides did not inform voters on the exact date and time when their parliamentary hopefuls were to go on air.
Belarus 3 TV station, which reserved airtime for most of the candidates, does not stand very high in media ratings. It is a Belarusian version of a TV station featuring culture, whose audience is not focused on politics. The parliamentary hopefuls’ radio addresses were broadcast at off-peak slots, from 7.00 a.m. to 7.30 a.m., when a vast majority of voters were preparing to go to work or commuting.
Thus, it was evident that the state-run media tended to marginalise key actors of the parliamentary election, such as political parties and candidates. Drawing attention to background technical details did not encourage the voters to take an active part in the election.
By contrast, the independent media published a much wider spectrum of opinions and made a number of parliamentary hopefuls more recognisable when campaigning was at its peak. However, the independent media could not meaningfully compete with their state-operated counterparts in election coverage.
The state-run and independent media noticeably differed in their assessments of the election following the voting day.
3. Facts and Data
3.1 State-run media
Throughout the election process, election-related issues were not on the list of priorities. Except for the week in the run-up to the polling day on 17 November 2019, the share of election coverage in the electronic state-run media considerably lagged behind such topics as sport and weather forecast.
For example, the final quantitative data show that the Panarama news programme on Belarus 1 TV station gave the election 4% of its total air time, while weather accounted for 7% and sport made up 11%. The Nashi Novosti on ONT allotted to the election, weather, and sport 4%, 7% and 7% of the air time, respectively. The final figures for the Radyjofakt on the First National Channel of the Belarusian Radio are as follows: election coverage – 5%, weather – 6%, and sport – 8.5%.
During the week in the run-up to the election these media dramatically increased their election coverage. For example, it rose to 13% in the Radijofakt in the final week. However, this did not change the general picture, as election-related issues still did not come top.
The noticeable increase in coverage can be attributed to the beginning of early voting, when the state-run media actively urged the electorate to go to the polls. They pushed voters to follow the example of Belarusian sports and entertainment celebrities who had voted early.
The rise in election coverage in the run-up to the election clearly did not include political parties, parliamentary hopefuls and their addresses to voters. The key actors were the electorate, election commissions, local authorities and pro-governmental organisations, such as the Belarus Trade Unions Federation (BTUF) and the Belarusian National Youth Union (BNYU), which had their candidates standing for parliament and were participating in election observation.
It is important that the electorate was mainly presented in a depersonalised manner, i.e. instead of giving voice to voters themselves, reporters described them indirectly. For example, in the Naviny rehijona, broadcast by Mahilioŭ TV and Radio Company, real voters had voice for 43 sec only, while the overall airtime given to them made up 6 min 45 sec.
If we look at the aggregated monitoring data, it becomes evident that anonymous and depersonalised presentation of the electorate in the electronic media typically exceeded voices of real voters twofold, threefold or even more.
For many voters, the parliamentary election had nothing to do with a political campaign. This was evident, among other things, from interviews with some of them. ‘I voted for a man who projects a very positive image, in my opinion. I like his profession and his age,’ said an interviewee in the Panarama news on Belarus 1 on 15 November 2019. Any informed political choice was certainly out of the question.
A telltale sign: a very short time before early voting began, the state-run media quite actively discussed the profile of a would-be parliamentarian.
A trailer for a report that went on air in Radyjofakt on 6 November said, ‘The Youth Union encourages voters to speak about the most important features in the people’s representative.’ These important features included the ones mentioned by the voter who is quoted above.
On 23 October the host of ObyektivNo, a new project launched by ONT, asked the audience, ‘Have you decided on the traits a candidate should possess so that you can cast your ballot for him?’
It is evident that the question diverted the focus from political agendas and ideas to personality traits.
The monitoring data shows that the state-run electronic and print media adhered to their traditional model of election coverage. In particular, they depoliticised the election, marginalised its key actors, did not cover any competition of political ideas or alternatives, presented political actors anonymously, and offered one-sided coverage of the election, favouring pro-governmental organisations, such as the BNYU, the BTUF and the Belaya Rus’ (White Rus’) with their candidates.
The tendency towards depoliticising the election and pushing its key actors in the background was clearly visible, among other things, during the peak of campaigning, when candidates appeared on air.
3.2 Direct Access
Candidates’ media appearances and debates are undoubtedly the core of campaigning. A number of state-run outlets were obliged to provide equal media access to all candidates.
Each candidate had 5 minutes to address their voters. The media appearances were broadcast on TV at prime time, from 7.00 p.m. to 8.40 p.m., with the exception of 22 and 29 October, when election coverage on Belarus 3 was limited to thirty minutes, from 7.00 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. The same TV station also broadcast debates at the same time. Each candidate’s active contribution to the debates could not exceed 5 minutes. In addition, they could have their agendas printed in state-run papers.
Technically, the state-run media played a role in campaigning.
However, they actually never focused on competing ideas or made an effort to disseminate information about agendas of the candidates or political parties standing for parliament. Moreover, they were instrumental in restricting and even blocking political activities. This claim is substantiated by the following facts:
– the candidates’ appearances on TV and the radio were not uploaded to the TV and radio stations’ websites or YouTube channels, in contrast with many other items;
– TV and radio guides did not give the candidates’ names or exact times of their addresses to voters. The Belarus 3 TV guide said nothing more than ‘The 2019 parliamentary election’. The same was true about the debates. The STV TV guide simply said, ‘The 2019 parliamentary election. Debates’;
– the candidates appeared on TV and radio stations that do not stand very high in media ratings. In the same vein, the parliamentary hopefuls’ agendas were published in nationwide papers with not very high circulations;
– the state-run media’s websites gave virtually no information about the date and time when each particular candidate was to appear on air;
--last but not least, the state-run media did not guarantee each candidate equal direct access. In total, there were ten instances when they arbitrarily refused to broadcast or publish parliamentary hopefuls' addresses to voters.
3.3 Independent Media
There were undoubtedly a number of striking differences in the way independent media covered the parliamentary election.
Firstly, they avoided presenting election actors anonymously or focusing on technicalities.
Secondly, they gave voice to key actors, including both opposition and non-opposition candidates and political figures.
Thirdly, in the run-up to the election, the monitored independent media markedly increased their election coverage, particularly featuring the candidates as the key actors.
Fourthly, they sought to present a wide range of opinions and assessments regarding the election.
Fifthly, they offered political analyses and criticisms of the government, the CEC and the way the election was organised.
Sixthly, they voiced a wide range of voters’ opinions and political views, which were absent from the state-run media.
Here are some figures and facts.
Throughout the monitored period, tut.by information portal presented 90 candidates, giving their names. For purposes of comparison, during the first stage, i.e. 16 Spetember – 18 October 2019, there were only seven candidates named. Information aimed at the electorate dramatically increased. tut.by featured some election-related analytical contributions. There were also videos about the election.
The Narodnaja Volia paper ‘spoke’ to several opposition candidates, highlighted certain problems with the election and criticised the government.
Even though independent naviny.by was not on the list of the monitored media this time, we cannot help praising its skilful project Debates’2019 (https://naviny.by/plot/debaty-2019), which met the highest professional standards, giving voice to the widest spectrum of candidates, both partisan and those with no party affiliation, pro-governmental and pro-opposition.
4. Assessments of the Election
The state-run and independent media diverged considerably, sometimes even radically, in their assessments of the voter turnout, voting procedure, ballot count, election outcome and election as a whole.
The state-run media offered positive assessments exclusively, based on the opinions of CIS observers and the SCO Observation Mission in Minsk. For instance, BelTA quoted Mr Lebedev, the Head of the CIS Observation Mission, saying that the election ‘was competitive, open, free and transparent’. (https://www.belta.by/politics/view/vybory-v-belarusi-proshli-na-konkurentnoj-osnove-otkryto-i-glasno-missija-sng-369623-2019/)
Mr Xie Xiaoyong, the Head of the SCO Observation Mission, expressed the same opinion, ‘The Mission recognises the election as transparent, credible, and democratic.’ (https://www.belta.by/politics/view/missija-shos-priznaet-parlamentskie-vybory-v-belarusi-prozrachnymi-i-demokratichnymi-369627-2019/ )
The independent media, in their turn, offered both the opinions quoted above and those expressing different assessments, first and foremost aired by the OSCE/ODIHR Observation Mission. For instance, tut.by said, ‘Margareta Cederfelt, the OSCE Special Coordinator, said that the election took place in a peaceful atmosphere, but did not meet important international standards for democratic elections.
‘We have noticed that basic freedoms of expression, assembly and association were generally ignored. In addition, we have observed that a large number of candidates applied for participation in the election, but their participation was restricted. These elections have demonstrated an overall lack of respect for democratic commitments.’ (https://news.tut.by/economics/661709.html)
The independent media also substantiated their assessments with evidence from national observers.
For example, tut.by also cited the Prava Vybaru (the Right to Elect) campaign, ‘According to Prava Vybaru observers, in five out of nine constituencies where they were present, the elections were invalid due to low voter turnout. The most significant discrepancy between the official turnout figures and those recorded by the observers was 35%, documented at Mahilioŭ-Lieninski Constituency No. 84.’ (https://news.tut.by/economics/661680.html).
The state-run media did not quote such assessments. Instead, they criticised the conclusions made by the OSCE/ODIHR Mission and testimonies by independent Belarusian observers. Here are some examples of these criticisms.
BelTA State Information Agency published the official reaction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to the OSCE/ODIHR conclusions, which claimed that they were grounded in subjective biases. ‘What can be expected from heads of observation missions who speak negatively of Belarus and publish insulting articles about this country even before they have arrived here?’ said an MFA spokesperson. (https://www.belta.by/politics/view/mid-belarusi-sozhaleem-chto-missii-obse-ne-udalos-polnostjju-otojti-ot-politizirovannyh-otsenok-369778-2019/ ).
BelTA also quoted Mr Ryhor Rapota, the State Secretary of the Russia – Belarus Union State, ‘OSCE observers assess elections based on their own vision of the world.’ (https://www.belta.by/politics/view/rapota-nabljudateli-ot-obse-dajut-otsenki-vyboram-ishodja-iz-svoego-mirooschuschenija-369994-2019/).
Independent Belarusian observers were slammed even more ruthlessly. ‘Even during early voting, some online resources, instigated by an “observer” who broke every rule imaginable, bullied a young voter from Brest, whose only fault was that she had gone to the polls,’ said Mikalaj Vosipaŭ in All Shades of Black, published in the presidential outlet SB. Belarus Segodnya on 20 November 2019. (The incident in question involved an alleged attempt at ballot-box stuffing, recorded by an observer.)
On 23 October one of the guests in the studio of ObyektivNo on ONT described independent Belarusian observers as people ‘who behaved nonsensically, to put it mildly’.
Election coverage in the state-run media was marked by the absence of any meaningful conflict, clashes of ideas or competition between political agendas and platforms. They did not turn the spotlight on the election.
Even at the peak of campaigning, the key actors, such as political parties and a majority of candidates, remained invisible to voters.
Only a few pro-governmental organisations were recognisable in the state-run media. As for opponents of the government, their positions were not aired in the state-owned media. They received only negative and anonymous coverage, if any at all.
These media in fact did not intend to engage the electorate in making a political choice by voting for would-be parliamentarians.
By contrast, the independent media facilitated voters’ informed choice by introducing a wide range of candidates with their political stances, as well as parties they were affiliated with.
However, these media did not and could not have an essential influence on the campaign, as it is the state-run electronic and print media that continue to shape and control the political agenda in the country’s media field.
The state-run and independent media gave essentially divergent assessments of the election. More often than not, they were even opposite. So were their interpretations of the standards of journalism in election coverage.
The documents that form the basis for the qualitative analysis are The Code of Ethics in Journalism (adopted at the BAJ Congress in 2006); The Declaration of Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism; Election Coverage in Media (Belarus), 2016 edition; and International standards of election coverage in media (Legal and ethical standards, recommendations to the media and individual reporters).
For further details, see: Monitoring Methodology (Appendix 2).
It should be noted that the state-run media account for the larger part of the list, as they dominate the country’s media field and in fact make part of the current regime’s ideological structure. The electronic media include the Panarama news programme on Belarus 1 TV station, the Nashi Novosti news on ONT, the Glavny Efir weekly programme on Belarus 1, the Kontury weekly programme on ONT; the Radyjofakt radio programme on the First National Channel of the Belarusian Radio, and Naviny rehijona, broadcast by Mahilioŭ TV and Radio Company. The online resources include www.tut.by and www.belta.by. The print media are the SB. Belarus Segodnia, the Narodnaja Volia, the Komsomolskaya Prada v Belorussii, the Zviazda, the Minskaja Praŭda, and the Mahilioŭskaja Praŭda.
Official information about the media designated to broadcast candidates’ addresses to voters is available at: https://minsknews.by/kto-voshel-v-sostav-nablyudatelnogo-soveta-po-kontrolyu-za-predvybornoj-agitacziej-v-smi/ and http://rec.gov.by/sites/default/files/pdf/2019/pred_prog.pdf
Candidates’ appearances in electronic and printed media were not monitored.