On November 14, the Belarusian Association of Journalists presented the second stage of its Monitoring of the Media Coverage of the Parliamentary Elections-2019.
Belarusian Association of Journalists
Coverage of the 2019 Parliamentary Elections in Belarusian Media
(19 October – 11 November 2019)
This report summarises the findings of the second stage of the monitoring.
It was the time span when nominees were registered as candidates and began campaigning. They were given the opportunity to address voters via TV and the radio, as well as have their programmes printed in the press.
2. Key Findings
There were hardly any changes in the way the monitored state-run media covered the upcoming election. They still made a point of focusing on technicalities and giving depersonalised information, depoliticising the election and marginalising its key actors.
All candidates had equal opportunities to appear in the media. However, their appearances on air had not been publicised in advance. TV and radio guides did not inform voters about the exact day and time when their parliamentary hopefuls were to appear 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.
The monitored state-run media did not host any shows where members of political parties standing for parliament or their supporters could debate on their candidates’ political agendas or simply discuss how the campaign was being held.
Furthermore, any range of opinions on social or political matters was conspicuous by its absence in these media, as their journalists gave voice to only one stance, which they sided with.
Although the independent media published a much wider spectrum of opinions, including criticisms, they could not meaningfully compete with their state-operated counterparts in election coverage.
Media contributions to both state-run and independent outlets could not lead to a conclusion that the electorate took any active interest in the upcoming election.
3. Facts and Data
3.1 State-run media
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 monitored state-run electronic and print media did not provide any information that could help the electorate get an idea of different political forces’ standing or political parties’ visions of how the nation’s most burning problems should be solved;
– although these media gave voice to potential voters in the form of vox populi, the reporters, judging by the replies, did not ask any clearly political questions;
– the state-run media shaped an image of the would-be parliament mainly not in connection with its legislative and political role but through formal generalised profiles of a would-be MP, i.e. their age, gender, marital status, earlier experience of parliamentary work and even their personality traits.
Last but not least, the quantitative data assembled at this monitoring stage, do not indicate that election-related topics were among priorities in media coverage.
For example, the Panarama daily news on Belarus 1 gave only 1.6% of its total airtime to election-related issues, which indicates a drop from 2.7% at the previous monitoring stage.
For purposes of comparison: weather forecast and sports took up 7% and 11% of the Panarama total airtime, respectively. Nashi Novosti on ONT left the upcoming election out of the spotlight even more markedly, allotting it a mere 1% of its airtime.
Radyjofakt on the First National Channel of the Belarusian Radio cut down its election coverage from 5% to 2% of the total airtime.
The same trend was manifest in the state-run papers. A tell-tale sign: several issues of the SB – Belarus Segodnya, which has the highest circulation among nationwide papers, did not feature any election-related contributions at all.
This overall lack-lustre coverage only emphasised a positive portrayal of pro-governmental organisations such as the Belarusian National Youth Union (BNYU), the Belarus Trade Unions Federation (BTUF) and the Belaya Rus’ (White Rus’), which have their candidates running for parliament and are participating in election observation. (See the charts for visual representation of the quantitative data showing the coverage given to these and other monitored actors.)
During this stage of monitoring, state-run media quite actively discussed the profile of a would-be parliamentarian. Below, we offer some typical quotes.
On 23 October ONT launched a new project, ObyektivNo. In its first issue, the host 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 diverts the focus from political agendas and ideas to personality traits.
Next comes a trailer for a report that went on air in Radyjofakt on 6 November: ‘A perfect deputy profile. The Youth Union encourages voters to speak about the most important features in the people’s representative.’
Finally, the ObyektivNo host wondered on 6 November, ‘I imagine one of our viewers going to the polls on 17 November. He sees – how can he tell a blatherskite from… someone who is a competent professional that can meet the requirements for the status of parliamentarian?’
The scenario envisaged by the host is actually evidence of the fact that some ten days before the polling day, a majority of voters knew nothing about the parliamentary hopefuls or their programmes, or those of the political parties participating in the election, for that matter.
3.2 Independent Media
There were undoubtedly a number of striking differences in the way independent media covered the upcoming election.
Firstly, they avoided presenting election actors anonymously;
secondly, they gave voice to key actors, including both opposition and non-opposition candidates and political figures;
thirdly, the monitored independent media, with the exception of the Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii, markedly increased their election coverage;
fourthly, they sought to present a wide range of opinions and assessments regarding the upcoming election;
fifthly, they offered political analyses and criticisms of the government, the CEC and the way the election was organised;
sixthly, they voiced the wide range of voters’ opinions and political views, which were absent from the state-run media.
Here are some figures and facts.
tut.by information portal presented 71 candidates, giving their names. For purposes of comparison, during the previous stage, 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 upcoming election.
The Narodnaja Volia paper ‘spoke’ to several opposition candidates, highlighted certain problems in campaigning and criticised the government.
Even though independent naviny.by is 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 meets 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.
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 upcoming election.
Although campaigning was technically at its peak, the key actors, such as political parties and most of the parliamentary hopefuls, remained invisible to the electorate.
Only a few pro-governmental organisations were recognisable in state-run media. As for opponents of the government, their positions were not aired in the state-owned media. They received only negative coverage, if any at all.
By contrast, independent media were determined to present a wide spectrum of candidates with their political beliefs and parties. In doing so, these media helped citizens who take an interest in politics and are going to vote, to make an informed choice.
However, these media did 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.
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.