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Monitoring: The Coverage of the 2015 Presidential Election in the Belarusian Media (21 September – 4 October, 2015)

07.10.2015 Source: Monitoring Group of the Belarusian Association of Journalists

 

Report No. 3
07 October, 2015
Minsk, Belarus

Introduction
Executive Summary
Major Findings
State-owned Media
Direct Access
Campaigning for One Candidate
Preliminary Assessment of the Election Process
Independent Media
Conclusions

1. Introduction

The presidential hopefuls went on campaigning during the monitored time span. They finished giving their speeches on the radio and TV, and participated in televised debates.

2. Executive summary

The presidential campaign may have formally reached its peak, but it can hardly be regarded as a contest between different political ideas and visions or as a true ‘presidential race’ with competing runners. The state-owned media gave more attention to the election. This, however, did not change the actual shares of air time and space allocated to the contenders, as the incumbent continued to dominate the information field.

No meaningful competition between the candidates entailed a lack of intrigue or suspense in the way both state-owned and independent media were covering the election.

The state-owned media quoted preliminary assessment of the election as a peaceful and conflict-free process.

The independent media focussed on the presidential hopefuls’ personalities and their agendas. Of all the contenders opposing the incumbent, Ms Karatkievič found herself in the spotlight of media attention, mainly because of a clash in the opposition around giving or withdrawing her endorsement.

3. Major Findings

3.1 The State-owned Media

The state-owned electronic media increased the proportion of election-related subjects, as compared to the previous monitored period. For example, Panarama news programme on Belarus 1 TV station gave the upcoming election 10% of its total air time (6% in the previous time span), while the weather forecast received 2,6% of coverage (3% in the previous period) and sports news made up 22% of the total air time (17% during the previous time span). Similarly, Nashi Novosti on ONT TV station, Radyjofakt on the 1st Channel of the National Radio and the other monitored electronic media began to feature the upcoming election more prominently.

The same trend could be traced in the state-owned printed media. For example, the Belarus Segodnia gave Taćciana Karatkievič and Siarhiej Hajdukievič about three times as much space as in the previous monitored time span.

The general trend towards more coverage of the presidential candidates and the election did not, however, significantly change the percentage of air time and space given to the major election actors.

Mr Lukašenka, the incumbent seeking re-election, remained the dominant public figure in the state-owned Belarusian media. For example, he received almost 64% of the total election coverage in Glavny Efir on Belarus 1 and slightly less in Panarama on Belarus 1.

The assessment of the president’s personality and his work did not undergo any changes, as the state-owned media went on presenting him for the most part in a positive light.

The presidential contenders may have received more attention from some state-owned media in absolute terms, but they stood no chance of catching up with the incumbent. For example, Nashi Novosti on ONT gave 65% of all the election actors’ coverage to Mr Lukašenka, 4% to Ms Karatkievič, and 3% to both Mr Hajdukievič and Mr Ulachovič. We did not trace any noticeable differences in the amount of air time and space the presidential runners received in the other state-owned media.

At the same time, a bit less air time and space was given to the CEC, while the share of observers slightly went up. The latter were presented in a predominantly positive light. However, as the OSCE/ODIHR mission produced its first intermediate report, the state-owned media also began giving its observers their negative assessments.

The state-owned media stuck to their tactic of ignoring the opposition.

3.2 Direct Access

Just like at the previous stage of campaigning, the state-owned printed and electronic media did not advertise the presidential hopefuls’ addresses to the electorate. TV guides presented them simply as Speeches of Candidates for Presidency of the Republic of Belarus, without giving their names. Neither did the TV guides give the names of the candidates who took part in the televised debate on 3 October. Meanwhile, the same TV guide mentioned the names of the characters of a Russian crime series Ulitsy razbitykh fonarey (The Streets of Smashed Lamps): ‘Two people who lived in the same block of flats, businessman Semyonov and PT teacher Kopeykin, are killed.’

One of the presidential runners, namely the incumbent, refused to address the voters or to participate in the debates. During his visit to Belarusian Metal Works in Žlobin Mr Lukašenka said by way of explaining his decision, ‘Well, there’s nothing new about it, you know. I appear on TV nearly every day. It’s not a problem… I believe I must somehow respond to processes that are under way in real life. Why should I sit on the TV screen [sic! – translator’s note] and tell you what our education and health care will be like?  He who follows me [sic! – translator’s note] and my policies, he knows my attitude very well.’ (Glavny Efir on Belarus 1, 27/09/2015.)

3.3 Campaigning for One Candidate

We have already pointed out in our reports that the special TV series called Belarus: the 21st Century in Glavny Efir on Belarus 1 presented the incumbent in a positive and highly positive light. The two decades of his presidency were shown as Belarus’ greatest success story. The series claims the title of a historical documentary and has nothing to do with how the country leader is performing his current office duties. Nor does it mark any important event in Belarus’ recent history.

Panarama on Belarus 1 has been showing special items under the heading We Did It Together for over a month already. They present footage of cultural, social, medical, administrative and sports facilities mushrooming all over Belarus. These items either directly or by their general context refer to Mr Lukašenka’s twenty years’ term in office.

The Naša Niva (23/09/2015) counted how often the presidential candidates used certain key words in their programmes. ‘Aliaksandr Lukašenka’s most frequent words are “we/us”,’ says the weekly. ‘They are used 53 times. Then comes “Belarus” (27 times).’ It has to be pointed out that another key word is “TOGETHER”, which is written in capitals: ‘TOGETHER we have established independent Belarus! TOGETHER we will overcome all hardships! TOGETHER we will build a happy and thriving country!’

Another telltale sign is that a nationwide campaign called We Are Together has been under way for the last few months. It offers people living in different towns and cities an opportunity to ‘sing together with famous celebrities for the whole country to hear’ (http://ont.by/news/our_news/mogilyov-prinimaet-estafety-obschenacionalno...). The concerts have been broadcast on the ONT national TV station ‘with V-sign in the colours of the state flag as its logo’.  Presidential candidate Taćciana Karatkievič has pointed out that ‘Candidate Lukašenka’s campaign uses an identical symbol.’ (http://nn.by/?c=ar&i=157007).

‘Together’ is also the key word in a video clip run on Belarus 1 in order to encourage young voters to go to the polls.

Radyjofakt (23/09/2015, the 1st National Radio Channel) launched a series of interviews with Belarusian researchers presented under the heading We Choose Belarus. Political scientist Aliaksiej Dziermant spoke on the issues of strengthening Belarus’ sovereignty. The key message was that the government deserved all credit for strengthening state sovereignty and maintaining order.

Mr Lukašenka as the incumbent obviously personified the government. The interview had much in common with Belarus: the 21st Century, which employs the same model of presenting the incumbent in a highly positive light in the context of the last two decades of Belarusian sovereignty. In a similar item in Radyjofakt (30/09/2015, the 1st National Radio Channel) a reporter virtually quoted verbatim whole paragraphs from the incumbent’s programme in Belarusian translation.

Reporter: ‘The idea of giving every person an opportunity to earn a decent living from their work has always formed the basis of the Belarusian economic model. For this reason, during the times of world economic crises, which Belarus has experienced more than once since the early 1990s, it has been the top priority in state policies to keep enterprises running and maintain jobs for people. This approach has not changed now that the world economy is again going through hard times.’

Candidate Aliaksandr Lukašenka’s programme: ‘The idea of giving every person an opportunity to earn a decent living from their work has laid the foundations of the Belarusian economic model from the very beginning. It has always been the top priority in our policies to keep enterprises running and maintain jobs for people, despite any crisis.’

Reporter: ‘So the country leadership is already making plans for the future. Three strategic goals have been set in the economic field: zero unemployment, export and investments. Zero unemployment means social stability, when everyone can earn their living. Export means a stable economy, with strong national currency and low inflation, and investments mean development.’

Candidate Aliaksandr Lukašenka’s programme: ‘Zero unemployment means social stability and wellbeing, when everyone can earn their living from their work. Export means a stable economy, strong national currency, low inflation and a balanced budget. Investments mean the country’s development, new technologies and a new standard of quality of life for each Belarusian citizen.’

Reporter: ‘It is expected that all these measures, i.e. effective state government combined with private initiative and the Belarusian people’s dedicated work will ensure a new economic breakthrough for our country in the nearest future.’

Candidate Aliaksandr Lukašenka’s programme: ‘The combination of all the abovementioned measures will ensure a new economic breakthrough for our country, as effective state government combines with private initiative and our people’s dedicated work.’

Last but not least, one of the news items on Nashi Novosti (29/09/2015, ONT) featured a 16-year-old Belarusian athlete’s record in a power-lifting competition. Reporter: ‘The capital city of Spain will remember Aliaksandra not only for her achievements in sport. The girl appeared in Madrid wearing a highly distinctive T-shirt.’ Then there was footage of the athlete in the gym, in which she undid her jacket to reveal a T-shirt with a portrait of Mr Lukašenka and a caption, ‘Alexander Lukashenko. The Powerful President of the Powerful Country.’ ‘It was my idea,’ said the athlete, ‘because I respect Alexander Grigoryevich. He is a powerful man. I respect his policies.’ We did not trace any instances of campaigning for any other presidential runner in the news programme.

These instances meet the definition of media effects, or in other terms, campaigning covertly or overtly for one of the candidates.

3.4 Preliminary Assessment of the Election Process

The state-owned media drew their attention to the following preliminary assessments of the presidential campaign. ‘The present campaign is much more peaceful,’ said Prof Christian Haerpfer of Aberdeen University. ‘It is a successful campaign that meets the international standards for elections.’ (Glavny Efir, 20/09/2015: Belarus viewed by experts of the Dialogue of Civilisations.)

‘The presidential campaign strictly meets the legislation,’ said Mr Sergey Lebedev, the Head of the CIS Election Monitoring Mission. ‘As for high tension in the run-up to the election, well, when it is absent, it is evidence of social stability.’ (Panarama on Belarus 1, 21/09/2015.)

3.5 The Independent Media

www.naviny.by focussed on the candidates’ personalities and agendas, giving them positive, neutral and negative coverage. Mr Ulachovič and Ms Karatkievič received the largest shares of election-related space – 24% and 16%, respectively. Mr Lukašenka and Mr Hajdukievič both got only a modest 6% each. The coverage of the other election actors showed a marked downward trend.

In terms of space, the Narodnaja Volia gave the most extensive coverage to two candidates, namely Mr Lukašenka (13%) and Ms Karatkievič (9%), as well as the opposition (23%).

The Naša Niva weekly most often featured Mr Lukašenka (52%) and Ms Karatkievič (25%), presenting them in a neutral and negative light.

The Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii wrote about all the candidates in a neutral tone and evenly distributed its space between them.

Although these media gave more coverage to some candidates than the others, they did not support any presidential hopeful in particular.

4. Conclusions

The findings received during the monitored time span substantiate our preliminary conclusions that there has been no significant change in the mode of election coverage by the state-owned media. It still aims to promote only one runner for presidency, namely the incumbent. This mode invariably undermines the political importance of presidential elections and hinders competition between political ideas and agendas, so the election turns into a ‘low-key’ event that is ‘free from tension’. As opponents of the current regime are marginalised, going to the polls becomes a meaningless ritual, in which ‘voters perform their honorary public duty,’ to quote an old Soviet cliché.

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