The Belarusian Association of Journalists
Monitoring: The Coverage of the 2015 Presidential Election in the Belarusian Media
(17 August – 22 October, 2015)
Campaigning for One Candidate
Assessment of the Election Process
The report presents the findings of the monitoring of the 2015 presidential election coverage in the Belarusian state run and independent media.
The monitoring aimed to raise the journalist community’s and voters’ awareness of:
-- the importance of comprehensive and balanced coverage of the election;
-- the code of ethics in journalism and international standards that are indispensable for covering elections;
--and journalists’ duty to give voters undistorted, impartial and complete information about the electoral campaign, the candidates’ agendas and their supporters’ and opponents’ opinions.
The monitoring focused on media items that were about the electoral campaign and presidential candidates as well as other political and non-political bodies which activity during the election campaign was noticeable. The items were analysed both quantitatively and qualitatively. We also report instances of partial, incomprehensive or biased coverage that does not meet professional standards, breaches ethics in journalism, and departure from internationally accepted standards of reporting on elections.
The monitoring was held by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).
- Executive Summary
Contrary to the 2010 presidential campaign, this time the state-owned media gave more attention to the election related topics. However, the actual proportion of air time and space allocated to the contenders did not change. The incumbent still enjoyed a dominant position.
All the presidential hopefuls got free access to state-owned media chosen by the CEC to address the electorate directly and present their agendas. These media did not do much to draw large audiences, as the addresses were not advertised in advance and TV guides did not give the names of the candidates.
At the same time the state-owned media actively promoted a number of pro-governmental organisations that endorsed the incumbent. As for his opponents and voters supporting them, they were unable to make their voice heard in the state-owned media.
The election coverage had no dramatic suspense. The state-owned media campaigned for one of the presidential runners, giving no voice to any critical opinions of the incumbent and marginalising the opponents of the present regime. This actually made all political competition meaningless.
The independent media primarily focussed on the presidential contenders and their agendas. As compared to the other candidates opposing Mr Lukašenka, the biggest amount of space was given to Ms Karatkievič, a newcomer in the field of Belarusian public politics. There was a clash in the opposition on whether to endorse her or not, which became a factor that brought her into the spotlight.
When the election was over, the state-owned and independent media differed dramatically in their assessment of the voting procedure, the vote count, the outcome of the election and the presidential campaign as a whole.
- Major Findings
3.1 The State-owned Media
The state-owned electronic media increased election coverage time, as compared to the 2010 presidential campaign. Depending on the stage of the monitoring, it was compatible with the air time for weather and sport or exceeded it. For example, the aggregated data for the time span between 1 September and 10 October, 2015 show that Panarama news programme on Belarus 1 TV station allocated 19% of its time to election-related issues, 2.5% to weather forecast and 14.5% to sport. Another popular news programme, Nashi Novosti on ONT, gave 8.2% of its air time to the election, 5% to weather and 12.3% to sport. The state-owned printed media also paid more attention to election-related subjects.
At the same time, there was not any noticeable change in the distribution of air time and space between the actors of the presidential campaign. In this respect the state-owned media kept to their routine practices of election coverage.
President Lukašenka still went on dominating the media field. According to the aggregated data, Panarama on Belarus 1 allocated him 61% of the total time given to all the monitored actors. The incumbent received 57% of election-related time in Nashi Novosti on ONT. Radyjofakt on the 1st Channel of the National Radio gave him 35% of its election coverage time. The incumbent did not only feature most prominently in the state-owned media but was also presented in a positive or highly positive light.
The other presidential runners stood no chance of catching up with the incumbent in terms of air time and space they received. For example, Nashi Novosti on ONT gave 5.2% of its election coverage time to Ms Karatkievič, 5.4% to Mr Hardukievič and 5.1% to Mr Ulachovič. We have not traced any essential differences in the percentage of air time and space allocated to the presidential hopefuls in the other monitored state-owned media. By contrast to the 2010 presidential campaign, they did not give the candidates who opposed the incumbent negative assessment but for the most part spoke of them in a neutral or positive tone.
Of the other monitored actors, the media focussed most on the Central Election Commission (CEC) and subsidiary commissions, the electorate and the western observers. In some state-owned media the CEC and subsidiary commissions received as much attention as the contenders, and a few media gave the commissions even more coverage than Mr Lukašenka’s opponents. For example, Nashi Novosti on ONT gave the election commissions 4.3% of its election-coverage time, while each of the contenders received a bit more than 5%. Radyjofakt on the 1st Channel of the National Radio allocated nearly 26% of the election coverage time to the election commissions and only 1.2% to Ms Karatkievič, Mr Hajdukievič and Mr Ulachovič taken together.
Some state-owned media, e.g. the Mogilevskaya Pravda paper, gave as much (or slightly more) attention to the contenders as to such pro-governmental organisations as the Belarusian National Youth Union (BNYU), Belaya Rus and Belarus’ Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU). These organisations openly campaigned for Mr Lukašenka.
Some of the monitored media may have featured the electorate quite significantly, but the voters quoted by the state-owned media expressed their opinions in a neutral manner or simply called upon other voters to go to the polls and ‘make their choice for the good of Belarus’. They did not air any criticism of the candidates.
The state-owned media basically ignored the opponents of the present regime. The opposition received about 0.5% of the total election coverage time or was given no voice at all. The exceptions were the Belarus Segodnya and the Mogilevskaya Pravda, which criticised the opposition in 2% and 2.4% of their election coverage space, respectively.
3.2 Direct Access
In accordance with the established procedure, the candidates who obtained registration were granted an opportunity to address the voters twice on Belarus 1 TV station and the 1st Channel of the National Radio, as well as publish their programmes in the state-owned papers designated by the CEC. The presidential hopefuls’ addresses were admittedly televised during prime time, starting at 7.30 p.m., which is evidence of improvement in terms of their chances to draw bigger audiences. (During the 2010 presidential campaign, the candidates’ addresses were televised from 7.00 p.m. to 8.00 p.m.) As for the radio addresses, it is highly unlikely that a lot of voters were able to hear them between 6.10 a.m. and 7.10 a.m. (During the 2010 campaign the candidates’ radio addresses were scheduled for the same time.)
Symptomatically, but the state-run 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.’
The Belarus Segodnia daily published the presidential hopefuls’ agendas. Mr Ulachovič’s agenda was the first to be published, with 717 cm2 allocated to it (Belarus Segodnia, 17/09/2015). Meanwhile, the incumbent’s agenda took up 919 cm2 (Belarus Segodnia, 18/09/2015).
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
On 2 August, 2015, a short time before the monitoring began, Belarus 1 launched a series of ‘documentary chronicles of how Belarus has changed for the two decades of its sovereignty,’ broadcast as part of Glavny Efir Sunday programme ( http://www.tvr.by/events/proekty-atn/-belarus-xxi/). The series under the title Belarus: the 21st century consisted of ten films and was not intended to mark any important event in Belarus’ recent history but presented the twenty years of President Lukašenka’s term in office in a positive and highly positive light as a success story, marked by great achievements and victories. When the series ended, Belarus 1 presented a trailer for its ‘new project, a documentary TV series on Belarus’ recent history called My – Belorusy’ [We Are Belarusians, after the first line of the official national anthem – translator’s note] (http://www.tvr.by/events/proekty-atn/my-belorusy/). It looks at the history of independent Belarus and its leader’s work from the same angle. The first part called The Energy of Success centres on ‘economy, which collapsed in the early 1990s; then food ration coupons were abandoned and a new programme to deal with the recession was adopted. It also shows how Belarus became a space power, what people abroad say about us and why famous visitors compare Belarus to Switzerland. Together we remember what we started from and what we have been able to create. Together.’ (http://www.tvr.by/video/my-belorusy/film-pervyy-energiya-uspekha/).
During actually the whole campaigning period the news program Panarama on Belarus 1 has been showing special items under the heading We Did It Together. They presented footage of cultural, social, medical, administrative and sports facilities mushrooming all over Belarus. These items either directly or by their general context refered 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 had been under way for the last few months. It offered 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 had 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).
In the concluding period of the presidential campaign 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.
When the presidential campaign was over, these media products, prepared specially for the election, disappeared from the information field, and the time given to the incumbent in the news dramatically went down. For example, the total air time he received in Nashi Novosti on ONT on 14 and 15 October, after the voting day, was six times less than in the run-up to the election, on 7 and 8 October. Radyjofakt on the 1st Channel of the National Radio cut the amount of coverage given to Mr Lukašenka nearly by five times. Panarama on Belarus 1 showed the same trend, getting back to its routine 40-minute format, whereas the last month before the voting day it had normally been on air for more than an hour.
3.4 The Independent Media
The aggregated data for the election coverage in the media show that www.naviny.by primarily focussed on the presidential hopefuls and their agendas. Its assessment of all the candidates was perfectly balanced, with neutral coverage playing a dominant role, but positive and negative opinions were also presented. Ms Karatkievič received more space than the others – about 13%. About 10% went to Mr Ulachovič, 5.5% to Mr Hajdukievič and 5.4% to Mr Lukašenka. Then came the opposition, with 7.4% of election coverage space, and polling station commissions, who received 6% of space.
The Narodnaja Vola spoke critically of all the candidates, presenting them in a negative light. The paper paid most of its attention to the opposition, giving it about 22% of its election coverage space and assessing it neutrally, positively and negatively.
The Naša Niva weekly brought into the spotlight Mr Lukašenka (nearly 42%) and Ms Karatkievič (17%), giving them mostly neutral coverage, but also portraying them in a negative light.
The Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii was exceptionally impartial to all the presidential runners, distributing the space between them almost equally.
These media did not support any particular candidate.
3.5 Assessment of the Election Process
Both reporters of the state-owned media and their interviewees spoke of the election in a highly positive manner.
BelTA: ‘Opinion: The Belarusians voted at the presidential election for stability and peaceful life: Viačaslaŭ Šaršunoŭ: “Today nobody can accuse the government of not holding an open election or presenting no alternatives. Presidential candidates have never before enjoyed so much freedom to campaign among the workforce of enterprises and in the media in Belarus’ recent history.’ http://www.belta.by/society/view/belorusy-na-prezidentskih-vyborah-progolosovali-za-stabilnost-i-spokojstvie-mnenie-166439-2015/
Political analyst Aliaksandr Špakoŭski said that the presidential campaign was exceptionally peaceful because ‘It is the second time in Belarus’ history a sovereign state (the first was in 1994) that no hooligans calling for mass disturbances in the wake of the election have been registered as presidential candidates.’ Panarama (Belarus 1, 12/10/2015).
The state-owned media drew attention to the general mood on the voting day and the voter turnout: ‘Lebedev: The atmosphere at the polling stations in Belarus was calm and festive.’http://www.belta.by/politics/view/atmosfera-na-izbiratelnyh-uchastkah-v-belarusi-byla-spokojnoj-i-prazdnichnoj-lebedev-166316-2015/
Aliaksandr Ivanoŭski, the First Deputy Principal of the Academy of Management under the President of Belarus said, ‘The turnout was truly powerful and unprecedented. Some citizens outside Belarus and those who have never been here at all did not even believe that such things could happen. They said that in Europe nobody went to the polls like that.’ Panarama (Belarus 1, 16/10/2015).
The contenders admitted that there had been not meaningful political competition during the presidential campaign and the outcome of the election was known in advance. ‘We understand very well that one of the patriots is our deeply respected President Alexander Grigoryevich, who is today the main figure on this stage,’ said Mr Ulachovič. ‘He has once again proved that he is not only capable of governing the country but also indispensable to our Belarusian land.’ http://www.belta.by/politics/view/ulahovich-schitaet-zasluzhennoj-pobedu-lukashenko-na-vyborah-166417-2015/
‘In reality we must realise,’ said Mr Hajdukievič, ‘that people in Belarus did not want to change anything in the country’s political leadership at this difficult time.’ Panarama (Belarus 1, 12/10/2015).
Ms Karatkievič was not given an opportunity to air her opinion. Instead, a Panarama reporter said, ‘Frustration reigned last night and all day today among Taćciana Karatkievič’s team. They lost to the anonymous “Against All Candidates”. It means that her tem failed to get through to voters.’ (Ibid.)
The editor of the Belarus Segodnya also admitted in his column on behalf of the electorate that there had been no meaningful political competition: ‘What decision can a normal grown-up man take, if he has worked in a factory for twenty years, has a family and understands what things really mean? Can he vote for Hajdukievič? Ulachovič? Karatkievič? Can he entrust his future to them? No, he has read their bios and programmes and understands that voting for these nice people would be unforgivably childish behaviour on his part.’ Belarus Segodnya (13/10/2015).
The state-owned media presented the voting procedure in a positive light, too. According to a CIS observer Leonid Slutsky, who was in charge of the delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of Belarus and Russia, ‘true, there were liars among observers at some polling stations, who said that the data for early voting did not add up and in fact a lot fewer voters had gone to the polls than the registers showed.
The registers were checked at once and other observers disproved these insinuations, so all attempts to put a fly in the ointment in the assessment of the election failed.’ (Radyjofakt on the 1st Channel of the National Radio, 03/10/2015).
However, the observers spotted some shortcomings. ‘The Alliance of Observer Missions reports a well-organised election in Belarus. Roberta Bonazzi spoke of some shortcomings noticed by the Alliance observers. These are minor problems that refer to the design of ballot boxes and ballot format. According to the expert, if they are eliminated, it will enhance election transparency.’ (http://www.belta.by/politics/view/aljjans-missij-nabljudatelej-otmechaet-horoshuju-organizatsiju-vyborov-v-belarusi-166340-2015/) ‘The OSCE mission assessed the voting procedure positively in 95% of instances. ‘Some procedural problems have been recorded,’ the preliminary conclusions say. ‘The overall transparency of the election process was assessed negatively in 3% of reports. The Mission also points out that a lot of observers were denied an opportunity to check voter registers. Where they were granted this opportunity, the observers of the Mission “discovered allegedly identical signatures”. The preliminary conclusions also speak of some indicators of ballot box stuffing. However, the observers said that there were only indicators rather than facts of stuffing.’ (http://www.belta.by/politics/view/protsess-golosovanija-polozhitelno-otsenen-missiej-obse-v-95-sluchaev-166400-2015/)
However, the independent media reported that the OSCE gave a different assessment to the election. ‘OSCE Observers: Vote count was flawed. Deputy Chairman of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Kent Härstedt: The release of political prisoners and a welcoming attitude to the observers were positive moments. However, the hopes they inspired did not come true. Considering the promises we had received, I was particularly disappointed by the flaws during the vote count and tabulation.’
‘The voice count was assessed negatively at 30% of polling stations where observers were pesent,’ says the OSCE/ODIHR report. ‘This testifies to serious problems. The vote summing was assessed negatively as a process lacking transparency at 25% of polling stations were observers were present.’ (Narodnaja Vola, 13/10/2015.)
‘Human rights activists: The Belarusian election gravely violated international standards. “However, the election process gravely violated a number of basic international standards for free and democratic elections,’ said Alieh Hulak. ‘In our opinion, it did not completely comply with the Belarusian legislation, either, in what refers to mass early voting. It is non-transparent vote count that causes most criticism.’ http://naviny.by/rubrics/elections/2015/10/12/ic_news_623_464886/
www.naviny.by made Ms Karatkievič’s voice heard: ‘Taćciana Karatkievič: I cannot recognise Lukašenka’s landslide victory. Ms Karatkievič pointed out that the official figures and the observers’ data did not add up. For this reason, it is impossible to establish clearly, how many voices each candidate received, according to Ms Karatkievič.
The politician stated that at least 20% of the country’s adult citizens had voted for peaceful changes in Belarus, which was her campaign slogan.
‘I do not recognise the outcome,’ stressed the ex-runner, ‘so I cannot recognise Lukašenka’s landslide victory.’ http://naviny.by/rubrics/elections/2015/10/12/ic_news_623_464894/
‘OSCE/ODIHR: Belarus has a long way to go to democratic elections. ‘It is evident that Belarus has a long way to go in order to fulfil its democratic obligations,’ said Special Co-ordinator of the OSCE PA Short-Term Observer Mission Kent Härstedt. ‘The release of political prisoners and a welcoming attitude to the observers were positive moments. However, the hopes they inspired did not come true. Considering the promises we had received, I was particularly disappointed by the flaws during the vote count and tabulation. We hope that the Belarusian government demonstrates political will to engage in a comprehensive reform process, which we are ready to support.’ http://naviny.by/rubrics/elections/2015/10/12/ic_news_623_464899/
As compared to the previous elections, this presidential campaign was exceptionally ‘quiet’ due to the lack of meaningful political competition or public discussion of grave economic problems. Another factor in this low-key election was marginalisation of the opponents of the regime and censorship of any criticism of the incumbent in the state-owned media. Furthermore, they presented the twenty years of Belarusian sovereignty and the today’s situation as a success story, marked by great achievements and victories. These projects were specifically timed to coincide with the election.
The state-owned media brought to the fore technical aspects of the election process, such as preparation of voting places, the work of local authorities, subsidiary election commissions, etc. This was one more characteristic feature of election coverage, which aimed to undermine the political importance of the presidential election and keep voters from getting engaged in political competition between different political forces and platforms.
Contrary to their state-owned counterparts, the independent media were committed to giving coverage to both the presidential candidates and opponents of the regime. However, they did not have any chance to make a difference during the presidential campaign, because of their limited readership and the atmosphere of predetermined outcome that permeated the society.
The state-owned and independent media practised very different modes of election coverage, which was particularly evident in their assessment of the election after the voting day.
 The monitoring covered Panarama (Panorama) news programme on Belarus 1 TV station; Nashi Novosti (Our News) news programme on ONT TV station; Glavny Efir (Most Important Air) weekly programme on Belarus 1 TV station, Radyjofakt (Radiofact) on the 1st Channel of the National Radio; Naviny-rehijon (Regional News) of the Mahiloŭ Regional TV and Radio Company; Ablasnoje Radyjo (Regional Radio) of the Mahiloŭ Regional TV and Radio Company; www.naviny.by and www.belta.by online media; and such printed media as the Belarus Segodnia (Belarus Today), the Narodnaja Vola (People’s Will), the 7 Dniey (7 days), the Naša Niva (Our Field), the Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii (YCL Truth in Belarus), and the Mogilevskaya Pravda (Mahiloŭ Truth).
 The list of the monitored actors included 51 figures, from the incumbent to the electorate.
 See: APPENDIX (Methodology)
 The documents that provided the framework for qualitative analysis were as follows: The Code of Ethics in Journalism (adopted at the Convention of the BAJ in 2006); The Declaration of the Guidelines of Journalists’ Professional Ethics; Media Coverage of Elections (Belarus). 2015 and International Standards of Election Coverage in the Media.
 In 2010, when the presidential campaign was at its peak, Panarama gave nearly twice less time to election-related issues, namely 10.6%.
 The percentage of air time and space does not refer to the total air time or space of the monitored programmes or printed media. Instead, these figures show each actor’s share in the total coverage of all the 51 monitored election actors.
 Radio listings had Speeches of the Candidates for the Office of President of the Republic of Belarus.
 By media effects we mean instances of one-sided or biased coverage, groundless interpretations, and distorting information – whether deliberately or not, selective or fragmentary vision, as well as suppression of facts or events that change or could change the public opinion and influence the voters’ electoral choice.