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Two realities of one Silent Revolution

15.08.2012 Tatsiana Karaliova 10510

In summer of 2011, series of mass protests happened in several big and smaller cities of Belarus. People, mainly educated computer-literate youth, came out on the streets to express their discontent with the existing economic and political situation in the country. Because of peaceful silent character protests were called “Silent Revolution” (or “Revolution through Social Networks” as people informed each other about the rallies with the use of social media). This article is a short description of the study aimed to analyze coverage of protests in Belarusian media. It offers observations about the difference in the nature of discourse on the Revolution through Social Networks and the voices (sources) presented in major Belarusian state-run and independent newspapers.

To find a difference in the nature of discourse on the Revolution through Social Networks in major Belarusian state-run and independent newspapers, this study looks at news stories from four Belarusian newspapers: Belarus Today, Respublika, BelGazeta and Narodnaya Volya. A total of 72 news stories that were published from June 8, 2011 to August 31, 2011 were examined with the method of discourse analysis.

 

Provocative act or peaceful rally?

The Revolution through Social Networks, protesters, police forces and other people were represented in the state-run and independent media differently. Belarus Today and Respublika told about the Revolution through Social Networks most often as a provocative act, a small group of people, an action organized by Western countries, and as a threat to the country. Independent media, in its turn, represented the protests as a peaceful rally and an expression of discontent. In June, some journalists characterized it as fun for people, but later, after more people joined the rally, and police began to intervene, this type of representation was no longer applied. Two important characteristics of the protests representation in the independent media were attempts to evaluate it objectively and place it into the socio-political context.

In the state-run media, protesters are pictured as young maximalists, initiators of disorder, idlers, or people belonging to opposition. Both BelGazeta and Narodnaya Volya represented the participants of the rallies as usual people and not belonging to opposition. Most often protesters are described as educated youth. Later, several stories appeared that described older people.

Police forces in the stories published in the state-run outlets are represented as a hand of justice that reacts adequately to the threat, and their actions are similar to the world practices. At the same time, reporters of the independent newspapers witnessed the reaction of the police and described it as a harsh and not adequate to a threat. There are plenty of examples of irrationality and detentions of accidental people.

Other people presented in the news stories are readers that express their opinion in letters, experts that discuss the phenomenon, officials and other citizens. In the state-run newspapers, all these actors are represented as talking about the protests with antagonism. In the independent outlets, other people are represented most often as being neutral to the protesters or supporting them.

 

How they selected facts

Both state-run and independent newspapers used selection and composition of facts. It was noted, however, that the state-run media used these discursive strategies most often glaringly. One of the demonstrative examples is the story “Trash from the Net” from Belarus Today about a teenage girl who was a neo-Nazi and committed suicide. The author tells about the reasons of race hatred and how dangerous trends similar to that one are disseminated in the world via the Internet. Next, he tells about politicized youth that also uses the Internet for communication. With the help of this “transfer” technique the article puts the protesters into the position of alienated persons that represent a threat to the country. By emphasizing the young age and small amount of protesters, state-run media supported the representation of the event as something impermanent and insignificant. This served to confirm the vision of the stability in the country – one of the main ideological standpoints characteristic for Belarusian state-run media.

De-legitimation and politicization of the event in the state-run media along with the appeal to the world practices of dealing with protests serve as the excuses for violent suppression of the possible revolution and, hence, “saving” the country.

Though independent media also applied de-legitimation discursive strategies, they did it not towards the protesters, but towards the political order, police actions and violation of the Constitution. They legitimized the peaceful rally and the right of assembly. Reporting about the different cities of the country and momentum of rallies showed the explicit intent of the independent newspapers to attach to it greater significance.

 

Major or minor event?

There were far more stories about the Revolution through Social Networks in the independent newspapers than in the state-run newspapers (Figure 1). For the independent media, the Revolution through Social Networks was a major event discussed in almost every issue during that time. State-run newspapers didn’t cover it so intensively or systematically.

Figure 1. Number of news stories depending on the ownership of the mass media

 

Distribution of news stories in time (Figure 2) showed that the independent media followed the events and covered them according to the growth and decrease of the number of protesters and events related to it in the specific time. State-run newspapers were covering the event with the nearly same intensity in June, July and August what confirms the suggestion about the accidental and non-systematic coverage.

Figure 2. Distribution of news stories in time

 

Silenced voices of the Silent Revolution

State-run media never allowed participants of the rally to speak on their pages (Table 1). This, along with the absence of quotes from the police and significantly small amount of opinions of experts or readers and at the same time a lot of published speeches of the president allow evaluating the coverage as pro-governmental and failing to present variety of perspectives on the issue.

Independent media used other people/witnesses and protesters/participants most often as their sources. Also, officials and policemen are cited frequently in both newspapers. The small amount of the published letters of the readers could be explained by the fact that not all newspapers use the practice of publishing letters widely. In this case, all four letters were published in Narodnaya Volya. This lack of readers’ opinion could be considered acceptable though because both newspapers gave citations of witnesses of the rallies from the streets very often. In that way, it could be admitted that they distributed right to speak to their sources rather fairly.

 

Sources

State-run media

Independent media

Protesters/participants

0

23

Officials

9

18

Police

0

19

Experts

1

7

Other people/witnesses

5

33

Readers

2

4

 

Table 1. Voiced presented in the news stories by two types of mass media

 

So, what do we have?

Manipulation of facts and accidental coverage of the event created the illogic in the way the phenomenon is represented in the state-run newspapers. On the one hand, the protests are pictured as a provocative act and threat to the country; on the other hand, the rallies are characterized as a ‘mob’ with small amount of participants. These characteristics of the rallies as impermanent and insignificant served to support the image of stability in the country – one of the main standpoints of the state ideology in Belarus. The state-run newspapers covered the event occasionally and explicitly favored pro-governmental perspective. In the articles, anti-oppositional and anti-revolutionary ideological standpoints were widely disseminated.

The independent media covered the event more systematically, presented diversity of sources and made attempts to evaluate the phenomenon and its strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, though several articles mentioned the momentum of the rally, there were no explicit evaluations of the numbers compared to the population of cities or the country in general. The most important characteristic of the discourse was a systematic representation of protesters as usual people, not opposition forces or political parties. Still, some aspects of the coverage, such as attaching excess of idealized characteristics to the protesters and appealing to emotions could have influenced the unbiased coverage of the event.

 

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P.S. For additional information about the theoretical background, methodology, analytical tools, design and results of the study please contact the author. Contact information could be obtained at the Belarusian Association of Journalists.