Belarus gained independence in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Nations in Transit 2017 report defines the political regime in Belarus as consolidated authoritarianism. The president of the country, Alexander Lukashenka, has ruled since 1994. Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia economically, politically, militarily, culturally, and ideologically. However, a well-functioning bureaucracy, the relatively low level of corruption and high degree of centralisation allow Belarusian authorities to adapt to the changing economic situation and geopolitical environment.
In 1996-2000, the Belarusian authorities strived for political, military, and economic integration with Russia with a declared goal of establishing a union state. This integration process was put on hold in the early 2000s. However, the two countries maintain close ties. According to the Belarusian Statistical Committee, the country’s export and import shares to Russia in 2016 amounted to 46.5% and 55.4%, respectively. Belarus is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) together with Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as a member of the-Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance.
The Russian language is prevalent in the country because of Russification carried out in the days of the Russian Empire, the Soviet period, and continued by the Belarusian government after the referendum of 1995. The referendum secured the official status of the Russian language in addition to Belarusian. In reality, the Russian language occupied a clearly dominant position in public life. In the 2009 census, more than 70% of Belarusians declared that they speak Russian at home. However, these figures may be much higher in reality. In the 2016/2017 school year, 86.6% of pupils in Belarusian secondary schools had Russian as the language of instruction, an increase from 80.9% in 2010/2011. According to the SATIO 2015 survey, more than 57% of Belarusians prefer to receive information exclusively in Russian. The number of Belarusians willing to receive communication exclusively in Belarusian is only 4%. The share of the population preferring the Russian language is significantly higher among people aged 18-45. Therefore, the linguistic factor facilitates the frequent usage of Russian media by Belarusians.
The cultural influence of Russia in Belarus is reinforced through religion. More than two-thirds of Belarusians declare themselves Orthodox Christians of the Moscow Patriarchate. About 60% of Belarusians subscribe to the Russophile ideology of the pan-Russian nation, which considers the three branches of Rus’ people, namely Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, a single ethnicity. This concept was propagated by the Russian Orthodox Church and Moscow’s rulers for centuries. Finally, the ideology of Lukashenka’s political regime for a long time was rooted in the Soviet legacy, the ideas of “Slavic brotherhood”, and opposition towards Western democracies. Recent national polls show that 65% of Belarusians prefer integration with Russia as opposed to EU accession, which is supported by 19%. The preferred mode of integration with Russia for most Belarusian citizens means having amicable political relations between the two states as well as the absence of border and customs controls. A negligible share of Belarusians (1.7%) supports Belarus’ full accession to Russia, meaning it would lose its sovereignty.
The economic crisis in Belarus and Russia’s aggressive stance towards Georgia and Ukraine have made the Belarusian government more open to the West. Worried about resurgent Russian nationalism, Belarus started cautiously implementing a very limited policy of promoting Belarusian culture and strengthening national identity. But the current language situation and cultural, historical, and religious affinity to Russia provide Russian media with considerable influence on the Belarusian population, which makes Belarus very susceptible to Kremlin propaganda.
The economic, linguistic, and cultural policies of the Belarusian authorities in the last two decades have made Belarusian society receptive to information narratives spread by the Kremlin-supported media. As the deputy editor-in-chief of Naša Niva newspaper, Zmicier Pankaviec, explains,the domination of the Russian cultural framework in Belarus makes Belarusians very susceptible to Kremlin-produced narratives:
‘In Belarus they do not translate films to the Belarusian language; they do not make local Belarusian versions of world-known magazines, like Cosmopolitan or Forbes. And it doesn’t matter whether they are in the Russian or Belarusian language—such local versions simply do not exist. Films we watch are made in Russia or dubbed, books we read are also printed in Russia. Only a small number of them are translated locally. There is no Belarusian version of the BBC or EuroSport TV channels. We lack the whole layer of people making cultural products’.
There is a deficit of empirical data and scientific research on this topic, but the results of national surveys and our analysis as social scholars allow us to define a number of socio-economic, professional, and cultural groups that are the most susceptible to the Kremlin’s narratives. Various surveys conducted in recent decades show that the idea of integration with Russia finds the strongest support among the people who find it difficult to adapt to the market economy, are afraid of market reforms, and therefore want to preserve the existing Belarusian economic model based on strong links with Russia. These are people older than 40, with relatively low income and education, residing in small towns and rural areas.
Surveys relating to the media preferences of Belarusians partially correlate with these findings. Russian TV channels and websites enjoy more popularity among the inhabitants of small towns (population between 10 000 and 50 000 people) and regional centres. The popularity of Russian media is higher in the east of Belarus bordering Russia—Vitebsk, Homiel and Mahiliou regions. This might be explained by the larger labour migration to Russia in these areas as compared to other Belarusian regions and stronger family ties of the local inhabitants to Russia.
It seems pertinent to suggest that Kremlin-led propaganda finds fertile ground among individuals who are culturally predisposed to it, actively consume Russian media, and do not believe that their individual efforts may improve their economic situation while assuming that Russia is capable of bringing positive change to their life.
The first group particularly vulnerable to Russian government propaganda is the Belarusian Armed Forces and internal troops (e.g., the militarised forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). In terms of the organisational structure, ideology, and culture, the Belarusian Armed Forces are the continuation of the Soviet military. The Belarusian army officers remain nostalgic about the Soviet Union, where the military was a much more prestigious social group. Army ideology is still based on the idea that Russians and Belarusians are “the same nation”. Military officers still perceive the West as the main common enemy of both countries. They often have a hostile attitude towards the Belarusian language.
The second group receptive to Russian government propaganda is retired people. Many of them are heavy consumers of Russian TV channels, nostalgic for Soviet times, and find themselves in a difficult economic situation, making them more reliant on government assistance. According to the director of the Belarusian Analytical Workroom, Prof. Andrei Vardomatski, the Belarusian elderly possess a unique set of values evolved during USSR times. They are vulnerable to Kremlin-supported messages, not because of media techniques but rather due to self-identification with such narratives, reinforcing their beliefs and fears.
The third very diverse and vulnerable group consists of people who have recently lost a stable income and job due to the economic crisis. This group includes small business owners, workers of the nearly bankrupt state-owned enterprises, and individuals laid off from industry or public administration. These people are particularly present in regional centres. Some of those who find themselves unable to find a new job put their hopes of advancement on Russia.
Finally, messages spread by Russian media are particularly popular among active Russian Orthodox Church believers. In recent years, there were numerous reports about several Russian Orthodox parishes helping pro-Russian nationalists organise military training sessions for Belarusian youth or meetings with known propagandists of Russophile ideas.
In addition to these groups, Prof. Vardomatski pointed out that younger Belarusians display lower critical thinking skills compared to people of middle age and therefore are more susceptible to disinformation and propaganda disseminated by the Kremlin. Education is not a key factor in this case and often has no influence on the opinions of young people.
According to opinion polls conducted by the Belarusian Analytical Workroom in April 2017, the primary source of news for Belarusians is state-owned TV channels (71.3%). Russian TV channels come in third (43.8%), after relatives and friends (62.1%) as a source of information. Social networks and blogs (42.4%) is yet another important news source. Independent media online are positioned sixth (27.4%) after state-owned newspapers (28.6%).
Sociological studies show that the Russian outlets enjoy a high level of trust among Belarusians. In April 2017, 75% of respondents either fully or partially trusted Russian media. At the same time, the degree of confidence in domestic independent media and state-owned sources stood at 73% and 67%, respectively. The influence of the Russian outlets in Belarus is strengthened by the relatively weak national identity and the precarious status of the Belarusian language. In Belarus, there are only 32 broadcasters and publications in the Belarusian language, while 837 use solely the Russian language. Another 526 media outlets publish materials both in Russian and Belarusian.
The most popular media in Belarus are TV or internet-based. The impact of all other types of media outlets is significantly lower. Television in Belarus is still first, although its popularity is steadily decreasing, especially among the younger, better educated, and wealthier population. According to surveys by the sociological company SATIO in September 2015, the TV audience in Belarus equalled 84.7% of the adult population. The internet was second with 63.8%. Newspapers had a share of 40.9%, while radio attracted the attention of only 36.6%. The share of internet media in Belarus continues to increase while the audience of all the others is rapidly shrinking.
Freedom of speech in Belarus is severely restricted. In 2017, the World Press Freedom Index placed Belarus 153rd out of 180 countries. According to the Ministry of Information, almost 1 600 periodicals were registered in the country in 2016, and only 437 were state-owned. However, according to the Belarusian Association of journalists, there are only 30 independent journals and newspapers in Belarus covering socioeconomic and political issues. The rest are entertainment-oriented, dealing with advertising, crosswords, fashion and social life, etc.
The situation with radio and TV is even more striking. Out of 273 radio stations, 190 of them and all TV channels are state-owned. The independent outlets are limited to foreign media broadcasting in Belarus: Czech-based Radio Svaboda (RFE/RL) as well as the Radyjo Racyja, the European Radio for Belarus, and Belsat TV, based in Poland.
The internet remains the only environment where independent Belarusian media (e.g., TUT.by., Onliner.by, Charter97.org portals) are dominant. However, the Belarusian authorities have developed a large set of legal and technical tools allowing them to block any critical media, including online ones (see the section Legal Regulation below for details).
As our interviewees explained, state-owned and independent media function according to different logic. State-owned media are non-pluralistic and hierarchy-based. Journalists spread messages designed by the authorities and represent an official point of view. Publications on political and economic matters require the permission of editors-in-chief. Hierarchy and dependence on official sources significantly reduces their speed of reaction to events, as one of the state media employees explains:
‘If something happens, we do not question witnesses, because different witnesses may have different points of view. They are emotional and not objective. We are waiting for the confirmation from official sources. Of course, we would like to get this confirmation faster than we get it now’.
The independent media are more autonomous regarding their information policy. Their news feed is not as selective and is closer to real-time, providing a voice and tribune for different social groups in comparison with state-owned media. However, they experience pressure from the authorities and have difficulty in accessing official information.
‘The situation has improved a lot in the last couple of years, but many institutions still perceive their press offices as tools to protect state officials from journalists. In some cases, they react days and weeks after an inquiry. For a Belarusian journalist, it is easier to get information from a foreign government institution than from a domestic one’.
As has been already mentioned, in Belarus there is no independent local TV and radio broadcaster. State-owned Belarusian TV and radio outlets transmit predominantly Russia-originated news and entertainment content. In 2016, the deputy head of the presidential administration, Ihar Buzouski, acknowledged that the share of this content reaches 65%. State-owned Belarusian TV channels do not only show Russian movies, TV series, and other entertainment programmes, they also broadcast prime-time news services and political talk shows produced by Kremlin-controlled media.
The Belarusian experts we spoke to openly declared that the worldview of the average Belarusian is formed by Moscow, not Minsk:
‘The opinion of Belarusians on the most important topics of international affairs, geopolitics, conflicts in the region, and even the most important issues related to Belarusian national identity is formed by Russian TV. Opinion polls suggest that 60%-65% of Belarusians look at the world through the prism of Russian TV networks. I think even [President] Lukashenka is worried about it, because he realizes that he does not have control over the information disseminated in his own land”.
The majority of our interviewees stated that the Belarusian government is aware of the possible information threats coming from the east. However, the Belarusian authorities seem to refrain from open censorship of Russian media. They monitor and eliminate messages directly attacking the Belarusian regime. At the same time, they allow Russian mass media to distribute their products and spread the Kremlin’s point of view.
Both the Belarusian Association of Journalists, an associate member of the European Federation of Journalists, and the pro-government Belarusian Union of Journalists have Commissions on Ethics designed to fight manipulation and maintain professional standards. However, as our experts confessed, journalists and media largely do not respect the decisions of either commission and therefore these bodies do not play any regulatory role. This duty could to some extent be performed by the Civic Coordination Council of the Media established in 2008 by resolution of the Council of Ministers. The Council was supposed to meet at least once a quarter and to coordinate the activities of government bodies, NGOs and other media-related organisations. However, in practice it has met only a few times and exists only on paper.
Based on the SATIO survey, the most popular TV channels among Belarusian viewers are presented below.
The so-called ‘hybrid’ channels are a Belarusian media phenomenon. These networks are registered as Belarusian legal entities and combine Russian content with domestically produced programmes. They emerged in Belarus in the early 2000s. One of the goals of the Belarusian authorities when they established them was to pre-moderate the content and eliminate messages criticizing the Belarusian regime. The censorship relates only to information about Belarus. All the entertainment and information on international and domestic Russian issues are not subject to restriction. As several experts interviewed argued, a large part of the Belarusian population does not distinguish between genuine Russian TV channels and those modified by the Belarusian authorities.
In the package of nine generally accessible TV channels broadcast in Belarus, four networks (ONT, NTV-Belarus, RTR-Belarus, and STV) broadcast news and political talk shows produced in Russia. The uncensored Russian channels in Belarus are broadcast by cable television providers; they are also accessible via satellite. Their total audience is about 43% of the population. It is important to note that often around 90% of the content in the packages offered by all cable TV providers in Belarus consists of Russia-originated channels. The Russian-language versions of Euronews, Viasat Nature, and Viasat History or the Israeli Russian-language RTVI are some of the notable exceptions. Ukrainian, Lithuanian, or Polish TV is absent from the Belarusian cable networks.
Since 2014, the Belarusian authorities have been trying to limit political content on the “hybrid” channels more actively than before. For instance, they moved TV shows with strong propaganda, such as Russian journalist Vladimir Solovyev’s programme on RTR-Belarus and Vremia pokazhet(Time Will Tell), a talk show on ONT, from prime time to late night. Nevertheless, Russian content clearly dominates Belarusian media. Almost all of the most popular TV programmes in Belarus are Russia-produced.
According to gemiusAudience data, in January 2017, the number of internet users aged 15 years and older in Belarus exceeded 5 million people.The level of internet penetration reached 70%. The share of internet users in Belarus is higher than in Hungary, Ukraine, Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Latvia. Among the Belarusian population aged 15 to 39 years, the proportion of internet users already exceeds the audience for television.
The share of the Belarusian internet audience that uses the internet at least once a day has reached 91%. The internet audience is young (although penetration among older social groups is growing) and largely apolitical. Political news is of interest to 46% of the internet audience. It is important to note that this kind of information is more popular among older people (and particularly among those aged 60 years and older).
According to the survey conducted by SATIO, the most popular news website in Belarus is a Belarusian privately-owned portal, TUT.by, with 39% of respondents having declared they use it as a source of information. It is followed by the privately-owned Belarusian portal Onliner.by (21.9%) and Russian portals News.mail.ru (18.5%) and News.yandex.by (14%). The SATIO survey heavily underestimates the popularity of the Belarusian independent portal Charter97.org, whose editorial staff relocated abroad in 2010 due to repression by the Belarusian authorities. According to this survey, Charter97’s audience equals 2.2% of the population. This data contradicts information from other sources. According to the figures provided by the SimilarWeb.com platform, Charter97’s popularity exceeds that of the abovementioned Russian portals. Therefore, Charter97should also be listed among the top five news websites in Belarus. Although the majority of Belarusian respondents did not mention independent national websites (TUT.by, Onliner.by, Charter97.org, NN.by and others) as a primary source of information, their combined audience in Belarus is close to 50% of the population.
The presence of Russian media in Belarusian internet usage is below that of TV. They are represented mainly by the Belarusian versions of Yandex.ru and Mail.ru portals, which aggregate news from Belarusian and Russian media sources. The participants of the SATIO survey mention the Lenta.ru portal among other popular Russian media outlets in Belarus. It covers events in the West and Russia’s ‘near abroad’ from a pro-Kremlin position.
The Lenta.ru audience in Belarus is several times smaller than that of the TUT.by or Onliner.by portals, but is far from being insignificant. In October 2017, this website had 5 million visits from Belarus, which exceeds the popularity of the independent online newspaper Naša Niva (NN.by)and the state-owned news agency BelTA (Belta.by), listed among the three top-10 Belarusian news websites. Another Russian media source, Sputnik.by, launched at the end of 2014, is actively promoted by the Yandex.by and News.mail.ru portals. Thanks to referrals from these portals, in October 2017, Sputnik.by reached 1.5 million visits from Belarus. However, with 2.78 million page views per month, it has not yet reached the top 10 most popular Belarusian news websites.
Some experts we have spoken to are worried about the growing popularity of this portal. One of the respondents stated the following:
‘Currently, Sputnik operates as a news agency. Belarusian authorities invite its journalists to official events. At the same time, they do not extend such invitations to, for instance, the Belarusian independent agency BelaPAN. Sometimes, Sputnik is the only source of government information(!). Its journalists attend an even bigger number of official events than BelTA [Belarusian Telegraph Agency]. I have the impression that some official institutions give Sputnik more exclusive information than they provide to any genuine Belarusian media outlet’.
The Russian information presence in Belarusian internet consumption is far from negligible due to the high popularity of Russian social networks. About 2.8 million Belarusians (56% of all internet users in the country) use social networks at least once a day. At the end of 2015, the most popular social networks in Belarus were Russian Vkontakte (vk.com) and Odnoklassniki (ok.ru), with 32.3% and 30.2%, respectively, of adult users. The Facebook audience in Belarus was half that(14.9%).
Vkontakte is more popular among the young male population (aged 16-30) living in cities while Odnoklassniki is preferred by an older audience, especially women residing in small towns and rural areas. However, in recent years the usage of Odnoklassniki in Belarus has grown among younger social groups and people living in big cities.
In Belarus, there have been no academic studies focused on the groups disseminating pro-Kremlin messages on social networks. Some of these groups on Vkontakte, for instance, Slavianskiy virtualnyi klub (Slavic Virtual Club), Za nravstvennost i sotsialnuyu spravedlivost (For Morality and Social Justice), and Etu stranu ne pobedit (This Country is Invincible), have between 7 000 and 70 000 members from Belarus. According to calculations made by Belarusian bloggers, these groups are more popular in the eastern regions of the country.
Then there is the activity of so-called “Kremlin trolls” on online message boards. The chief moderator of the talks.by forums for the largest Belarusian web portal, TUT.by, recently stated that coordinated groups of politically engaged commentators from Russia are permanently present on their forum. The increased activity of “Kremlin trolls” in Belarus was also noted by Freedom House in its latest “Freedom of the Net” report.Therefore, one should not underestimate the capacity of the Russian government to spread misleading information in Belarus via social media and online message boards.
The role of print media in the Belarusian information space is continuously decreasing. This source is in demand among people older than 45 with a lower income and living in rural areas. The most popular print media in Belarus are Belarusian versions of large Russian newspapers Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi (readership is 15.1% of the population) and Argumenty i Fakty (10.2%), as well as the Belarusian state-owned newspapers SB-Belarus Segodnia (14.9%), Respublika (4.5%), and Narodnaja Hazieta (2.7%). The interviewees did not perceive the Belarusian versions of Russian periodicals as actively transmitting Kremlin political narratives. They argue that the editorial staff of Komsomolskaya Pravdaand Argumenty i Fakty have large autonomy in creating content. For instance, Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi, while covering the war in Donbas, uses publications from Komsomolskaya Pravda v Ukraine. Argumenty i Fakty abstains from publishing the most biased articles from the Russian version of the newspaper and supports projects promoting the use of Belarusian language.
Public institutions in Belarus (schools, hospitals, police, army, etc.) as well as their employees are mandated to purchase subscriptions to Belarusian state-owned periodicals. Such periodicals include both specialised branch newspapers and journals (e.g., Meditsinskaya Gazeta(Medical Newspaper) for medical staff and Nastaunickaja Hazieta (Teacher’s Newspaper) for school teachers) as well as the main state-owned political newspapers. Hence, the large subscription volume to state-owned periodicals does not reflect their popularity. The figures provided by social surveys seem to give a much more useful picture of the influence of print media on Belarusian society.
Radio is the least popular media source, with about 30% of Belarusians tuned in. However, the number of listeners may vary significantly depending on the locality. Nationwide, the most popular radio stations include the state-owned Radius-FM (10.3%) and the First National Channel of Belarusian Radio (7.6%), as well as the private Radio Roks (10.7%), Pilot FM (5.7%), and Russkoye Radio (5.3%). Only one of these radio broadcasters (First National Channel) covers political, social, and economic topics. The rest are focused on entertainment. It is important to note that Belarusian FM radio stations in their news programmes are supposed to distribute information provided by the state-owned news agencies and are not allowed to broadcast information published by independent media. In 2015, it was reported that a Radio Unistar presenter was fired for occasionally airing news from the privately owned news agency BelaPAN.
Belarus’ Mass Media Law does not mention the concept of information security. The main legal document providing the definition of this notion is the National Security Concept of the Republic of Belarus adopted on November 9, 2010. Chapter 1 Article 4 of the document specifies various types of security, including information security, which is “the condition when balanced interests of an individual, society, and state are safe from external and internal threats in the information sphere”. Chapter 2 Article 14 states that the main national interests in the field of information security are:
- realization of the constitutional rights of citizens to receive, store and disseminate complete, credible, and timely information;
- formation and gradual evolvement of an information society;
- equal participation of the Republic of Belarus in the world’s information affairs
- transformation of the information industry into an export-oriented branch of the economy
- efficient information support of state policy; and
- securing the credibility and reliability of crucial information objects.
Chapter 4 Article 27 of the concept mentions the destructive impact of information on the individual, society, and state institutions among the main threats to national security.
In addition, Articles 34 and 42 of the concept also recite internal and external sources of threats to information security as follows:
- dependence of the Republic of Belarus on the import of information technologies, means of relaying information and information security, and uncontrolled usage in the systems’ destruction or failure, which may harm national security (Article 34);
- the quality of national information content falls short of global standards (Article 34);
- ineffective maintenance of information about state policy (Article 34);
- openness and vulnerability of the Belarusian information space to external influence (Article 42)
- domination of the leading foreign states in the global information space, monopolisation of key segments of information markets by foreign information structures (Article 42)
- information activities of foreign states, international or other organisations, and persons who undermine the national interest of the Republic of Belarus; targeted development of information aiming at discrediting the state(Article 42)
- intensification of confrontation over information between leading foreign actors, preparation for and the conduct of information warfare (Article 42); and
- the development of technologies on information manipulation (Article 42).
The very fact that the regulations on information security are an integral part of one of the key legal documents of the Republic of Belarus—the National Security Concept—stresses its importance in the internal and external policy of the Belarusian state. Other binding legal documents in Belarus specify different aspects of the freedom of speech and the functioning of mass media in the country.
Article 33 of the Belarusian constitution guarantees the freedom of thought and belief and free expression. In addition, Art. 33 proclaims that ‘no one shall be forced to express one’s beliefs or to deny them. No monopolisation of mass media by the state, public associations or individual citizens, and no censorship shall be permitted’.
Despite that, the Belarusian legal framework challenges freedom of expression and press and does little to prevent the monopolisation of media in Belarus. Thus, Article 6 of the Mass Media Law does not define real anti-monopolisation mechanisms in the mass-media sphere. The Belarusian Criminal Code contains provisions on insult, defamation, and libel. Since 2014, online media in Belarus have the same obligations and restrictions as traditional media, except for mandatory registration.
In addition, the Ministry of Information enjoys wide discretionary powers to limit access to internet outlets without a court decision. For instance, in January 2017, the ministry limited access to the Russian web portal Sputnik i Pogrom in Belarus, arguing that the materials published there contained extremist views and aimed at stirring up national hatred, which is forbidden according to Article 38 of the Mass Media Law.
However, such practices are especially popular during periods of mass protest and are often aimed against independent media. The ministry can also issue warnings to internet blogs and demand authors delete specific information, including comments containing alleged false information and can eventually block web pages or blogs.
Another common practice is to replace certain Russian TV channel programmes with Belarusian content (see ‘Media Landscape’ for additional details on ‘hybrid’ channels) depending on the current censorship needs. For example, an infamous TV report, “A Call to a Friend”, which was shown to discredit those accused in Patriots’ Case’—former members of the dissolved ‘White Legion’ patriotic organisation—was broadcast instead of a very popular humour TV show KVN (Club of Funny and Inventive People, in English).
A recent dispute between Belarusian journalist Hleb Labadzienka and a petrol station operator in the Minsk region, where the Rossiya-24 channel was being broadcast, revealed important facts concerning television regulation in Belarus. The Ministry of Information is in charge of a special register of foreign channels (204 channels as of December 12, 2017) that can be broadcast in public spaces in Belarus. But to have the right to show one of these channels in public, the legal entity has to be among those included in the special register. Therefore, businesses like cafeterias or petrol stations are only allowed to show nine compulsory, generally available TV channels defined in the Council of Ministers Resolution adopted on May 13, 2015. It also turned out that channels such as Rossiya-24 or REN-TV, known for their pro-Kremlin stance, are not among the foreign channels allowed in public spaces in Belarus. However they can be watched at home on satellite.
According to earlier research, legal regulation of the media sphere allows the Belarusian authorities to limit the spread of any undesirable information. They enumerate a dozen measures that allow the government to isolate the national information space. These instruments include:
- a requirement to register both domestic and foreign media outlets to obtain broadcasting licenses from the Ministry of Information;
- prohibition on foreigners establishing media outlets in the country (only possible in cooperation with Belarusian entities);
- prohibition on Belarusian and foreign citizens working for foreign media without accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and,
- the right of the Ministry of Information to request a court close down a print media outlet following two official warnings.
As the head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Andrei Bastuniec, stressed:
‘Belarusian laws allow for the silencing of any media and for jamming any flow of information, both from within the country and abroad. These regulations are used very arbitrarily. They are applied only when the government wants to punish its opponents. Usually those are media that promote pro-European democratic values. We do not see many cases when they are applied against broadly understood pro-Kremlin forces’.
In the past 20 years, the Belarusian authorities have used these tools mainly against domestic mass media critical of the government. However, the execution of such measures against major foreign media companies may cause significant political problems. Furthermore, the experts believe that shutting down foreign TV channels and blocking websites will not protect Belarusian society from the influence of foreign propaganda and disinformation.
According to one of the experts we spoke to, there are three main state bodies responsible for interaction with Belarusian media: the Operational Analytical Centre the Presidential Administration, and the Ministry of Information.
In April 2008, President Lukashenka decreed the establishment of the Operational Analytical Centre (OAC) affiliated to the Belarusian president. It superseded the State Centre for Information Security, also affiliated to the president and charged with the protection of classified information and the registration of websites to the .by top-level domain.
OAC activities include the elaboration of standards in information security, monitoring of new developments in the field, control of crucial spheres of public life, and informing the president about its findings on a regular basis with a special emphasis on information security. As Lukashenka acknowledged in 2013, the fact that the centre was controlled by his eldest son, Viktar Lukashenka, demonstrated the significance of this state body. In practice, one of the centre’s main tasks is monitoring the Belarusian internet, including online media. In collaboration with the Ministry of Information, the OAC regularly drafts laws and regulations restricting access to various internet sources.
As one of the experts we spoke to stated, the Presidential Administration also plays an informal role in controlling and monitoring Belarusian state media. This state organ embodies three main functions related to state-owned mass media:
- implementation of personnel policy, thus directly influencing the allocation of key job positions within state media;
- realisation of ideological policy through weekly meetings with the editors of the main state media outlets; and
- direct subordination of chief editors to the Presidential Administration on an ad hoc basis.
Finally, the main duties of the Ministry of Information include the direct oversight of several state-owned media outlets and the monitoring of the rest of the national media. The ministry applies punitive actions against media deemed too critical of the authorities. This state body rarely takes the initiative on its own but rather executes orders given by the Presidential Administration, and thus primarily carries out the role of a supervisor.
On November 16, 2017, Lukashenka signed Decree No. 413 “On the Inter-Agency Commission on Security in the Information Field”. The official commentary to the decree stated that the commission was established to increase the effectiveness of the subjects dealing with the provision of security in the information field and will enable the Belarusian state to elaborate legislation on information security in a more timely manner. State Secretary of the Belarusian Security Council Stanislau Zas was appointed the chair of the Commission. He was joined by other security officials and representatives of the Presidential Administration and state-run media, and the Minister of Information.
The creation of an inter-agency state body dealing with information security and composed of high-ranking officials shows that the Belarusian authorities take the issue of information security very seriously. The fact that only a few people representing media were included (none from independent outlets) revealed the reluctance of the Belarusian government to share the responsibilities in the information security sphere with mass media and the lack of understanding regarding how important cooperation between mass media and the state apparatus is on this matter.
Hence, information security remains a sphere monopolised by the state where no external actors, such as independent journalists or associations, are welcome. Thus, together with the restrictive measures specified in Belarusian legislation, state bodies in Belarus play a rather restrictive role when monitoring and controlling the local media landscape. The declared partnership is putative and demonstrates the reluctance for cooperation.
Digital debunking teams
A Belarusian media expert interviewed by us listed media analyses conducted by the EAST Center and the recent series of articles on the 1863x.com website headed by Eduard Palchys as the main resources for information debunking. In 2016-2017, the EAST Center also contributed to the EU Strategic communication project euvsdisinfo.eu covering Belarus.
In addition to that, Belarusian media such as Naša Niva (e.g., debunked the alleged rape of a girl by Russian soldiers in Homiel during the Zapad 2017 military exercises) and Belarusian Radyjo Svaboda (RFE/RL) occasionally publish investigative reports aimed at demystifying Kremlin-produced disinformation, thus partially filling the fact-checking niche in Belarus.
The Belarusian version of the InformNapalm initiative lead by Dzianis Ivašyn is rather part of the ‘International Intelligence Community’ as they call themselves than a debunking service, and is focused mainly on Ukraine. The quality of fact-checking depends on the qualifications of the journalists. Even some employees of large independent media outlets do not possess a deep understanding of politics and believe Kremlin propaganda. Some independent media may voluntarily spread fake news if it is aligned with their ideological views or helps them to gain more clicks, i.e., popularity and ratings. In such a way, they may assist the Kremlin in spreading panic (e.g., a recent report that armed Russian soldiers without insignia were spotted in a tram in Vitebsk).
Media literacy projects
Although international and foreign foundations and organisations carry out sporadic training on media literacy for various population groups, only a few Belarusian associations conduct regular systematic workshops or professional courses focused on journalists.
According to one of our interviewees, there are two main Belarusian initiatives that fulfill such a role on a regular basis. First, the Belarusian Association of Journalists organises regular workshops on fact-checking practices for journalists. They also have projects aimed at the development of data journalism. Second, Press Club Belarus runs the School of Digital Management for journalists, which combines offline and online courses. In addition to that, the Press Club often holds various ad hoc meetings on topics related to media literacy and the development of high-quality reporting skills. These two projects have served to increase media literacy, but only among the independent journalist community. This leaves not only journalists of state-run media outlets but the vast majority of Belarusian society prone to disinformation and distorted news.
A number of foreign institutions also have schools or offer training promoting media literacy and related skills among Belarusian journalists. One of them is Transitions Online, based in the Czech Republic, which organises regular training in media literacy in collaboration with the Linking Mediafoundation registered in Poland. They carry out numerous projects for transition countries, including Belarus, aimed at promoting data-verification skills among journalists as well as courses on infographics.
The Centre for Media Studies at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga and the Human Rights House in Vilnius carry out occasional training sessions for Belarusian journalists. In addition to that, European and American funds, as well as international organisations that focus on Belarus in their various projects, organise workshops covering media literacy projects on an ad hoc basis.
In 2016, the most popular Belarusian online news portal, TUT.by, in collaboration with a portal for professional journalism, mediakritika.by,translated a Ukrainian version of the game Mediaznayka. The game was initially created by the Armenian Media Initiatives Centre and then distributed in Ukraine. It explains basic topics related to mass media such as what is news, types of mass media, freedom of speech, and others in a form of game and was designed as a media-education initiative for youth. Mediaznayka is a unique initiative, as the Belarusian state has not initiated any media literacy education programmes for the younger population.
The authorities do not seem to be willing to educate the population in the media sphere, which can be proved by the fact that they often spread fake news themselves, as in the so-called ‘Patriots’ Case’ and a series of related ‘reports’ and a ‘documentary’ by the state-run networks and publications aimed at discrediting ex-members of the ‘White Legion’ organisation.
In the materials were shown weapons allegedly confiscated from the accused. State-owned mass media assured the audience that the case involving the military group had been solved. For instance, one of BelTA’s articles was titled “Terrorists staging a provocation detained in Belarus”,while the newspaper SB-Belarus Segodnia stated that ‘the investigation is establishing facts which point to a very secret organisation with a rigid hierarchy, strict discipline, members united on the basis of ideology, and possessing weapons’. Later, investigators found no evidence to confirm these accusations and the criminal prosecution of all those arrested in relation to the case was stopped on November 27, 2017. Nevertheless, no refutation or apology by state media followed.
One more interesting case of a questionable message reported by Belarusian state-owned media was about an alleged attempt of by people with weapons in an SUV to break through the Ukrainian-Belarusian border on March 20, 2017. Two individuals present in the car were allegedly detained. The Ukrainian border control did not confirm this information and Belarusian officials did not reveal any further details, including the names of the detainees or any other details pertinent to the case.
Thus, the Belarusian state might not be interested in the promotion of media literacy among the Belarusian general public as long as it serves its own interests.
Our research shows that Belarus is highly vulnerable to messages spread by Kremlin-controlled media, whether through traditional or digital outlets. Most of the experts we interviewed argue that Belarus is “totally dependent” on Russia in this sphere. Russian TV channels are the main source of information for more than 40% of the Belarusian population. Around two-thirds of all the content, including entertainment, news, and political shows, broadcast by Belarusian radio stations and TV channels are produced in Russia. Furthermore, around three-quarters of Belarusians at least partially trust Russian media.
The national mass media, which could potentially act as a counterweight to the influence of Russian information, face numerous obstacles. Independent outlets are constrained by limitations on freedom of speech and confronted with various obstacles in access to information. The interviewed experts also stress that Belarusian independent media lack commentators and journalists specialised in a variety of issues (e.g., on trade, the energy market, military, etc.). Consequently, Belarusian journalists are unable to quickly react to information produced by Russian media. Experts from academia, official institutions, and even private firms are reluctant to talk to independent reporters due to political concerns, whereas experts from civil society often lack relevant expertise.
Belarusian media outlets are far from functioning as self-sustaining enterprises. While state-owned media rely on government subsidies, the financing of independent outlets is often based on foreign grants, which have somewhat diminished in recent years due to geopolitical changes in Eastern Europe. Private businesses, however, remain reluctant to invest in media due to the uncertainty of profit and affiliated political risks.
The Belarusian authorities have developed a range of regulation restricting freedom of the press. They have built a centralised hierarchical system of institutions headed by the Presidential Administration, which secure state propaganda and control over the media sphere. For many years, this system has efficiently served the interests of the current political regime. Recently, the Belarusian authorities realized the high level of Russia-related information threats and have turned to a gradual reduction of the share of Kremlin-produced political content in the national media sphere. However, the proportion of Russian media content in the Belarusian media remains enormous.
The share of Russia-originated publications is lower in the internet. However, Russian news aggregators Yandex and Mail.ru play a significant agenda-setting role for more than 30% of Belarusian internet users. Moreover, Belarusian portals are primarily focused on domestic issues. When they cover international events, they largely rely on Russian sources. A substantial population exposure to the online information warfare also comes from social media. The audience of each of the Russian social networks in Belarus (Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki) is more than twice that of Facebook.
Economic, linguistic, and cultural policies carried out by the Belarusian authorities in the last two decades have made all of Belarusian society very vulnerable to the messages spread by Russian media. However, particular attention should be paid to groups that consume Russian information products more actively, are culturally predisposed to the messages spread by the Kremlin, and whose economic situation has worsened in recent years. Such groups include the military, the retired, unemployed, workers in economically depressed state-owned enterprises, and small business owners or entrepreneurs struggling with financial difficulties, as well as active Russian Orthodox Church believers. The influence of Russian media is also higher in the eastern regions of Belarus bordering Russia.
There are three main state bodies responsible for interaction with Belarusian media: the Operational Analytical Centre, Presidential Administration, and the Belarusian Ministry of Information. The latter has wide authority to punish media outlets for spreading supposedly misleading messages. However, this ministry is primarily focused not on fighting foreign disinformation but on controlling domestic ideological opponents, i.e., non-government-controlled traditional and digital media. Experts interviewed by us questioned the ability of the Belarusian state apparatus to react quickly to present-day information threats from abroad. Interestingly and very recently, in mid-November 2017 the inter-agency state body dealing with information security was created. It remains to be seen how effective it will face the challenges in this respective field.
Belarusian media self-regulation mechanisms are rather ineffective in countering disinformation. There are two associations of journalists, one is state-supported and the other affiliated with the European Federation of Journalists, but neither of their Commissions on Ethics play a significant regulatory role. Media literacy projects are rather infrequent and fact-checking initiatives are in their early stages of formation in Belarus.
It is not an easy task to make recommendations on how to become more resilient to Kremlin-led disinformation for a country like Belarus, where the freedoms of press and speech are restricted and the influence of Russian media is high. Nevertheless, the study proposes the following recommendations.
To the Belarusian authorities and relevant state bodies:
1. To considerably diversify and broaden the sources of media products available to the Belarusian population. This can be achieved through a comprehensive set of measures including:
a) to amend the Council of Ministers’ resolution regarding the register of mandatory public television program packaging. TV channels originating in neighbouring countries other than Russia should be added, either unmodified or as new ‘hybrid’ TV channels, which would include domestically produced content combined with original content. In its current form, the list of nine generally available channels is largely predisposed towards one foreign state. Three out of nine publicly accessible networks clearly belong to the category of so-called ‘hybrids’ (ONT, RTR-Belarus, and NTV-Belarus) with a prevalence of Russian content, both entertainment and news. Yet another channel on the list (STV), although nominally a national one, can also be regarded as a ‘hybrid’ considering the large share of Russian REN-TV content re-broadcast by STV on a daily basis. Furthermore, the Mir TV channel was jointly set up by ten post-Soviet countries to cover the events in the CIS states;
b) to introduce regulations instructing all cable TV providers to offer in their packages a minimum percentage of TV channels (for instance, at least 30%) that do not originate in Russia. Furthermore, these TV channels should not broadcast solely entertainment content. Currently, around 90% of TV channels offered by the Belarusian cable TV providers originate in Russia. There are many foreign TV stations licensed for broadcasting in Belarus but they are normally not included in the cable packages. In addition to that, some of this programming can be broadcast in the original language, thus facilitating the development of foreign language skills among Belarusians;
c) to systematically revise the Ministry of Information’s register of foreign channels allowed to broadcast in Belarus, which would imply the removal of channels frequently disseminating unreliable, biased information and increasing the number of TV channels originating in neighbouring countries other than Russia (Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia). For this purpose, transparent benchmarks identifying foreign channels as transmitters of unreliable information should be established by the authorities in cooperation with local journalists (see Point 5 below);
d) to expand the share of Belarusian as well as non-Russia originated content in the programming of Belarusian TV channels. To become more appealing to the domestic audience and competitive, Belarusian TV needs larger investments, both in resources allocated to the creation of high-quality domestic content, purchasing, and dubbing of Western movies and TV series, or acquiring franchises for popular foreign entertainment programmes. This investment can be secured both by providing more public finances and from private sources (see Point 6).
2. To consider imposing limits on the broadcasting of foreign news programmes produced by the so-called ‘hybrid’ TV channels. The current process of ‘hybrid’ networks (ONT, NTV Belarus, RTR Belarus) is to follow the Russian news programmes with local Belarusian versions. The approach exercised by the ‘hybrid’ channels puts Belarusian domestic news in a situation where they are assigned lower priority by the viewers than the Russian ones. This already sends the domestic audience the wrong political message, not to mention contributes to the spread of Kremlin-led narratives and disinformation. State-owned TV channels have already attempted to limit Russia-originated politicised content (i.e., replacing the show of Russian journalist Vladimir Solovyev on RTR-Belarus and the Vremya pokazhet talk show on ONT), but further steps are needed.
3. To scrutinise the content of the national TV channels to prevent them from retransmitting dubious content from foreign channels not included in the registry of foreign TV stations. Otherwise, the very rationale for the existence of this document is compromised. For example, the register of foreign TV channels allowed for broadcasting in Belarus does not contain REN-TV. At the same time, a large share of the programming of the national STV channel is currently composed of REN-TV content, including such TV shows as Military Secret with Igor Prokopenko, Chapman’s Secrets, Russians Do Not Surrender: Special-Purpose Weapons, Driving the Russian Way, etc. This legal loophole should be immediately closed.
4. To increase efforts to promote Belarusian national identity and culture to serve as a shield against ubiquitous foreign narratives in national media. Although almost 60% of the Belarusian population has a very reluctant attitude towards the national language, the rest of society displays interest in Belarusian-language media content. Currently, the Belarus 3 TV network broadcasts mostly in Belarusian but its content is almost exclusively dedicated to culture. Broadcasting diverse programmes in Belarusian, be it national news, sports, fashion, health, or dubbed versions of popular foreign movies, should be expanded to all other national TV channels.
A larger share of appealing entertainment content in Belarusian would increase this language social status. For these reasons, as proposed by some experts interviewed during this research, a Belarusian-language TV channel for children could be set up and Belarusian franchises of world-known print and electronic media (National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Eurosport, etc.) can be developed.
5. To have a permanent genuine dialogue with the journalist community on the topic of information policy and related legislation in this field. This would increase the resilience of Belarusian society to hypothetical foreign information warfare. A number of experts we spoke to within this research advised to revitalise the Civic Coordination Council on the Media. Although the Council of Ministers 2008 decree says that the Council on the Media should convene at least once every quarter, it has met only a few times. The council should include more independent experts and representatives of non-state-controlled media, conduct regular meetings as stipulated in the legislation, and its activities should be reported by the Ministry of Information.
6. To liberalise the media market to make it more attractive for private investors. The development of advertising and media markets as such will increase the sustainability of Belarusian media outlets. If the authorities perceive deregulation and (at least partial) privatisation of the media market problematic for political reasons, they should at least promote competition between the state-owned and private media as well as between the various state-owned outlets. It will make Belarusian journalists more dynamic, professional, responsive to the demands of the audience, and able to quickly react to the information threats coming from abroad.
7. To raise public awareness about the phenomenon of disinformation and increase media literacy among the Belarusian population.Fake news and disinformation is a serious public policy concern and should be addressed by a set of various measures, including:
a) creation of obligatory course for secondary schools and adding it to the school curriculum;
b) supporting discussions and training on the topic of media literacy given by specialised NGOs;
c) conducting educational seminars dedicated to media for state officials, including those working in regional administrations.
To the Belarusian journalist community:
1. To develop fact-checking initiatives. Civic activists together with professional journalists should permanently monitor social networks and public groups in social media as well as message boards belonging to the largest national portals, such as TUT.by. With the help of special tools, debunking teams will identify trolls and coordinated efforts to spread unreliable and provocative materials on the web. An aggregated database of fake information should be created and the most important cases presented to the existing media and via channels on social media or YouTube.
2. To cover the dissemination of fake news to help address the issue. It is important for media to report on the most illustrative examples discovered by themselves or presented by fact-checking initiatives to increase societal awareness about this phenomenon.
3. To organise professional training sessions for individuals involved with media, to increase the awareness of Belarusian opinion-makers and society in general of the issues of fake news, trolls, bots, and propaganda. Media literacy classes for journalists should be organised by specialised NGOs where the effective ways of identification and debunking fake or unreliable information will be presented and relevant skills are trained. It is important to organise such training not only in Minsk but throughout the country to provide access to this knowledge for regional journalists. Media literacy courses should be also conducted by NGO activists, especially those who regularly communicate through social networks.
4. To develop effective self-regulatory mechanisms and to promote initiatives aimed at raising professional standards. Several interviewees proposed to engage Belarusian journalists in peer review of their work and that of their colleagues and to evaluate their professional standards monthly using a special methodology and a ranking system. Such rankings will help readers and journalists to distinguish reliable and reputable media from unreliable ones. The rankings may be established in cooperation with existing media community platforms such as Mediakritika.by.
To the international organizations:
1. To support Belarusian civic fact-checking initiatives and promotion of media-literacy programmes. Organisations such as the EU or UNDP could also engage Belarus in celebrating Safer Internet Day, which raises citizens’ awareness about threats emanating from social networks.
2. To continue the support of independent media in Belarus. Otherwise, Belarus will find itself more vulnerable to the information threats of foreign origin. More funding should be directed to support investigative journalism and projects promoting Belarusian national culture and identity.