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Belarusian Media Landscape H1 2023: Compliance with reporting standards, manipulative narratives and the place of “russkiy mir”

January — June 2023 Media IQ analytical report

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Summary

The report examines how the media outlets in the sample violated professional standards and used propaganda and manipulation during the first six months of 2023.

After the 2020 elections, the Belarusian regime effectively declared war on independent media, depriving them of opportunities to operate legally. Editorial collectives were declared extremist formations, their content was deemed extremist material, resulting in access restrictions (requiring VPNs within Belarus). Consumption of independent media — following, sharing and engaging in social media including in personal communication — is criminalized. Currently, 36 journalists and media managers are in jail, mostly following fruitles appeals against sentences. Some are in the midst of legal proceedings or awaiting trial, while hundreds of journalists have been forced to leave Belarus.

This has weakened the independent media and alienated them from their audiences. Nevertheless, they continue to operate according to professional standards and hardly use propaganda and manipulation.

State media, disregarding professional standards, have opted for a “participation in an information war“. Propaganda has replaced socio-political reporting in state media. To the detriment of informative and analytical publications, the volume of “opinion journalism“ has increased, meaning selective coverage of events, arbitrary assessments of events, use of hate speech, including incitement to violence against opponents.

Violations of reporting standards and manipulative techniques in state media lead to the systemic disinformation of the audience with the aim to shape public opinion for the benefit of the regime, pave the way to “russkiy mir“ [“Russian world“] ideas into the Belarusian information space and ultimately contribute to the loss of national sovereignty.

Media consumption and the media landscape in H1 2023

A study conducted by Chatham House at the beginning of 2023 has documented a continued gradual decline in media consumption and trust in independent media among the Belarusian audience. This decline can be attributed to the high “cost“ of engaging with media, fatigue from negative information, and low interest in news due to the absence of opportunities for change. Simultaneously, sociologists noted a halt in further dynamics, reaching a “plateau“.

In Belarus, four groups of media consumers stand out:

  1. An active audience consuming both state and independent media, comprising 26% of the population.
  2. 37% of Belarusians exclusively consume state-owned media.
  3. 18% prefer independent media exclusively.
  4. 19% rarely consume any media.

It is important to consider the influence of the fear factor on the audience’s responses. Since the consumption of the majority of independent media in Belarus entails persecution, some respondents may distort information fearing repressions. Therefore, data on the consumption of independent media is likely underestimated, while data on state-affiliated media is likely overestimated. In any case, no fewer than 50% of respondents report consuming information from independent media. The audience outside Belarus, to a significant extent, consumes independent media.

Both, the audience of state and independent media, do not trust alternative sources of information, even if they consume information from them. Both groups exist within their respective “echo chambers.“

Television, ultimately state controlled, remains the primary source of information for Belarusians within Belarus. Its audience consistently and regularly receives predominantly Russian media narratives and pro-Kremlin perspectives on major global events. This is one of the main factors posing a risk to the state’s information security.

Ongoing sociological studies reveal a correlation between the type of media consumption and the attitude toward current socio-political issues. Pro-Russian and anti-democratic attitudes are influenced by messages received from media affiliated with Belarusian and Russian states. The high share of using television as the main source of information implies that its audience stays in the Russian-Belarusian state-controlled “echo chamber“, broadcasting narratives about the great USSR, fraternal nations, the threat from the West, and others.

In 2023, the government continued its systemic efforts to muzzle independent media through administrative and criminal persecution of journalists, creating obstacles to their activities by law enforcement agencies, applying anti-extremist legislation, and administrative measures to restrict access to information.

After the 2020 elections, the Belarusian regime effectively declared war on independent media, depriving them of opportunities to operate legally. Editorial collectives were declared extremist formations, their content was deemed extremist material, resulting in access restrictions (requiring VPNs within Belarus). Consumption of independent media — following, liking, commenting, engaging and sharing, including in personal communication — is criminalized. Currently, 36 journalists and media managers are in jail, most of them being sentenced and appeals being rejected. Some are on trial or awaiting trial, while many journalists have been forced to leave Belarus.

This has weakened the independent media and alienated them from their audiences. Nevertheless, they continue operations in compliance with news reporting standards and hardly use propaganda and manipulation.

According to the monitoring conducted by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, in the first half of 2023, at least 29 media professionals have been detained, 19 administrative and 3 criminal cases have been opened, 13 arrests have been made, and 21 searches have been carried out.

Among the 36 journalists and media managers behind bars, 11 are women. Marina Zolotova, the editor-in-chief of the TUT.BY news portal, and Lyudmila Chekina, the general director of the portal, received the harshest sentences — 12 years in prison. Valeria Kostyugova, the founder and editor of the expert community website “Our Opinion,“ editor and author of the “Belarus Yearbook,“ and head of the expert monitoring group “Belarus in Focus,“ received a 10-year prison sentence.

The most common charges against media workers are:

  • Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in them (Article 342 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus);
  • Treason against the state (Article 365 of the Criminal Code);
  • Calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus (article 361 of the Criminal Code);
  • Creating an extremist organization or participating in it (article 361-1 of the Criminal Code);
  • Incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord (Article 130 of the Criminal Code).

In the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, Belarus dropped four positions compared to 2022 ranking 157th out of 180 countries. In the report by Reporters Without Borders, Belarus is labeled the “most dangerous country for journalists in Europe before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.“

Compliance with reporting standards in H1 2023

The Media IQ project has been monitoring the main media operating in Belarus since 2018 to assess their compliance with journalistic standards and to detect propaganda and manipulative narratives. In 2022, 11 media were monitored, of which 7 online resources (Reform.by was added in July) and 4 TV channels. These are 7 media independent from the Belarusian authorities: Radio Svaboda, Zerkalo.io, Euroradio, Nasha Niva, Belsat, Sputnik Belarus, Reform.by and 4 state-owned: SB. Belarus Today, TV channels Belarus 1, ONT, CTV. In addition, Media IQ monitors about 50 telegram channels belonging to individuals, media resources and organizations.

In H1 2023, independent media continued to demonstrate significantly higher compliance with professional standards compared to media affiliated with the Belarusian government.

Among the leaders and anti-leaders in terms of compliance with standards, there have been no significant changes compared to 2022.

The leader in compliance with standards remains “Zerkalo“ with a score of 4.997 out of 5, followed by Euroradio (4.99), and “Radio Svaboda“ and Reform.by, both with a score of 4.98. “Nasha Niva“ has a score of 4.94, “Belsat TV“ — 4.74, and “Sputnik Belarus“ — 4.28.

The anti-leader continues to be the CTV channel with a score of 2.58 (in 2022, the score was 2.76). “Belarus 1“ has a score of 3.46, ONT — 3.56, and “SB. Belarus Today“ — 3.84. The average compliance score of the leader (Zerkalo) exceeds that of the anti-leader (CTV) by 1.9 times, and in some months, the difference exceeded 2 (February — 2.1, April — 2.08).

Propaganda in state media in H1 2023

State-owned media actively used propaganda.

While in 2022 the TV channel “Belarus 1“ used propaganda the most — an average of 67.55% of the total number of studied messages, in the first half of 2023 the leader was ONT channel with 60.83%. “Belarus 1“ and CTV showed equal use of propaganda, each accounting for 56.67% of their content. Among state-owned media, the publications of the “SB. Belarus Today» continued to demonstrate the lowest use of propaganda at 28% (compared to 30% in 2022), and this figure decreased by more than 2 times in May-June compared to January-February.

The high rates of violation of professional standards and the use of propaganda by state media indicate that in the first half of 2023 they continued to manipulate the news agenda — informing about what is happening depending on the actions and rhetoric of the official authorities and ideological priorities. Instead of providing objective and comprehensive coverage of events in accordance with journalistic standards, state media focused on:

  • topics important to the regime (Belarus as an “island of peace and stability“ against the backdrop of a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, economic “successes,“ “high-profile“ legal proceedings)
  • promotion of certain ideas (the placement of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Belarus’s role as a “peacemaker“ and “country for refugees“ in the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine),
  • downplaying topics that were inconvenient for the regime (Belarus’s actual role in the war in Ukraine, actions of democratic actors, Solidarity with Belarusian Political Prisoners Day, etc.).

Belarusian state propaganda building bricks in H1 2023

Conspiracy theories generated and propagated by state-controlled media pave the way for the world view they promote. Most of the events happening both inside and outside Belarus are described not through identifying cause-and-effect relationships but through conspiracy theories about the “collective West,“ the latter purportedly being the main cause of all negative events.

According to state media, it was the “collective West“ that unleashed the war in Ukraine and intends to continue fighting “until the last Ukrainian“ (scapegoating).  The “collective West“ is to blame for the swift deterioration in the lives of ordinary citizens, it consistently attempts to harm Belarus using other states as proxies (primarily Poland and Lithuania) and through bribing “traitors from the opposition.“ Therefore, to avoid a repeat of the events of August 2020, Belarus needs to deploy Russian nuclear weapons, increase military power and prop-up domestic troops, as well as introduce “patriotic education“ into the education system.

The main purpose of interpreting the events through the lens of “the collective West fraudulent behaviour“ is to create an appearance of external threats to Belarus, to intimidate the audience and thus justify any actions by the authorities.

The state-controlled media continued to contradict themselves without providing explanations. For instance, Belarusian propaganda demonstrates non-participation of official Minsk in military actions but retranslates the ideological justification of the Russian aggression against Ukraine; appeals to “fugitives“ to return but threatens them with long prison terms; blames sanctions for falling living standards of Belarusians but praises them for being the driver for the domestic economy.

The formation of such an “illogical“ worldview is aimed at demotivating the audience in their attempts to understand what is happening, creating a belief that it is impossible to find out the truth from the media. In this way, the regime erodes trust in the media and promotes the idea that if the truth cannot be known anyway, it is better to just listen to what authorities say.

A mandatory component of the propagandistic agenda is the praise of the regime’s domestic and foreign policies. Meeting the basic needs of citizens is presented as a significant achievement. Visits by Lukashenko to Iraq and China are presented as “breakthrough“ and “fateful“ events, with minimal information about their results. The coverage of visits by African leaders and grand plans for cooperation with African countries have been actively worked on.

The imitation of openness to reconciliation between the authorities and dissidents continued. The state has established a commission to screen the participants in the 2020 protests, who shortly after fled the country to avoid repressions but now would like to return. The state media propelled this issue, manipulating the feelings of forced emigrants and hypocritically urging them to take advantage of the offer. They portrayed Lukashenka as being in favour of establishing contact and resolving the conflict, whilst the essence of the proposed mechanism is the opposite and directly violates the basic rights of citizens.

H1 2023 compared to 2022

The topic of the war in Ukraine, which in 2022 was covered almost entirely on the basis of Russian narratives, which contradicts the Concept of Information Security of Belarus, has acquired new semantic shades since the beginning of spring 2023 against the background of the absence of a significant offensive of Russian troops.

Although Russian narratives continue to be used, and information is presented based on Russian sources and Russian interests, the information concerning the course of military operations has practically disappeared from the state media. At the same time, there has been an increase in the sheer volume of materials, primarily in the form of opinion journalism, constructing the reasons for the war, drawing analogies with the Second World War, and accusing Ukrainian Armed Forces of shelling civilian populations without citing sources. Belarus is portrayed not only as a country consistently appealing to cease-fire and  a peaceful resolution, but also as a “country for living“ for Ukrainian refugees who allegedly find a “second home“ there. The propaganda, using the technique of contrast, demonstrates the prosperous life of Ukrainian children in Belarus (the children are not threatened, they are provided with everything they need) and in European countries, where they are allegedly taken away from their families or the Ukrainian authorities themselves sell their young citizens abroad for organs.

Events related to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are presented in a tendentious manner.

If in 2022 the West was positioned as aggressive towards Belarus and Russia, imposing its will and disregarding its own people, then in 2023 the degree of demonization has increased. This is due to accusations against Western leaders of wanting to continue the war in Ukraine “to the last Ukrainian» and of imposing “non-traditional Western values“, such as LGBT+, child-free, “gender change“, and feminism on Belarusians and Russians. Prior to 2023, the dominant negative characteristics of the “West“ in state media were “aggressive,“ “claiming the role of a hegemon,“ and “decaying,“ but now the characterization “amoral“ has been added, actively promoted through the concept of “non-traditional values.“ To do this, state media criticize anything related to gender equality and the rights of vulnerable groups as “propaganda of non-traditional values“.

The rewriting of Belarusian history has intensified. While in 2022 state media consistently narrowed the space for the development and expression of national identity, in H1 2023, foundational historical events and figures came under criticism and revision. This included the 1863 uprising, the establishment of the Belarusian People’s Republic on March 25, 1918, and hero Kastus Kalinouski.

State media have become more active in promoting the “russkiy mir“ ideology. In 2023, this is happening not only through the rewriting of Belarusian history, the praise of the USSR, and the emphasis on Russia’s exclusively positive role, but also through the ideological concept of “defending traditional values“. By this, propaganda implies a conservative model of sexual and family values, aimed at minimizing state expenditures on the social sphere, imposing a certain model of behavior on society as the only correct one, and restricting reproductive and sexual rights and freedoms. The prohibition of “propaganda of non-traditional values“ adopted ostensibly for the realization of the demographic policy of Belarus is in fact a means of repression against dissidents.

In state media, the use of hate speech has reached a new level. Propagandists not only insult opponents and call for retribution against them but also provide media coverage of the actions of the political police. Manipulators of public consciousness are no longer satisfied with their role; they seek to establish the rules of life in modern Belarus and personally engage in “witch hunts.“

The “confession videos“ from Telegram channels have made their way onto television screens and state  media. Previously, such videos, often displaying signs of torture on detainees’ bodies, appeared exclusively on Telegram channels affiliated with Belarusian security forces, in 2023, the channels for broadcasting these videos and the range of formats expanded. Now, forced confessions appeared in channels of regional state controlled newsrooms and made their way into national state TV news. Often, in these confession videos, detainees disclose their personal information and places of work, which is then published in state media. The detainees are referred to as “extremists“ and “radicals,“ but they attribute their “guilt“ only to having subscribed to banned information resources in Belarus.

New formats of “confession videos“ have also emerged. For example, Roman Protasevich participated in a stream hosted by propagandist Grigori Azarenok, and Lyudmila Gladkaya, a staff member of “SB. Belarus Today,“ conducted an interview with a detainee, a representative of the IT sector, who was detained at the border with Belarus for commenting in “extremist“ Telegram channels. The official Instagram account of the law faculty of the Belarusian State University (!) posted a “confession video“ of one of its students, in which he “repented“ for “bad words“ said about the faculty’s pseudo-public organization, the Belarusian Republican Youth Union.

Another information trigger for state media was the decision to deploy Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. As this decision lacks popular support among Belarusians, and concerns about its deployment are shared by citizens regardless of their stance towards the government, the propaganda’s task is to adjust public opinion. To achieve this, state media construct imaginary threats (the actual existence of threats remains unproven) and explain the need for deploying tactical nuclear weapons as a measure to protect national security.

There has been a noticeable change in state media’s attitude towards religion and religious organizations. Absolute priority is given to covering the activities of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, which belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate, while the activities of other religious denominations, including the Catholic Church, have almost disappeared from the information space. Simultaneously, propaganda uses religion as a component of the state ideology. In this narrative, Alexander Lukashenko is positioned as Jesus Christ, and his Address to the Belarusian People on March 31st is not presented as a sermon but as a commandment. A separate element of this pseudo-religion is the propaganda message about the “repentance of fugitives.“

Four most frequent manipulative narratives in state-controlled media

In H1 2023, the following narratives dominated state media (each one consistently appeared in the top 10 every month):

  1. State Efficiency: This narrative emphasizes the efficiency of Belarusian authorities, the well-structured political system, and the social model. It highlights the central role of the state in ensuring the well-being of Belarusians. Manipulative techniques employed include evaluative statements, manipulative semantics, selection, and data manipulation.
  2. External Threats and Negative Influence: This narrative suggests that problems within the country are not caused by internal factors but by the actions of external enemies pursuing economic and political goals against Belarus. These enemies are portrayed as acting through citizens and a “fifth column.“ Techniques used include concept substitution, conspiracy theories, shifting of emphasis, selection, and data manipulation.
  3. Discrediting Other States and Their Authorities: This narrative constructs an image of external enemies, often represented as the “Collective West,“ which is portrayed as amoral, degenerate, and desiring to destroy and subjugate Belarus. Manipulative techniques include evaluative statements, manipulative semantics, speculations, conjectures instead of facts, shifting of emphasis, selection, and data manipulation.
  4. Praising Lukashenko: This narrative attributes all of Belarus’s successes primarily to Alexander Lukashenko’s genius and wise policies. It portrays him as flawless, always right, and capable of predicting future events accurately. Manipulative techniques employed here include evaluative statements, manipulative semantics, shifting of emphasis, selection, and personal appeals.

These narratives were consistently used in state media during the first half of 2023, shaping the information landscape in Belarus. The previously prominent narrative “We Must Save the Country,“ which called for unity and the protection of Belarus against a perceived threat, appeared in the top 10 only three times in the current year, compared to its frequent presence in 2022.

Conclusion

Despite the government’s attempts to destroy independent media, they continued operations in compliance with reporting standards. The state media predominantly disseminate propaganda. Their apparent disregard for standards is not just unprofessionalism, but a conscious editorial policy aimed at “winning the information war.“

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