Media IQ monitoring report: Belarusian media’s compliance with reporting standards in 2022
This report examines how the media in the sample violated professional reporting standards and disseminated manipulative narratives in 2022.
In the two and a half years since the presidential election, the Belarusian authorities have effectively crushed the independent media sector, declaring content extremists and classifying journalists as extremists. Access to independent media is blocked (only accessible via a VPN), depriving newspapers and websites of the ability to operate legally. More than forty journalists and executives are behind bars. Some have already been sentenced, and some are on trial or are awaiting trial. Many journalists have been forced to leave Belarus, weakening the independent media sector and separating them from their audiences. Nevertheless, they continue to operate according to professional standards and avoid propaganda.
With no competition, state media has significantly failed to improve their credibility and other KPIs, opting to «participate in information warfare» rather than uphold standards. No longer «classical, intelligent and well-mannered», state media has assumed the role of «media warriors», regularly employing manipulative propaganda. Compared to 2020 and 2021, conspiracy theories are notably more prevalent and «hate speech» has evolved into «the language of hatred».
With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, state media have effectively abandoned a national information policy, re-broadcasting Russian narratives on many issues. This leads to a blurring of national identity, the identification of the interests of Belarus with the interests of the Putin regime, and the justification of Russia’s aggressive policy. The authorities employ the re-broadcast of Russian narratives to reduce protest activity, increase trust in Lukashenka, and accustom public opinion to including Belarus in a full-scale war against Ukraine.
The violation of standards and use of manipulation by state media contributes to misinforming the audience and creates and promotes an alternative picture of the world that has little or no correspondence with reality.
Media consumption trends and the media landscape in 2022
War in Ukraine, which broke out on 24 February, increased attention to the news inside Belarus, and the consumption of Ukrainian media content. Interest in the topic fluctuated throughout the year, with its «peaks» (the start, significant battles, mobilization, etc) and «drops», which were promoted by the Belarusian state media through a selective coverage, focusing on technical support to the Russian army and assistance to refugees. Some of the Belarusian journalists and media, who had previously relocated to Ukraine, had to urgently evacuate to other states.
In 2022, Belarusians read and trusted independent media less than in 2021. This is due to the high «cost» of the issue and reduced interest in the news in the absence of opportunities for change.
According to a Chatham House study, there are four groups of media consumers in Belarus. The first is the active audience for both state and independent media, comprising 25% of the population. The audience of the state media is the largest — 33% of the population, while the audience of the independent media is 24%. 18% make those who rarely use any media. Having said that, one should keep in mind the ‘fear factor’, which to some extent affects the answers, because consumption of information from most independent media outlets entails some form of legal persecution in Belarus. Therefore, some respondents may distort information fearing reprisals. Pollsters believe that the data on the consumption of the independent media is probably underestimated and the state media — overestimated. In addition, the audience outside Belarus, which largely consists of readers of the independent media, should also be taken into account.
Audiences of state and independent media do not trust alternative sources of information, even if they consume information from them. Both groups exist in their «information bubbles». Belarusian media are no longer platforms for discussion of problems common to all citizens, or a mechanism for the consolidation of the nation.
Television remains the main source of information for Belarusians inside Belarus. Its audience systematically and regularly receives predominantly Russian media agenda and a pro-Kremlin view of the main events in the world. This is one of the main risk factors for the information security of the state.
The study of Belarusian identity revealed the existence of a correlation between the dominance of the identity type and media consumption. The predominance of pro-Russian and anti-Belarusian attitudes among the segments Soviet, Indifferent and Russified is influenced by the messages received from the media. The high share of the use of television as the main source of information among the mentioned segments suggests their constant stay in the Russian-Belarusian state info bubble. Inside that bubble the narratives about the great USSR, the importance of Belarus and Russia integration, the brotherly peoples, and the threat from the West are dominant.
In 2022, the authorities continued systematic pressure on the independent media through administrative and criminal prosecution of journalists, obstruction of their activities by law enforcement agencies, application of anti-extremist legislation, and administrative measures to restrict access to information.
Belarus ranked 153rd out of 180 on the Press Freedom Index 2022. This is the worst result among European countries.
According to the monitoring of the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ), 17 criminal convictions of journalists and media managers were handed down in 2022 and they received prison sentences ranging from 1.3 to 14 years. Eleven criminal cases against journalists have been initiated, but are yet to be tried in court.
At the end of 2022, 33 journalists were in gaol. According to the international non-governmental organization Reporters without Borders, Belarus was among the top five countries with the largest number of imprisoned journalists and the fourth largest number of imprisoned female journalists.
Law enforcement authorities continued to put pressure on journalists. In 2022, BAJ recorded 43 detentions of journalists and 55 searches. Journalists were imprisoned 20 times in the form of administrative arrests. In addition, law enforcement officials summoned journalists for questioning, visited relatives and searched the homes of journalists, including those who left Belarus.
The anti-extremist legislation was used by the authorities as a weapon against the independent press, primarily as a reason to restrict access to the content of the independent media and to prosecute any involvement in their activities. A criminal case under the new «extremist» article 130-2 of the Criminal Code (denial of the genocide of the Belarusian people) was initiated in connection with publications in the independent media — Flagshtok and Zerkalo.io. Military expert Yegor Lebedok was charged with promoting extremist activity under Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code for comments he made to Euroradio, which was recognized as an «extremist organization» already after the interview.
On 14 June, the Supreme Court declared TUT BY MEDIA LLC (the former largest internet site in Belarus, whose staff is under investigation) an «extremist organisation».
The inclusion of websites and social media pages belonging to independent media outlets in the lists of extremist materials continued, and their employees, who are under investigation and convicted under certain criminal articles, in the lists of «extremists» and «terrorists». During the year, nine independent media outlets were designated as «extremist formations».
According to the presidential decree of 18 October 2022, individual telecommunication service providers and owners of Internet resources are required to register with a special information system for electronic interaction with the security services within three months and set up their resources for unhindered access by security services. That is, bureaucratic barriers for gaining access to such information by security forces were removed. As a result, Belarus worsened its position in the global ranking of Internet freedom compiled by the human rights organization Freedom House by three points compared to 2021: it received 28 points out of 100, continuing to be a country with a non-free Internet.
Compliance with reporting standards in 2022
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 organisations.
In 2022 (data for 11 months, January-November), independent media demonstrated significantly higher compliance rates than state media.
Zerkalo.io became the leader in terms of compliance with the standards with 4.98 points out of 5. Radio Svaboda and Reform.by had 4.97, Euroradio 4.96, Nasha Niva 4.9, Belsat 4.55 and Sputnik Belarus 4.4. The worst state media, CTV channel, had an average score of 2.76. SB. Belarus Today — 3.79, ONT — 3.29, Belarus 1 — 3.17. The average score of the leader exceeded that of the anti-leader by 1.8 times, in some months the difference reached 2.31 (July) and 2.2 (November).
Most of the monitored media showed roughly the same performance during the year, except Sputnik Belarus and CTV, which worsened their ratings in the second half of the year (from 4.5 to 4.28 and from 3.08 to 2.37 respectively).
Among the 5 journalistic standards, the standards of separation of facts from opinion (68.42% on average over 11 months) and completeness of the information (52.66%) were most frequently violated, while the standard of accuracy was least frequently violated.
The standard of the balance of opinions was the most violated, ranging from 18% in January by SB. Belarus Today to 56.3% by TV channel CTV in July.
Most violations of this standard were recorded on CTV, which violated it the most during the 10 months of the year, from February (40%) to November (53.1%).
The standard of fairness was violated the most in October by the CTV channel, ranging from 25.7% to 37.3% by the same channel in July. The leader among the violators of the standard was CTV, which violated the standard more than any other media outlet 10 months of the year — from February (26.4%) to November (26.5%).
The standard of separation of facts from opinions was violated most of all by ONT channel in January to 88.1% by CTV channel in July. The leader among the violators of this standard was CTV channel, which violated it the most during the 6 months of the year — from June (87.6 %) to November (85.8 %).
The standard of completeness of information was violated most of all by Belarus 1 TV channel in January to 95.6% by CTV channel in November. The leader among the violators of this standard was CTV channel, which violated it the most during the 6 months of the year — from June (72.4%) to November (95.6%).
The accuracy standard was violated most of all by ONT, from 16.5 % in August to 27.7 % in October. The leader among violators of the standard was Belarus 1, which violated the standard more than the others 5 months of the year: in January (20.6% of cases), April (18.5%), May (20.7%), June (18.9%) and November (21.5%).
The leader in terms of violating standards was CTV, which violated all standards, except accuracy, more frequently and to a greater extent than the others. In second place at the end was Belarus 1, which particularly violated the standards of separation of facts from opinions, completeness and fairness of information. In third place at the end was ONT.
CTV channel has become the leader in violating standard of:
- the balance of opinion 10 months of the year — from February to November, with the highest breaches in July (56.3% of cases), November (53.1%) and October (52.9%);
- fairness during the ten months from February to November, with maximum violations in July (37.3 per cent of cases), August (34.1 per cent) and March (33.3 per cent);
- separating facts from opinions during six months of the year, from June to November, with maximum violations in July (88.1 per cent of cases), June (87.6 per cent) and November (85.8 per cent);
- completeness of information during the six months of the year, from June to November, with the highest violations in November (95.6 per cent of cases), October (91.9 per cent) and September (90.2 per cent).
Belarus 1 was the leader in violating the accuracy standard 5 months in a year: January, April, May, June and November. The absolute maximum for violations of this standard belongs to ONT channel — in October it violated the standard in 27.7% of cases.
The non-state media violated the standards much less frequently and to a lesser extent. Among them, Sputnik Belarus was the anti-leader in terms of compliance with the standard of balance of opinions (on average it violated the standard in 19.31% of cases), separation of facts from opinions — Belsat (33.39%), completeness of information — Sputnik Belarus (27.34%). The standard of fairness was most violated by Nasha Niva (7 times during the year), and the standard of accuracy was violated five times by Sputnik Belarus and Belsat.
Propaganda in state-affiliated media in 2022
The state media actively used propaganda, most of all — Belarus 1 TV channel — on average 67.55% of the total number of messages studied, ONT and CTV channels — 64.27% and 55.64% respectively. Belarus 1 was the leader in terms of propaganda use eight times a year, ONT — two times and CTV — one time.
The high rates of violations of professional standards and the use of propaganda and manipulation by the state media indicate that in 2022 they were not so much engaged in journalism as in selective and targeted coverage of topics important to the regime (confronting sanctions, economic successes, «high-profile» trials, etc.) and promotion of certain ideas (the upcoming referendum, Belarus’ role as a «peacemaker» in the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, etc.).
An overview of propaganda tools and manipulative narratives in 2022
On 24 February, when covering the relationships between Russia and Ukraine, the state media re-broadcasted Russia’s position. Media IQ analysts noted that by doing so, they abandoned the information sovereignty principle, stated in the Information Security Concept of Belarus. This manifested through the choice of topics, dominant narratives and the vocabulary used. The events of the war were covered either selectively, with Russia’s interests in mind (informing about Russian military successes and keeping silent about retreats or civilian casualties), or openly from pro-Kremlin positions, when Belarusian media expressed support for the Russian army and the Russian leadership and devalued actions of the Ukrainian authorities, the armed forces and people of Ukraine. State propagandists publicly appealed to Russian President Putin to continue and intensify military actions, and in interviews with representatives of the Belarusian Ministry of Defence, they did not so much ask questions as called for revenge.
The idealisation of the Soviet Union.
Throughout the year, the state media addressed the theme of the Soviet Union as a model state providing high economic performance, defense capability and social protection of citizens. To a large extent, this topic was reinforced by the reproduction of Russian narratives in which the theme of the empire and the USSR as an important stage in its development took center stage. The state media marked the 100th anniversary of the formation of the USSR with several publications that distorted historical facts and used manipulation.
The state media consistently narrowed the space for the development and expression of national consciousness; the nation-building, culture and art of Belarus within the Soviet Union after the annexation of Western Belarus and the end of the Great Patriotic War were seen as a model. The USSR was positioned in the state media as an ideal state structure in which the Belarusian people had every opportunity. The state media, using the technique of contrast, created the impression that the period when the Belarusians were in the Russian Empire was beneficial and prosperous for them, whereas the period when the Belarusian lands were part of the Rzecz Pospolita became a time of genocide of the people.
Non-participation in the war on Russia’s side.
In 2022, the state media, while promoting the right messages, often contradicted themselves without explaining these contradictions. Thus, the main narrative in January and most of February was «no one will attack Ukraine, the West is hysterical». It was said that the threat of the invasion of Ukraine was «made up» because «it is not Russia that threatens Ukraine, but the West threatens Belarus and Russia». After February 24, the state media «changed their minds» and in March they already claimed that «Ukraine is to blame» and «Belarus is not the aggressor». The thesis that «Belarus is an island of peace and tranquility, does not participate in any military conflicts and consistently advocates peaceful resolution of any problems» did not prevent the state media from stating in parallel that «Belarus supports Russia in everything and helps it implement SMO in Ukraine». As a result, Belarusian propaganda simultaneously demonstrated official Minsk’s non-participation in hostilities while re-broadcasting the ideological justification of Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Similarly, the state media, covering the topic of economic sanctions, periodically urged to «refuse to knock on closed doors», and claimed that «one should not leave the European Union». Addressing the Belarusians who fled the country, they called on them «to return, repent and live peacefully» and at the same time argued that each of those who fled should be justly punished.
Conspiracy as the basis for the worldview
As early as August 2020, conspiracy theology became an important tool for the state propaganda. But in 2022 it was no longer used as one of the tools but as the basis of the picture of the world constructed by the state media. One of the narratives repeated throughout the year was the statement that Belarus is threatened and negatively influenced from the outside: the problems in the country are not caused by internal factors (in particular, incompetence of the authorities, loss of legitimacy, rupture of relations with partners, etc.), but by the actions of external enemies and competitors. The state media have consistently shaped the narrative that Belarus is surrounded by a ring of enemies who want to deprive it of its independence, therefore the people should rally even closer around their leader, and accept as inevitable some economic difficulties and social problems, as they are caused by external causes.
Promotion of intolerance, dehumanisation and pseudo-expertise
The dehumanisation of internal and external «enemies» continued. The state media dehumanised the Belarusian protesters: «Done. The beast is in the cage»; «The rot must be removed mercilessly»; «Being well aware of the inhuman nature of these non-humans, let us not naively count on their miraculous change», as well as those fighting on the Ukrainian side: «You can just say: rats. Now then. The rats who have stuck with the Ukrainian gangs now do not know how to escape from there. It’s scary for the rats.» Ukrainian citizens, especially members of the Ukrainian armed forces, were also dehumanised: «But the Ukranazis must be extinguished like cockroaches — once and for all. So that it never rears its head around us again».
To influence public opinion, state propaganda actively used various techniques: manipulative evaluative statements, falsification, selection, replacement of concepts, displacement of accents, speculation and overdoing, conjecture instead of fact, backward-looking, white noise, etc.
Contrast has become the main propaganda technique for dividing into «insiders» and «outsiders», «friends» and «enemies». It was used against both internal «enemies» (representatives of the democratic opposition; those detained and convicted on political grounds; those who left Belarus) and external ones, especially often against leaders and official representatives of Western countries. The significant reduction in Russian gas supplies to Europe, became a trigger for the state media: articles and stories about European citizens starving, freezing and not washing as a result of politically motivated decisions of their leaders to save energy became the leitmotif of many media texts. Against this background, life in Belarus was presented as prosperous and comfortable.
A false dilemma was actively exploited. In January and the first half of February, the state media portrayed the protests in Kazakhstan as having been inspired by the «collective West», praising the role of the CSTO in suppressing the protests and frightening audiences with pictures of victims and unrest. The question «Do you want it like in Kazakhstan?» was promoted as an alternative to Lukashenko’s rule. The same question was also raised in the materials on the actions of the democratic opposition.
The language of hostility has turned into the language of hatred. The state media continued to devalue and insult Belarusian citizens, including those fighting on the side of Ukraine, as well as leaders and officials from Western countries. Hate speech has also spread to Ukrainian citizens, especially members of the Ukrainian army.
State propaganda had previously resorted to people who were not experts, but in 2022 it improved this practice. A «collective expert» became the norm, whose task was to construct the appearance of an expert consensus to convince the public of the correctness of a certain point of view. Pseudo-experts were joined by astrologers who commented on the departure of Western companies on state TV.
Omission was actively used in 2022. The state media did not cover the reasons and motives of the jailed Nikolay Autukhovich, Ksenia Lutskina, Alexander Feduta and others who publicly opposed the announced election results. It is not clear from state media reports why the EU is imposing sanctions against Belarus and Russia, which is the reason for the war in Ukraine. These gaps were filled by the state media with invented reasons (most often conspiracy theories) or they ignored the cause-effect relationships, which made the EU actions look absurd and inappropriate. Not only valuable information on a specific issue was suppressed, but also entire topics: the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Ales Bialiatski, the farewell to the first leader of independent Belarus Stanislav Shushkevich, etc.
Poland is Belarus’ aggressive neighbour
Polonophobia continued. Poland was positioned as an aggressive neighbour of Belarus, which had subjected Belarusians to genocide in the past and was now hatching plans to dismember Belarus and seize part of its territory. In 2022, the state media devoted a lot of critical, but unproven materials to Poland: its past, in which Belarusians were not just discriminated against, but also subjected to genocide; its difficult present (economic difficulties, discredited leaders, confrontation between the people and the authorities, etc.), and most importantly, plans to militarize it to take over the Grodno and Brest regions. A lot of state media materials were dedicated to migration issues: Polish border guards were portrayed in them as ruthless towards migrants, while Belarusian border guards — in contrast — as sympathetic and helpful.
Praise for the security forces
Representatives of the security forces remained constant heroes of the Belarusian state media. Whereas in 2020-2021 they was predominantly employees of the Interior Ministry, Prosecutor’s Office, Investigative Committee and KGB, since early 2022 they have been from the military, primarily Minister of Defense Viktor Khrenin, State Secretary of the Security Council Alexander Volfovich and head of the State Border Committee Anatoli Lappo. State media actively interviewed them, and after Lukashenko met with the security forces on 4 October, they started covering their visits to the regions and labour collectives with «explanations of the current situation».
The 4 most common narratives
The following narratives dominated the state-affiliated media in 2022 (they were in the top 10 every month)
- The state is doing the right job: praising the effectiveness of the actions of the Belarusian authorities, the built-up political system and the social model, emphasizing the key role of the state in ensuring the well-being of the Belarusians. Techniques used: manipulative evaluative statements, manipulative semantics, falsification, and selection. At the same time, the state media prepared public opinion for several unpopular initiatives of the authorities, in particular, the closure of public schools, covering their activities in a one-sided and tendentious manner.
- Belarus is threatened and negatively influenced from the outside: the problems in the country are not caused by internal factors, but by the actions of external enemies pursuing economic and political goals against Belarus and acting through short-sighted citizens and the «fifth column». The main techniques: substitution of concepts, conspiracy, focus shifting, fudging and selection.
- Discrediting other states and their authorities and associations: constructing an image of an external enemy (usually in the form of the «collective West») who is immoral, degrading and wants to destroy and enslave Belarus. Main techniques: manipulative evaluative statements, manipulative semantics, speculations and overstatements, guessing instead of facts, shifting the emphasis, falsification, selection.
- We must protect and preserve the country: hints or appeals to rally and defend a successful Belarus from destruction by an external enemy. Main techniques: appeals, slogans, intimidation.
Despite all attempts by the authorities to destroy independent media outlets, they continued to operate and complied with professional reporting standards. On the contrary, the state media have predominantly disseminated manipulative narratives and propaganda. Clearly, their disregard for standards is not mere unprofessionalism, but a conscious editorial policy aimed at «winning the information war».