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  • Coverage of the 2019 Parliamentary Elections in Belarusian Media Final report

    The report summarises the findings of the monitoring of the 2019 parliamentary election coverage in Belarusian media.

    Belarusian Association of Journalists

    Coverage of the 2019 Parliamentary Elections in Belarusian Media

    Final report

    (16 Sep­tem­ber — 26 Novem­ber 2019)


    The report sum­maris­es the find­ings of the mon­i­tor­ing of the 2019 par­lia­men­tary elec­tion cov­er­age in Belaru­sian media.


    1. Intro­duc­tion
    2. Key Find­ings
    3. Facts and Data
      1. State-run Media
      2. Direct Access
      3. Inde­pen­dent Media
    4. Assess­ments of the Elec­tion
    5. Con­clu­sions
    6. 1. Charts
    7. 2. Mon­i­tor­ing Method­ol­o­gy


    1. Introduction

    The mon­i­tor­ing aimed:

    – to draw jour­nal­ists’ atten­tion to their duty to pro­vide unbi­ased and com­pre­hen­sive infor­ma­tion about the elec­tion process, can­di­dates’ agen­das, as well as to present their sup­port­ers’ and oppo­nents’ opin­ions;

    – to find out to what extent media con­tri­bu­tions met the inter­na­tion­al­ly recog­nised prin­ci­ples and stan­dards of elec­tion cov­er­age and ethics in jour­nal­ism;

    – and to reveal the over­all nature of elec­tion cov­er­age, assess­ing the roles played by state-run and inde­pen­dent media in this process, on the basis of qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive analy­sis.

    The mon­i­tor­ing cov­ered four­teen Belaru­sian media, both state-run and inde­pen­dent, elec­tron­ic and print­ed, nation­wide and region­al.

    The mon­i­tor­ing was con­duct­ed by the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists (BAJ).


    2. Key Findings

    Through­out the elec­tion, the state-run media focused their atten­tion main­ly on how the CEC and oth­er elec­tion com­mis­sions were work­ing and how the elec­tion process was being organ­ised. These media’s pri­or­i­ties includ­ed the arrival of observers, the coun­try leader’s opin­ions about the future com­po­si­tion of par­lia­ment, and the role the exec­u­tive played in the cam­paign. Dur­ing the final week of cam­paign­ing, the state-run media active­ly pro­mot­ed ear­ly vot­ing.

    As the state-run media put the spot­light on elec­tion tech­ni­cal­i­ties, which were essen­tial­ly insignif­i­cant, this pre­vent­ed the elec­torate from form­ing an opin­ion about the nation’s most burn­ing prob­lems, dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal forces’ stand­ing and their visions of pos­si­ble solu­tions to these prob­lems.

    The state-run media did not offer a wide range of opin­ions, pre­sent­ing one-sided infor­ma­tion. Reporters only gave voice to the offi­cial stance, which they sided with. Guest experts’ opin­ions ignored crit­i­cisms of the cur­rent regime and alter­na­tive views held by vot­ers and gov­ern­ment oppo­nents.

    A num­ber of state-run out­lets were oblig­ed to pro­vide equal media access to all can­di­dates. How­ev­er, their media appear­ances were not pub­li­cised in advance. TV and radio guides did not inform vot­ers on the exact date and time when their par­lia­men­tary hope­fuls were to go on air.

    Belarus 3 TV sta­tion, which reserved air­time for most of the can­di­dates, does not stand very high in media rat­ings. It is a Belaru­sian ver­sion of a TV sta­tion fea­tur­ing cul­ture, whose audi­ence is not focused on pol­i­tics. The par­lia­men­tary hope­fuls’ radio address­es were broad­cast at off-peak slots, from 7.00 a.m. to 7.30 a.m., when a vast major­i­ty of vot­ers were prepar­ing to go to work or com­mut­ing.

    Thus, it was evi­dent that the state-run media tend­ed to mar­gin­alise key actors of the par­lia­men­tary elec­tion, such as polit­i­cal par­ties and can­di­dates. Draw­ing atten­tion to back­ground tech­ni­cal details did not encour­age the vot­ers to take an active part in the elec­tion.

    By con­trast, the inde­pen­dent media pub­lished a much wider spec­trum of opin­ions and made a num­ber of par­lia­men­tary hope­fuls more recog­nis­able when cam­paign­ing was at its peak. How­ev­er, the inde­pen­dent media could not mean­ing­ful­ly com­pete with their state-oper­at­ed coun­ter­parts in elec­tion cov­er­age.

    The state-run and inde­pen­dent media notice­ably dif­fered in their assess­ments of the elec­tion fol­low­ing the vot­ing day.


    3. Facts and Data

    3.1 State-run media

    Through­out the elec­tion process, elec­tion-relat­ed issues were not on the list of pri­or­i­ties. Except for the week in the run-up to the polling day on 17 Novem­ber 2019, the share of elec­tion cov­er­age in the elec­tron­ic state-run media con­sid­er­ably lagged behind such top­ics as sport and weath­er fore­cast.

    For exam­ple, the final quan­ti­ta­tive data show that the Panara­ma news pro­gramme on Belarus 1 TV sta­tion gave the elec­tion 4% of its total air time, while weath­er account­ed for 7% and sport made up 11%. The Nashi Novosti on ONT allot­ted to the elec­tion, weath­er, and sport 4%, 7% and 7% of the air time, respec­tive­ly. The final fig­ures for the Radyjo­fakt on the First Nation­al Chan­nel of the Belaru­sian Radio are as fol­lows: elec­tion cov­er­age – 5%, weath­er – 6%, and sport – 8.5%.

    Dur­ing the week in the run-up to the elec­tion these media dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased their elec­tion cov­er­age. For exam­ple, it rose to 13% in the Radi­jo­fakt in the final week. How­ev­er, this did not change the gen­er­al pic­ture, as elec­tion-relat­ed issues still did not come top.

    The notice­able increase in cov­er­age can be attrib­uted to the begin­ning of ear­ly vot­ing, when the state-run media active­ly urged the elec­torate to go to the polls. They pushed vot­ers to fol­low the exam­ple of Belaru­sian sports and enter­tain­ment celebri­ties who had vot­ed ear­ly.

    The rise in elec­tion cov­er­age in the run-up to the elec­tion clear­ly did not include polit­i­cal par­ties, par­lia­men­tary hope­fuls and their address­es to vot­ers. The key actors were the elec­torate, elec­tion com­mis­sions, local author­i­ties and pro-gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tions, such as the Belarus Trade Unions Fed­er­a­tion (BTUF) and the Belaru­sian Nation­al Youth Union (BNYU), which had their can­di­dates stand­ing for par­lia­ment and were par­tic­i­pat­ing in elec­tion obser­va­tion.

    It is impor­tant that the elec­torate was main­ly pre­sent­ed in a deper­son­alised man­ner, i.e. instead of giv­ing voice to vot­ers them­selves, reporters described them indi­rect­ly. For exam­ple, in the Naviny rehi­jona, broad­cast by Mahilioŭ TV and Radio Com­pa­ny, real vot­ers had voice for 43 sec only, while the over­all air­time giv­en to them made up 6 min 45 sec.

    If we look at the aggre­gat­ed mon­i­tor­ing data, it becomes evi­dent that anony­mous and deper­son­alised pre­sen­ta­tion of the elec­torate in the elec­tron­ic media typ­i­cal­ly exceed­ed voic­es of real vot­ers twofold, three­fold or even more.

    For many vot­ers, the par­lia­men­tary elec­tion had noth­ing to do with a polit­i­cal cam­paign. This was evi­dent, among oth­er things, from inter­views with some of them. ‘I vot­ed for a man who projects a very pos­i­tive image, in my opin­ion. I like his pro­fes­sion and his age,’ said an inter­vie­wee in the Panara­ma news on Belarus 1 on 15 Novem­ber 2019. Any informed polit­i­cal choice was cer­tain­ly out of the ques­tion.

    A tell­tale sign: a very short time before ear­ly vot­ing began, the state-run media quite active­ly dis­cussed the pro­file of a would-be par­lia­men­tar­i­an.

    A trail­er for a report that went on air in Radyjo­fakt on 6 Novem­ber said, ‘The Youth Union encour­ages vot­ers to speak about the most impor­tant fea­tures in the people’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive.’ These impor­tant fea­tures includ­ed the ones men­tioned by the vot­er who is quot­ed above.

    On 23 Octo­ber the host of Obyek­tivNo, a new project launched by ONT, asked the audi­ence, ‘Have you decid­ed on the traits a can­di­date should pos­sess so that you can cast your bal­lot for him?’

    It is evi­dent that the ques­tion divert­ed the focus from polit­i­cal agen­das and ideas to per­son­al­i­ty traits.

    The mon­i­tor­ing data shows that the state-run elec­tron­ic and print media adhered to their tra­di­tion­al mod­el of elec­tion cov­er­age. In par­tic­u­lar, they depoliti­cised the elec­tion, mar­gin­alised its key actors, did not cov­er any com­pe­ti­tion of polit­i­cal ideas or alter­na­tives, pre­sent­ed polit­i­cal actors anony­mous­ly, and offered one-sided cov­er­age of the elec­tion, favour­ing pro-gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tions, such as the BNYU, the BTUF and the Belaya Rus’ (White Rus’) with their can­di­dates.

    The ten­den­cy towards depoliti­cis­ing the elec­tion and push­ing its key actors in the back­ground was clear­ly vis­i­ble, among oth­er things, dur­ing the peak of cam­paign­ing, when can­di­dates appeared on air.


    3.2 Direct Access

    Can­di­dates’ media appear­ances and debates are undoubt­ed­ly the core of cam­paign­ing. A num­ber of state-run out­lets were oblig­ed to pro­vide equal media access to all can­di­dates.

    Each can­di­date had 5 min­utes to address their vot­ers. The media appear­ances were broad­cast on TV at prime time, from 7.00 p.m. to 8.40 p.m., with the excep­tion of 22 and 29 Octo­ber, when elec­tion cov­er­age on Belarus 3 was lim­it­ed to thir­ty min­utes, from 7.00 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. The same TV sta­tion also broad­cast debates at the same time. Each candidate’s active con­tri­bu­tion to the debates could not exceed 5 min­utes. In addi­tion, they could have their agen­das print­ed in state-run papers.

    Tech­ni­cal­ly, the state-run media played a role in cam­paign­ing.

    How­ev­er, they actu­al­ly nev­er focused on com­pet­ing ideas or made an effort to dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion about agen­das of the can­di­dates or polit­i­cal par­ties stand­ing for par­lia­ment. More­over, they were instru­men­tal in restrict­ing and even block­ing polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. This claim is sub­stan­ti­at­ed by the fol­low­ing facts:

    – the can­di­dates’ appear­ances on TV and the radio were not uploaded to the TV and radio sta­tions’ web­sites or YouTube chan­nels, in con­trast with many oth­er items;

    – TV and radio guides did not give the can­di­dates’ names or exact times of their address­es to vot­ers. The Belarus 3 TV guide said noth­ing more than ‘The 2019 par­lia­men­tary elec­tion’. The same was true about the debates. The STV TV guide sim­ply said, ‘The 2019 par­lia­men­tary elec­tion. Debates’;

    – the can­di­dates appeared on TV and radio sta­tions that do not stand very high in media rat­ings. In the same vein, the par­lia­men­tary hope­fuls’ agen­das were pub­lished in nation­wide papers with not very high cir­cu­la­tions;

    – the state-run media’s web­sites gave vir­tu­al­ly no infor­ma­tion about the date and time when each par­tic­u­lar can­di­date was to appear on air;

    –last but not least, the state-run media did not guar­an­tee each can­di­date equal direct access. In total, there were ten instances when they arbi­trar­i­ly refused to broad­cast or pub­lish par­lia­men­tary hope­fuls’ address­es to vot­ers.


    3.3 Independent Media

    There were undoubt­ed­ly a num­ber of strik­ing dif­fer­ences in the way inde­pen­dent media cov­ered the par­lia­men­tary elec­tion.

    First­ly, they avoid­ed pre­sent­ing elec­tion actors anony­mous­ly or focus­ing on tech­ni­cal­i­ties.

    Sec­ond­ly, they gave voice to key actors, includ­ing both oppo­si­tion and non-oppo­si­tion can­di­dates and polit­i­cal fig­ures.

    Third­ly, in the run-up to the elec­tion, the mon­i­tored inde­pen­dent media marked­ly increased their elec­tion cov­er­age, par­tic­u­lar­ly fea­tur­ing the can­di­dates as the key actors.

    Fourth­ly, they sought to present a wide range of opin­ions and assess­ments regard­ing the elec­tion.

    Fifth­ly, they offered polit­i­cal analy­ses and crit­i­cisms of the gov­ern­ment, the CEC and the way the elec­tion was organ­ised.

    Sixth­ly, they voiced a wide range of vot­ers’ opin­ions and polit­i­cal views, which were absent from the state-run media.

    Here are some fig­ures and facts.

    Through­out the mon­i­tored peri­od, tut.by infor­ma­tion por­tal pre­sent­ed 90 can­di­dates, giv­ing their names. For pur­pos­es of com­par­i­son, dur­ing the first stage, i.e. 16 Spetem­ber – 18 Octo­ber 2019, there were only sev­en can­di­dates named. Infor­ma­tion aimed at the elec­torate dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased. tut.by fea­tured some elec­tion-relat­ed ana­lyt­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions. There were also videos about the elec­tion.

    The Nar­o­d­na­ja Volia paper ‘spoke’ to sev­er­al oppo­si­tion can­di­dates, high­light­ed cer­tain prob­lems with the elec­tion and crit­i­cised the gov­ern­ment.

    Even though inde­pen­dent naviny.by was not on the list of the mon­i­tored media  this time, we can­not help prais­ing its skil­ful project Debates’2019 (https://naviny.by/plot/debaty-2019), which met the high­est pro­fes­sion­al stan­dards, giv­ing voice to the widest spec­trum of can­di­dates, both par­ti­san and those with no par­ty affil­i­a­tion, pro-gov­ern­men­tal and pro-oppo­si­tion.


    4. Assessments of the Election

    The state-run and inde­pen­dent media diverged con­sid­er­ably, some­times even rad­i­cal­ly, in their assess­ments of the vot­er turnout, vot­ing pro­ce­dure, bal­lot count, elec­tion out­come and elec­tion as a whole.

    The state-run media offered pos­i­tive assess­ments exclu­sive­ly, based on the opin­ions of CIS observers and the SCO Obser­va­tion Mis­sion in Min­sk. For instance, BelTA quot­ed Mr Lebe­dev, the Head of the CIS Obser­va­tion Mis­sion, say­ing that the elec­tion ‘was com­pet­i­tive, open, free and trans­par­ent’. (https://www.belta.by/politics/view/vybory-v-belarusi-proshli-na-konkurentnoj-osnove-otkryto-i-glasno-missija-sng-369623–2019/)

    Mr Xie Xiaoy­ong, the Head of the SCO Obser­va­tion Mis­sion, expressed the same opin­ion, ‘The Mis­sion recog­nis­es the elec­tion as trans­par­ent, cred­i­ble, and demo­c­ra­t­ic.’ (https://www.belta.by/politics/view/missija-shos-priznaet-parlamentskie-vybory-v-belarusi-prozrachnymi-i-demokratichnymi-369627–2019/ )

    The inde­pen­dent media, in their turn, offered both the opin­ions quot­ed above and those express­ing dif­fer­ent assess­ments, first and fore­most aired by the OSCE/ODIHR Obser­va­tion Mis­sion. For instance, tut.by said, ‘Mar­gare­ta Ced­er­felt, the OSCE Spe­cial Coor­di­na­tor, said that the elec­tion took place in a peace­ful atmos­phere, but did not meet impor­tant inter­na­tion­al stan­dards for demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions.

    ‘We have noticed that basic free­doms of expres­sion, assem­bly and asso­ci­a­tion were gen­er­al­ly ignored. In addi­tion, we have observed that a large num­ber of can­di­dates applied for par­tic­i­pa­tion in the elec­tion, but their par­tic­i­pa­tion was restrict­ed. These elec­tions have demon­strat­ed an over­all lack of respect for demo­c­ra­t­ic com­mit­ments.’ (https://news.tut.by/economics/661709.html)

    The inde­pen­dent media also sub­stan­ti­at­ed their assess­ments with evi­dence from nation­al observers.

    For exam­ple, tut.by also cit­ed the Pra­va Vybaru (the Right to Elect) cam­paign, ‘Accord­ing to Pra­va Vybaru observers, in five out of nine con­stituen­cies where they were present, the elec­tions were invalid due to low vot­er turnout. The most sig­nif­i­cant dis­crep­an­cy between the offi­cial turnout fig­ures and those record­ed by the observers was 35%, doc­u­ment­ed at Mahilioŭ-Lienin­s­ki Con­stituen­cy No. 84.’  (https://news.tut.by/economics/661680.html).

    The state-run media did not quote such assess­ments. Instead, they crit­i­cised the con­clu­sions made by the OSCE/ODIHR Mis­sion and tes­ti­monies by inde­pen­dent Belaru­sian observers. Here are some exam­ples of these crit­i­cisms.

    BelTA State Infor­ma­tion Agency pub­lished the offi­cial reac­tion of the Min­istry of For­eign Affairs (MFA) to the OSCE/ODIHR con­clu­sions, which claimed that they were ground­ed in sub­jec­tive bias­es. ‘What can be expect­ed from heads of obser­va­tion mis­sions who speak neg­a­tive­ly of Belarus and pub­lish insult­ing arti­cles about this coun­try even before they have arrived here?’ said an MFA spokesper­son. (https://www.belta.by/politics/view/mid-belarusi-sozhaleem-chto-missii-obse-ne-udalos-polnostjju-otojti-ot-politizirovannyh-otsenok-369778–2019/ ).

    BelTA also quot­ed Mr Ryhor Rapota, the State Sec­re­tary of the Rus­sia – Belarus Union State, ‘OSCE observers assess elec­tions based on their own vision of the world.’ (https://www.belta.by/politics/view/rapota-nabljudateli-ot-obse-dajut-otsenki-vyboram-ishodja-iz-svoego-mirooschuschenija-369994–2019/).

    Inde­pen­dent Belaru­sian observers were slammed even more ruth­less­ly. ‘Even dur­ing ear­ly vot­ing, some online resources, insti­gat­ed by an “observ­er” who broke every rule imag­in­able, bul­lied a young vot­er from Brest, whose only fault was that she had gone to the polls,’ said Mikalaj Vosi­paŭ in All Shades of Black, pub­lished in the pres­i­den­tial out­let SB. Belarus Segod­nya on 20 Novem­ber 2019. (The inci­dent in ques­tion involved an alleged attempt at bal­lot-box stuff­ing, record­ed by an observ­er.)

    On 23 Octo­ber one of the guests in the stu­dio of Obyek­tivNo on ONT described inde­pen­dent Belaru­sian observers as peo­ple ‘who behaved non­sen­si­cal­ly, to put it mild­ly’.


    5. Conclusions

    Elec­tion cov­er­age in the state-run media was marked by the absence of any mean­ing­ful con­flict, clash­es of ideas or com­pe­ti­tion between polit­i­cal agen­das and plat­forms. They did not turn the spot­light on the elec­tion.

    Even at the peak of cam­paign­ing, the key actors, such as polit­i­cal par­ties and a major­i­ty of can­di­dates, remained invis­i­ble to vot­ers.

    Only a few pro-gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tions were recog­nis­able in the state-run media. As for oppo­nents of the gov­ern­ment, their posi­tions were not aired in the state-owned media. They received only neg­a­tive and anony­mous cov­er­age, if any at all.

    These media in fact did not intend to engage the elec­torate in mak­ing a polit­i­cal choice by vot­ing for would-be par­lia­men­tar­i­ans.

    By con­trast, the inde­pen­dent media facil­i­tat­ed vot­ers’ informed choice by intro­duc­ing a wide range of can­di­dates with their polit­i­cal stances, as well as par­ties they were affil­i­at­ed with.

    How­ev­er, these media did not and could not have an essen­tial influ­ence on the cam­paign, as it is the state-run elec­tron­ic and print media that con­tin­ue to shape and con­trol the polit­i­cal agen­da in the country’s media field.

    The state-run and inde­pen­dent media gave essen­tial­ly diver­gent assess­ments of the elec­tion. More often than not, they were even oppo­site. So were their inter­pre­ta­tions of the stan­dards of jour­nal­ism in elec­tion cov­er­age.

    The doc­u­ments that form the basis for the qual­i­ta­tive analy­sis are The Code of Ethics in Jour­nal­ism (adopt­ed at the BAJ Con­gress in 2006); The Dec­la­ra­tion of Prin­ci­ples of Pro­fes­sion­al Ethics in Jour­nal­ism; Elec­tion Cov­er­age in Media (Belarus), 2016 edi­tion; and Inter­na­tion­al stan­dards of elec­tion cov­er­age in media (Legal and eth­i­cal stan­dards, rec­om­men­da­tions to the media and indi­vid­ual reporters).



    Monitoring Methodology

    For fur­ther details, see: Mon­i­tor­ing Method­ol­o­gy (Appen­dix 2).

    It should be not­ed that the state-run media account for the larg­er part of the list, as they dom­i­nate the country’s media field and in fact make part of the cur­rent regime’s ide­o­log­i­cal struc­ture. The elec­tron­ic media include the Panara­ma news pro­gramme on Belarus 1 TV sta­tion, the Nashi Novosti news on ONT, the Glavny Efir week­ly pro­gramme on Belarus 1, the Kon­tu­ry week­ly pro­gramme on ONT; the Radyjo­fakt radio pro­gramme on the First Nation­al Chan­nel of the Belaru­sian Radio, and Naviny rehi­jona, broad­cast by Mahilioŭ TV and Radio Com­pa­ny. The online resources include www.tut.by and www.belta.by. The print media are the SB. Belarus Segod­nia, the Nar­o­d­na­ja Volia, the Kom­so­mol­skaya Pra­da v Belorus­sii, the Zvi­az­da, the Min­ska­ja Praŭ­da, and the Mahil­ioŭska­ja Praŭ­da.

    Offi­cial infor­ma­tion about the media des­ig­nat­ed to broad­cast can­di­dates’ address­es to vot­ers is avail­able at: https://minsknews.by/kto-voshel-v-sostav-nablyudatelnogo-soveta-po-kontrolyu-za-predvybornoj-agitacziej-v-smi/ and http://rec.gov.by/sites/default/files/pdf/2019/pred_prog.pdf

    Can­di­dates’ appear­ances in elec­tron­ic and print­ed media were not mon­i­tored.

    Coverage of the 2019 Parliamentary Elections in Belarusian Media. Report 2

    Monitoring of Media Coverage of Parliamentary Elections 2019. Report 1

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