Monitoring: The Coverage of the 2015 Presidential Election in the Belarusian Media
We present to your attention the following monitoring, prepared by the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Report No. 1
1 September, 2015
The report summarises the findings of the monitoring for a time span of two weeks – from 17 to 31 August, 2015. According to the schedule of the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Belarus, it is a time when prospective presidential hopefuls should collect 100,000 voters’ signatures endorsing their nomination and submit them to the CEC, while the CEC should check the validity of the signatures, etc.
The monitoring aims to raise the journalist community’s and voters’ awareness of:
-- the importance of comprehensive and balanced coverage of the election;
-- the code of ethics in journalism and international standards that are indispensable for covering elections;
--and journalists’ duty to give voters undistorted, impartial and complete information about the electoral campaign, the candidates’ agendas and their supporters’ and opponents’ opinions.
The monitoring focuses on media items that are about the electoral campaign and prospective presidential candidates (to be referred to as ‘candidates’ from the moment of their formal registration onwards). The items are analysed both quantitatively and qualitatively. We also report instances of partial, incomprehensive or biased coverage that does not meet professional standards, breaches ethics in journalism, and departure from internationally accepted standards of reporting on elections.
- The monitored state-owned electronic media gave more attention to the election than they did in 2010. This is evident from the proportion of air time they allocated to the election coverage as compared to weather and sport. At the same stage in the run-up to the 2010 presidential election, it had received twice or thrice less coverage than weather, whereas this time their shares became more or less equal. The proportion of air time given to the election coverage in comparison to sport went up, too.
- At the same time, the electronic and printed state-owned media did not bring into the spotlight the process of collecting signatures to endorse the prospective candidates through special reports or other items. The information about the potential nominees’ teams was scarce.
- Just like in the previous election, it was only one presidential hopeful – namely the incumbent – who dominated the state-owned media. More often than not they featured him outside the context of him performing his duties. The other prospective candidates were either mentioned in passing or altogether ignored.
- The state-owned media gave rather extensive coverage of the CEC, regional election commissions and local authorities organising the election process. The political parties that are participating in the election did not receive so much attention.
- At this stage, quite a lot of air time and space in the printed media was given to both the CIS and OSCE/ODIHR observers.
- The state-owned media presented some pro-governmental organisations and their activities in a positive light. At the same time, they ignored independent civil society organisations.
- The state-owned media also demonstrated instances of imbalanced election coverage that clearly favoured one actor.
- The independent media focussed their attention on the political actors, featuring most prominently the prospective presidential hopefuls.
- Their assessments of the political actors ranged from neutral to positive and negative. At the same time, they did not show any bias or partiality.
All the conclusions are substantiated by the quantitative data and content analysis of the monitored media, as well as some definite statements that were made in the media and are cited below.
3. Major findings
3.1 The state-owned media
As we have pointed out, this time the state-owned electronic media changed the share of election coverage as compared to weather and sport. For example, Panarama news programme on Belarus 1 TV station gave 3% of its air time to weather and about 5% to the forthcoming election. Meanwhile, sports news received 17.2% of the air time. At the same stage of the 2010 presidential election the proportion was different, with 0.86% of the air time allocated to the election, 3.45% – to weather and 17.4% – to sport.
Radyjofakt on the 1st Channel of the National Radio gave nearly 10% of its air time to the forthcoming election and about 9% to weather forecasts. Nearly the same proportion was typical of Nashi Novosti on ONT TV station and the news of the Mahiloŭ Regional TV and Radio Company.
Yet, all the key actors, i.e. the prospective presidential candidates, except one received very low-key coverage in the state-owned media. For instance, Panarama gave them a modest 0.5% of the total election coverage time, and Radyjofakt allocated to them 3.4% of its election coverage time. The prospective presidential hopefuls received only 6% of the space that The Belarus Segodnia gave to all the monitored election figures. Incidentally, just like in the 2010 presidential campaign, the potential candidates were just mentioned in passing. Quite often they were not named at all.
The media presence of the prospective candidates’ teams and those voters who endorsed them was very low, too. For example, Panarama (Belarus 1, 21/08/2015) presented the heads of the teams, giving 42 seconds to the head of the incumbent’s team, 30 seconds to the head of Siarhiej Hajdukievič’s team, and 23 seconds to the head of Volha Karatkievič’s team. The others received even less air time. The head of the incumbent’s team Michail Orda on top of that appeared in Glavny Efir weekly programme (Belarus 1, 23/08/2015).
Most commonly the members of the prospective candidates’ teams, just like the presidential hopefuls themselves, were presented anonymously.
Just like in the run-up to the 2010 election, the incumbent was the key media figure at this stage. Glavny Efir on Belarus 1 launched a special TV series under the title The 21st Century, which presents the twenty years of President Lukašenka’s term in office in a positive and highly positive light as a success story, marked by great achievements and victories.
In Panarama the incumbent received 78% of the whole air time given to all the monitored election figures (the corresponding figure for the 2010 presidential campaign was 75%). Radyjofakt, in its turn, gave the incumbent 34% of its election coverage time. The CEC and the regional election commissions received about 6% of the election coverage time in Panarama and 28% in Radyjofakt.
Like the other state-owned media, www.belta.by focussed quite a lot on the CIS and OSCE/ODIHR observers, giving both the groups about the same amount of mostly neutral coverage. Thus, www.belta.by allocated 15% of its space given to all the monitored election actors to the OSCE/ODIHR observers and about 11% to the CIS observers. The Belarus Segodnia gave more attention to the OSCE/ODIHR observers, too, and presented all of them neutrally.
As for the Belarusian observers, according to the CEC Chairperson Lidzija Jarmošyna, ‘624 persons have been accredited. Of the political parties, it is the Communist Party of Belarus that has the largest representation – 46 observers… The Trade Unions Federation of Belarus has the largest number of observers – 113 people. The Belarusian National Youth Union and Bielaja Ruś Association actually share the second and the third positions.’ (Radyjofakt, 28/08/2015). Incidentally, the latter two organisations were quite often presented in a positive light in the state-owned media.
This stage of the monitoring was marked by the fact that the state-owned media completely failed to notice the election actor called ‘the opposition’.
3.2 Independent media
Unlike the independent printed media, www.naviny.by gave extensive coverage to different election figures, focussing more on the prospective presidential candidates, who received 25% of the space allocated to the forthcoming election. They were followed by the CEC, the political parties, NGOs and the presidential hopefuls’ teams.
The Narodnaja Vola and the Naša Niva focussed all their attention on a small circle of the election figures. These were in the first place the prospective presidential candidates, who received 66% of the total election coverage space in both the papers. The President and the OSCE/ODIHR observers were given 20% and 10% of the space allocated to all the election figures in the Narodnaja Vola. Meanwhile, the Naša Niva featured the opposition and the electorate more prominently.
The Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii mostly focussed on the prospective candidates and the President.
In presenting the presidential hopefuls and their teams, the independent media sought to avoid anonymity.
4. Media Effects
By media effects we mean instances of biased or unfair coverage, groundless interpretations, distorting information - whether deliberately or not, selective or fragmentary vision, as well as suppression of facts or events that could make a difference. We have recorded such instances.
Radyjofakt (the 1st Channel of the National Radio, 17/08/2015) reported before the candidates had obtained registration and launched their campaigns, that ‘Lidizija Jarmošyna aired her hopes that members of the women’s organisation will actively contribute to the campaign,’ while speaking at the Sixth Special Nationwide Conference of the Belarusian Women’s Union. The overall context in which the information was presented left no doubt as to the name of the candidate for whom members of the Belarusian Women’s Union were supposed to campaign.
Panarama (Belarus 1 TV station, 18/08/2015): according to its reporter, Head of the CIS Observers’ Mission Lebedev pointed out that ‘professional skills of those who are directly engaged in organizing the election in Belarus are further improving’. Head of Dziaržynsk District Election Commission Čahan highly praised himself and his colleagues: ‘The standard of performance shown by the election commissions is now much higher… In other words, the election procedures are streamlined, well-organised in full compliance with the legislation, and most importantly, free from any mistakes.’ However, the opinions of other election figures were not presented.
The state-owned media are programming young voters to show very high turnout. In the 6 o’clock news of the Mahiloŭ Regional TV and Radio Company that was on air on 20 August, 2015 Ms Zinaida Marozava of Kastryčnicki district branch of the veterans’ NGO in Mahiloŭ said, ‘I have been an election observer many times and will be happy to take most active part in the observation again. I monitored both presidential and local elections more than once. Voters were very active you know, I was even amazed that at the local election last year voters rushed to the polling station at 7:55! Yes, they were rushing, and they were young – I was really astounded.’ Radyjofakt (the 1st Channel of the National Radio, 23/08/2015) quoted the Belarusian National Youth Union online activities coordinator Alesia Vińnik saying, ‘We also conduct opinion polls to find out if young people are interested in the election. They show that about six months ago only 70% of our young people were positive they were going to go to the polls. However, about a month ago we did an opinion poll and it showed that as much as 89% young people said, “Yes, we are going to the polls.’’’
The state-owned media give a highly positive assessment of one prospective candidate. The presenter of Panarama (Belarus 1 TV station, 18/08/2015) said, ‘It has already become a good tradition among the Belarusians to help those who are not so well-off. It was initiated by the President, who launched a campaign called “Prepare a school bag a first grader”. At the meeting with the Minister of Education today Alaksandr Lukašenka once again called upon all the country to join in.’ A report from a series entitled We did it together in the same Panarama (Belarus 1 TV station, 19/08/2015) showed Horki State Agricultural Academy having a new lease on life thanks to the President’s intervention. After describing the Academy’s problems the reporter said off screen, ‘In 1995 Alaksandr Lukašenka attended the anniversary of his alma-mater… It was a landmark in the history of the Academy, as new departments were opened and it started teaching not only agriculturists but also businessmen to work in the field of agriculture.’
As for the other prospective presidential hopefuls, they were presented in a totally different light, their names either mentioned in passing or ignored. According to the coverage they received in the state-owned media, none of them had a distinct political profile. Some of them were presented in a negative or highly negative light. For example, in her interview to Glavny Efir (Belarus 1 TV station, 23/08/2015) Chairperson of the CEC Lidzija Jarmošyna said, ‘I was under the impression that all the leaders of political parties would get past this barrier [collecting 100,000 signatures of their supporters – translator’s note] Yet, it turned out that the leaders of two political parties that claim everything in our country, including public opinion, did not only fail to collect [100,000] signatures, but also refused to submit them. It is a grave mistake; it is recklessness, since this type of behaviour reminds me of a grammar school girl’s tantrums. You see, it is a way of boycotting the election. They could have improved their standing and demonstrated their potential at this election, but now they will be marginalised instead.’
In the next item of the same programme its political analyst shared his views of what ‘the Belarusians were stung by as signatures were being collected,’ to quote the presenter. Here are some of the expressions the state-owned media used to characterise the prospective presidential candidates and their teams, ‘lightly dressed young women harvesting political crops,’ ‘the politician’s public image alternately bulged in and bulged out,’ ‘Mr Labiedźka, who was in possession of a chieftain’s loudspeaker, was wearing the yellow jersey of a loser on this occasion’.
During the analysed time span, the state-owned media also ignored the news of the release of the 2010 presidential candidate Mikoła Statkievič and other political prisoners.
Finally, we have tracked certain specific traits of the election coverage as compared to the 2010 presidential campaign. However, it is too early to make any profound conclusions from them.
 The monitoring covers Panarama (Panorama) news programme on Belarus 1 TV station; Nashi Novosti (Our News) news programme on ONT TV station; Glavny Efir (Most Important Air) weekly programme on Belarus 1 TV station, Radyjofakt (Radiofact) on the 1st Channel of the National Radio; Naviny-rehijon (Regional News) of the Mahiloŭ Regional TV and Radio Company; Ablasnoje Radyjo (Regional Radio) of the Mahiloŭ Regional TV and Radio Company; www.naviny.by and www.belta.by online media; and such printed media as the Belarus Segodnia (Belarus Today), the Narodnaja Vola (People’s Will), the 7 Dniey (7 days), the Naša Niva (Our Field), the Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii (YCL Truth in Belarus), and the Mogilevskaya Pravda (Mahiloŭ Truth).
 The documents that provide the framework for qualitative analysis are as follows: The Code of Ethics in Journalism (adopted at the Convention of the BAJ in 2006); The Declaration of the Guidelines of Journalists’ Professional Ethics; Media Coverage of Elections (Belarus). 2015 and International Standards of Election Coverage in the Media.
Source: Belarusian Association of Journalists