BELARUS’ INDEPENDENT PRESS – EMBATTLED BUT NOT DEFEATED
Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 1
Belarus’ independent press – embattled but not defeated
By Paulyuk Bykowski
In November 1997, the oldest newspaper of the Belarusian opposition, Svaboda (Freedom), was closed down on the orders of the country’s Supreme Economic Court. The Court declared that two of Svaboda’s articles threatened "to incite discord both in society and between the citizens and the government."
The closure of Svaboda was the government’s latest victory over the opposition. Belarus’ political parties have still not yet recovered the influence they lost following the November 1996 referendum, when President Alyaksandr Lukashenka introduced a new constitution curtailing the powers of parliament and excluding from the new National Assembly all those members of the old Supreme Soviet who refused to acknowledge the results of the referendum. The move was a severe blow to Belarus’ fledgling political parties and created a situation to which they have not yet managed to adapt.
As political parties have lost influence, the role of the printed media among the population has increased. The media have stepped into the vacuum and now form the chief focus of opposition to the regime. In these circumstances, the regime has shifted focus, turning its attention to the media in a final drive to silence the opposition.
There are not many political publications in Belarus which are not state-sponsored. Moreover, those publications that do exist do not present a real challenge to the regime. They operate on a shoestring and their circulations are tiny in comparison to those of state-sponsored publications. Indeed, the total circulation of all of the country’s independent newspapers taken together is less than half that of the newspaper subsidized by the presidential administration, Sovetskaya Belorussiya. Moreover, the state has a stranglehold over the distribution system, which handles all the country’s officially-registered publications.
It would mistaken, however, to suppose that the citizens of Belarus have no opportunity to read the independent press. For quite a few years, there was an uneasy truce between the authorities and the independent media and it is only recently that their relations have begun to resemble a state of war. So far, this has not yet developed into open conflict — merely an exchange of hostile, but still only symbolic, moves.
The owners of most of the country’s independent media would not, in fact, be at all reluctant to co-operate with the regime. Many of them are in opposition only because no one has offered to co-operate with them. Their "independence" depends largely on the attitude of their readers. The readers are prepared to pay for the publications because they want to read something that reflects their own views and that offers a different perspective from the official state propaganda. Readers have, ever since the Soviet period, shown a decided preference for highly colored and opinionated information that is easy to read and does not make great demands on the intellect. Readers tend, as a result, to be highly vulnerable to propaganda. They do, however, make a distinction between state propaganda and that put out by the opposition.
The state propaganda apparatus is by definition more powerful than the opposition media. The opposition generally emerges the loser from its battles with the state propaganda machine and this does not increase the opposition’s credit among the population. Readers can choose between two sets of information (both incorrect). Either they can choose that which more closely fits their world-view, or they can reject both. Many people choose the latter option since they are not really interested in politics or well enough informed to determine where the truth lies. However, the regime advertises its point of view more often and its arguments tend to be somewhat simpler than those of the opposition. As a result, the official propaganda tends to be more effective.
The opposition print media, as a result, are not at all dangerous for the regime. Why, therefore, did the regime bother to close the newspaper Svaboda?
Svaboda was closed as a warning to other independent newspapers that every publication can be closed this way. Even though the independent media have very little influence among the mass of the population, they do have a hard-core readership among the thinking members of society. Granted, the regime has dozens of hidden levers with which to influence the media. Such pressure must, however, be constantly increased. This is because, prior to the return of authoritarianism, Belarusian journalists had the opportunity to learn what freedom is, and to realize that they depended not on the state, but on the society. As soon as journalists get used to the existing level of state pressure, therefore, they start to write as though there was no pressure at all.
The threat of closure is real and is not lost on the people who have invested in the print media. Journalists may resist intimidation and refuse to understand what is required of them, but an entrepreneur whose business becomes unprofitable will make every effort to resolve the problem. He is likely to introduce censorship even stricter than that of the state. The technique chosen by the authorities in Belarus is not bribing publishers, but intimidating them.
However, this technique has one major drawback: it works only once. Now that Svaboda has been closed, the Belarusian press will have to find a way of reassuring investors that they will not lose their money if a newspaper is closed down. This, by the way, was the case with the publishers of Svaboda, who not only managed to minimize expenses after the paper was closed down, but even managed to make a profit. Now they have enough commitment to publish a new periodical. Svaboda’s editor-in-chief, Ihar Hermyanchuk, has announced that the first issue of a new newspaper, Naviny (News), which will replace Svaboda, will appear on January 15.
Strange as it may seem, the newspaper Svaboda is still to be found on the World Wide Web. It comes out three times a week. Look for it under https://www.belarus.net/MassMedia/Newspaper/Svaboda/. You will find it, moreover, on the very same server that acts as host to the homepage of the Belarusian President and Parliament (https://www.belarus.net/presiden/index.htm).
In the new year, the Belarusian authorities may discover another weak point of the print media. Then it will be the turn of the media to come up with a new survival mechanism. The struggle will continue because the regime’s actions are causing more and more people to sympathize with the oppressed media. It is surely not by chance that there are many more Belarusian newspapers on the World Wide Web than of neighboring countries.
BELARUS’ INDEPENDENT MEDIA
In 1997, 988 periodicals were registered in Belarus. They included 688 newspapers, 248 magazines, 51 bulletins, and one almanac. Just under half (294) of these publications were in the Russian language, while 118 were in Belarusian; 242 were in both languages with the emphasis on Russian while 187 were in both languages with emphasis on Belarusian. There were also publications in English, German, French, Polish and Ukrainian. There were two national news agencies in Belarus — the state agency BelTA and the private agency BelaPAN.
By the end of 1997, 28 Belarusian newspapers and magazines could be found on the World Wide Web. Some bulletins published by political and public associations could also be found there.
Of the above publications, 369 were registered by collective, private and mixed (partly but not totally state-owned) companies, 109 by public associations, 121 by their editorial boards, 134 by local authorities, 94 by ministries, 53 by state-owned companies, and 26 by religious organizations. Four publications were registered by the Presidential Administration, two by the Council of Ministers, one jointly by the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly, and one by the Constitutional Court.
There is virtually no independent media distribution network. The Foundation for Support to Independent Media, headed by Piotr Artsev, publisher and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta (Belarusian Business Gazette), has received a grant from the Eurasia Foundation to set up of an alternative, nation-wide distribution system. If the project is successful, such a system may be created in 1998.
Paulyuk Bykowski is a political observer for the independent Belarusian weekly, Belorusski Rynok (Belarusian Market).
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