Barricade Journalism in Belarus
The Belarusian media more and more look like barricade journalism. The state media fiercely fight their non-state colleagues and vice versa. Endless clichés, mutual accusations and the language of hatred often leave little space for decent journalism.
The lack of professional ethics on the two sides of the barricades makes the situation more complicated. Outright propaganda campaigns, conspiracy theories and plagiarism undermine the public discourse and make the public opinion vulnerable to all sorts of manipulation. Non-state media sometimes try to outperform their state-paid salaries in the art of manipulation.
Confrontation between the media that represent opposite political views is a typical phenomenon in the world. And the more tense the relations between political opponents in a country the more uncompromising the media become in treating one another.
In Belarus this confrontation has been brought to an extreme level. According to the well-known Belarusian journalist and media expert Aliaksandr Klaskouski, the media sector in the country reminds barricades. The majority of journalists think in the categories of “us” and “them”. On the one side of the barricades is the pro-governmental Belarusian Union of Journalists (BUJ). And on the other side – the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).
Generally, this situation does not surprise. In a repressive authoritarian state that still allows some space for independent activities this is inevitable. As the experts of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) point out, Belarus remains a politically deeply divided country. The media reflect such divisions and sustain them by a constant flow of behind-the-barricades reporting.
In February the Liberal Club think tank held a round-table discussion "How to Overcome Barricade Thinking in the Belarusian Media". The event sparked huge interest among journalists and the general public. Representatives of the two conflicting media associations took part in it.
In the opinion of the majority of the speakers, the media barricades will last as long as the incumbent political regime. The authorities have no interest in easing their firm control of the media while only demonopolisation and unrestricted market competition can solve the barricade problem. Free competition will expand the Belarusian media market from the current small volume of USD 70 million and stimulate an inflow of serious investment and ideas. Journalists will then have to produce high-quality product that will satisfy different categories of consumers.
But before that happens the Belarusian media will continue to look like a barricade. And this confrontation would not be as noteworthy if it were not for the impact it makes on the whole of society.
The issue of professional ethics among the journalist community comes to the spotlight.
With the state media everything is clear. One can watch news on state TV channels or read politically-sensitive materials in government-owned newspapers and see that professional ethics remains an unknown animal there. Black PR and badly researched materials dominate the political agenda of the state media.
But what about the independent media, who normally claim to be promoting European values through their work?
Unfortunately, it looks like they fail to differ a lot. According to Aliaksandr Klaskouski, there are multiple examples when independent media degrade to the level of “oppositional primitivism”. They produce the same poor propaganda instead of quality journalism.
Moreover, sometimes it looks like some non-state media try to outperform their government-owned counterparts in violating the norms of professional ethics. Two recent scandals that both involved Charter'97, a popular independent Internet resource, serve as good examples.
The first scandal developed around the issue of plagiarism. A group of Belarusian journalists and analysts accused Charter'97 of reposting their publications without naming the authors at all. In other cases editors of Charter'97 kept the names of the authors but changed the contents of the original articles.
The other scandal broke out at an OSCE-organised event in Vienna. The editor of Charter'97 publicly accused the owner of another popular non-state Internet portal TUT.BY of cooperating with the Belarusian KGB. The representative of Charter97 concluded that TUT.BY helped to undermine democracy in Belarus.
These two scandals reflect the atmosphere in the independent media sector. Despite declarations of moral superiority to the state media many independent journalists demonstrate complete ignorance of the basics of professional ethics.
This problem of poor professional ethics in the non-state media sector tops the agenda of the newly established media watchdog Mediakritika.by.
Arguments of the Conflicting Sides
According to some observers, the barricade situation can only improve if the two journalists associations get together and agree to establish a code of conduct. But such a scenario looks hardly possible. The level of mistrust between the official BUJ and the independent BAJ is enormous.
The argument of independent journalists in this confrontation goes that the state media enjoy total protection from the government and receive generous funding from the national budget. For example, in 2013 the national budget allocates about USD 77 million for all the state media. Independent journalists rightly point out that this violates the principles of fair competition because independent media are not subject to such funding schemes.
The state media, in their turn, normally accuse their independent counterparts of living exclusively on foreign grants. As a result, they say, non-state media totally depend on external “masters” and, therefore, represent the interests of foreigners rather than of the Belarusian people.
Pro-governmental journalists claim that without foreign grants the independent media will quickly become insolvent as they do not enjoy popularity among the people. To support the claim they refer to various public opinion polls, particularly conducted by the Information and Analytical Centre of the Presidential Administration (which, of course, has questionable credibility).
In 2012 the Centre studied what newspapers the Belarusians trust most of all. Their research revealed that the leading state-owned newspapers (Respublika, Sovetskaya Belarus, Narodnaya Gazeta, Zvyazda) enjoyed much higher levels of trust among their readers than the leading papers in the other camp (BelGazeta, Svobodnye Novosti, Narodnaya Volya).
Interestingly, the latest survey by the IISEPS showed equally low public trust in both state and independent Belarusian media: only about 28% .
Impact on Society
Unfortunately, the media confrontation and lack of professional ethics among journalists on both sides of the barricades shape the public opinion in Belarus. The latter has become divided, poorly informed, prejudiced and extremely biassed. It perceives the complex Belarusian reality purely in “black” or “white” terms.
If a society that lives in such a black-and-white world suddenly faces serious challenges and has to make important historic decisions, there is almost a guarantee that these decisions will be painful and wrong. And both the state and non-state media camps will be responsible for it.
Young Belarusians Choose Professions with Poor Employment Prospects
Belarusian State University organised an open house at the end of March. Many future secondary graduates had their first impressions of the most prestigious university in the country. However, it would be more useful for them to know about the threat of unemployment they will face after graduation, even after leaving such a prestigious institution.
Ironically, the labour market is showing a very low demand for professions which appear most desirable for students. The government itself has admitted to the alarming excess of young lawyers and economists, but the reaction remains very Soviet: many plans with no real steps to deal with the problem.
Graduates Poorly Prepared for Adult Life
The best way to teach a student his or her profession is having them plunge into real work. Belarusian universities have a special element for all their students – an internship. In theory, every student is supposed to have several internships in order complete their degree.
Nevertheless, employers always complained about the detachment between academic study and practical work with its overly theoretical orientation.
Alexander Lukashenka has many times expressed his dissatisfaction with the lack of practical preparation in universities. But in his words this idea sounded more radical: "For two years they must drill science in our universities, institutions and academies, and for another two years they must work in specific enterprises". However, nothing has changed since this statement was made in July 2012.
While senior students must get ready for a future job during their final semester, they face another serious academic challenge. Insofar as the state runs the overwhelming majority of Belarusian universities, the Ministry of Education claims as its own duty and responsibility to be accountable for students’ level of education.
During these exams, the examiners consist of several professors and a representative of the Ministry of Education. They test students on how familiar they are with the major subjects of their chosen field.
This group, called the "state commission", also takes part in another important educational procedure: the defence of students’ theses. During the summer of their final year, students are to give a speech before the state commission, illustrating the practical applicability of his research and reaffirming its main points and ideas.
The students themselves do not seem to be entirely happy with their education. When asked "what has your university failed to give you for pursuit of a job?" students have said they are disatisfied in multiple areas. They have reported that they were not adequately prepared during their studies in improving their language skills (60%), managerial skills (55%), or specialist knowledge (33%). In other words, students themselves are well aware that today’s system of higher education remains insufficient to find employment.
Not Everybody Gets a Place
The real figures of youth unemployment in Belarus remains unknown because the official statistics account only for those who apply for a job to a state employment service. However, the survey shows that 70% of young specialists are dissatisfied with their first working places.
The crucial issue behind Belarusian youth unemployment is an imbalance between the needs of the labour market and the system of higher education.
Programmers remain the most sought-out professionals as well as construction workers, medical personnel, engineers and shop assistants. For instance, on 1 September 2012, 74% of all vacancies in the state employment service were for blue collar workers (construction, technical, manual workers). At the same time, the demand for accountants, lawyers, economists and HR-managers has been low for a long time.
In this context, the list of the most popular university specialities among students looks surprising. Approximately 45 % of all students gets a legal, economic or management education. At the same time, technical schools and colleges suffer an acute deficit of entrants. Programmers seem to be the only exception: this job attracts many students and they enjoy a substantial demand on the labour market.
|№||Speciality||University||Passing Grade (out of 400)|
|1||International law||Belarusian State University||374|
|2||International relations||Belarusian State University||369|
|3-4||International tourism management||Belarusian State University||366|
|3-4||World economy||Belarusian State University||366|
|5||Social communications||Belarusian State University||364|
|6||Foreign languages (English)||Minsk State Linguistic University||362|
|7||World economy||Francysk Skorina Gomel State University||360|
|8-10||Information Technology and programming||Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radio Electronics||356|
|8-10||Foreign languages (German)||Minsk State Linguistic University||356|
|8-10||Dentistry||Belarusian State Medical University||356|
Design, law, computer graphics, and finance have become the most popular in terms of the sheer number of candidates.
In May 2012 Alexander Lukashenka complained: "Enough lawyers, economists and historians; there is no place to put them". In August 2011 he made a similar statement. The problem which comes with such an excess of these potentially unemployed students has become apparent, even at the very top.
Many Words with Little Effect
To solve any problem one must look at its roots. Belarusian students choose law instead of medicine and management instead of construction because these occupations seem more financially attractive to them.
In order to lift the prestige of these "necessary" jobs, the Belarusian government must do its best to provide potential workers and engineers with decent wages.
Or they could follow Germany's example and grant tax exemptions to the companies that conclude contracts with technical college students while they study and give them a working place after graduation.
Giving universities a free hand can work as well. There are no grounds for thinking that a governmental clerk can predict the situation on the labour market with such precision, that he should be entitled to decide how many lawyers or engineers the universities should educate for the future labour market.
Belarusian officials have also proposed specific plans for dealing with the problem, but for now they are unable realise them. In the beginning of 2012, vice-premier Anatoliy Tosik came up with an initiative to double student fees for "unnecessary" specialities. Although the minister for education supported the plan, it has yet to be implemented.
The same destiny awaited the idea of reducing the number of places for students studying to becomeeconomists, lawyers, managers etc. Indeed, it has been the anticipated reform that is to hit the upcoming 2013 university admissions cycle. However, the minister of education Syarhei Maskevich announced that the 2013 admissions cycle would undergo no serious changes except an increase in the requirements for a passing grade.
In other words, governmental officials have decided not to change their plans concerning the urgent problems they have already recognised. Unlike many other countries where higher education administration and the state are separate, the Belarusian government has the full capacity to interfere with the educational process, but it still prefers to do nothing and instead continues to preserve a largely Soviet system of education.