Lukashenka’s new media policy: what to expect?
On 10 April, Alexander Lukashenka met the heads and staff of the largest state-owned Belarusian media. He stated that they could not work in the old fashion any longer and called for a new era in their work.
In February Lukashenka replaced the heads of the key official media, bringing in young loyalists in place of the Soviet-minded, pro-Russian old guard. Moreover, in April, the government amended the Law on Mass Media to significantly boost state control over the internet; the last resort of freedom of speech in Belarus.
All these measures target the two main concerns of the Belarusian leadership: the shrinking audience of official media and the growing influence of Russian and Western-financed media in Belarus.
The new media policy
On 10 April, Lukashenka met the heads and employees of all the largest state-owned Belarusian media. He demanded that journalists modernise Belarusian media in order to attract people of different ages and backgrounds. According to the president: “It is hardly possible to get young people away from smartphones and computers and make them read the newspaper, therefore you should expand your presence online and offer [the young] something interesting, correct and objective.”
Frankly, the change in media policy stems from a number of concerns among Belarus’s leaders. First, the state-owned media lost both readership and influence. Belarusians, especially young people, go online where independent and foreign resources dominate. In terms of creativity and efficiency, state media simply cannot compete. The independent information portal TUT.by remains the most popular website in Belarus with 230 million monthly views (although page view statistics cover many subsections which do not relate to news, such as recruitment advertisements).
Over the past month, Charter ’97 had 28.3 million views despite the authorities’ recent blocking of the site . This made Charter ’97 the second largest website in Belarus in terms of page views. The highest ranking official media, Belta, had only 1.7 million views, behind independent sites Belarusian Partisan (5.5 million), Naša Niva (2.7 million) and Naviny.by (2.6 million).
A second reason for the urgent change in media policy comes from the overwhelming influence of foreign media on the minds of Belarusians, whether Russian or financed by the West. The Russian media dominated in Belarus since the collapse of the USSR, and Belarusians see them as an indispensable part of television. According to a study by the Information and Analytical Centre under the Presidential Administration, Russian TV channels account for three of the five most popular TV channels in Belarus. Moreover, they occupy the top two spots in the ranking with NTV first and RTR in second place. However, as Russian propaganda turned increasingly aggressive, the Belarusian authorities realised the extent of its impact on the population.
The professional and effective coverage of the spring 2017 mass protests by EU or US-funded independent media (including Radio Liberty, Belsat and Euroradio) demonstrated that they can be a powerful actor in domestic politics and potentially spur a change in power. The Belarusian rulers therefore also needed a shield protecting them from the western front.
Young loyalists replace the old guard
To implement the new media policy, Lukashenka introduced new people into key media posts. Dzmitry Žuk, previously the head of the state information agency BelTA, replaced the legendary Paviel Jakubovič as the head of the SB-Belarus Segodnia holding company, the main producer of official printed newspapers. Jakubovič, who was very close to Lukashenka, had held the position since 1995.
Ihar Lucki left his post as deputy minister for information to take up the leadership of the STV television channel. Another important recent appointment included the promotion of the former deputy head of the National TV and Radio Company, Ivan Ejsmant, to head of the company. He replaced Hienadź Davydźka, who was transferred to lead the public association Bielaja Ruś, the largest Belarusian GoNGO.
Relative youth distinguished the new media bosses from their predecessors. Unlike the old guard who retained the Soviet style and pro-Russian sentiments, the new generation built their careers in an independent Belarus under Lukashenka. Their loyalty to Belarus’s independence and its everlasting leader serves Lukashenka well.
Along with the new appointments, the government introduced amendments to the Law on Mass Media. These amendments sparked criticism from civil society, which sees it as an attempt to tighten control over the internet – which remains the freest source of information in Belarus.
Belarus tightens control over the internet
The amendments suggest voluntary registration of internet resources as mass media under the term “web resources”. The employees of unregistered internet resources will lack the rights of journalists and will not be able to accredit their correspondents.
The amendments also introduce a mandatory identification for those posting any materials online, including social media and forum comments. The authorities claim that this will prevent the dissemination of fake news, illegal activity, and discrediting the honour or business reputation of individuals and legal entities. At the same time, this obligation can easily be used by the state as a tool for identifying political opponents or any activity that the authorities consider undesirable.
The law also prohibits the publishing of foreign media products in Belarus without a permit. By doing this, very likely, the government will attempt to limit the influence of Western-financed media inside Belarus.
The editors of TV channels will have to ensure that 30 per cent of the TV broadcasts consist of Belarusian media products. This looks like a response to the domination of Russian content on Belarusian television. Civil society and the political opposition should support this step since they remain the most active proponents of restriction of Russian media in Belarus.
According to the information minister, Aliaksandr Karliukievič, the amendments aim to protect national security and harmonise Belarusian legislation with that of Russia and Kazakhstan in the framework of Eurasian Economic Union. However fair and sound the arguments of the authorities may sound, it is also clear that the new regulations present a handy tool for the control over the last space for freedom of speech in Belarus.
As the representative of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists put it during the discussion dedicated to law amendments: “We feel like a frog in slowly heated water that will soon be boiling.” 2018 will show how the authorities will actually apply the amended laws.
Criminal case against trade union leaders tests civil society in Belarus
On six occasions during March 2018 border patrols removed activists from the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Radio Electronic Industry Workers (REP) from trains and buses under the pretext of “random” personal inspections. REP leaders claim that this continues a campaign against the trade union, whose activity proved instrumental in the postponement of Decree No.3 “On the prevention of social dependency”.
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Over the last month, inspectors from regional branches of the Investigative Committee interrogated around two hundred members of the REP and at the beginning of February, someone hacked the organisation’s website. Still, civil society and political parties keep silent about the situation, perceived as punitive measures against the REP’s activists. Why does Belarusian civil society disregard the persecution of an independent trade union?
Struggle against the “social parasites” law
Initially the adoption of the so-called “Social parasites’ law” aimed at forcing Belarusians employed in the shadow economy to pay taxes. The legislation obligated all adults in Belarus, irrespective of their health and life situation, to “become engaged in the financing of public expenses.” Should they be unable to find a job or explain why they are not employed to a special commission, they would have to pay a single fee of around $300; a significant sum in a country where the average salary amounts to $400 per month.
Dzmitry Čarnych, a Belarusian Helsinki Committee legal expert, pointed out in an interview to Euroradio that the law directly violated the constitution and primarily targeted vulnerable segments of the population, such as disabled people. Members of the REP stood up against the law: rights inspector Leanid Sudalienka helped a member of the trade union, Aliaksandr Siamionaŭ, to file a claim against his local tax office.
Siamionaŭ received notification that he was qualified as a social parasite and hence obliged to pay the corresponding fee. He refused and proved in the court that he was engaged in the financing of public expenses through paying both road tax and goods/services tax among other things.
The outcome of that high profile case surprised Belarusians who recognised the possibility of ignoring similar notifications and calls from tax office in relation to social parasites’ law. Only 54,000 citizens paid the tax, which is about 9 percent of the presumed number of “social parasites” (470,000) as specified by tax authorities.
Moreover, the most intensive and emotional protest actions in six years shook Belarus in 2017. Over several weeks Belarusians gathered in city squares to protest against Decree No. 3. Eventually, the authorities took a step back and postponed the law’s entry into force. In January 2018 they cancelled the decree altogether. Several months later police launched an investigation against the leaders of the REP.
The launch of a “second Bialiatski” case
Tough Belarusian legislation compels NGOs to register all financial aid received from foreign countries with the Department of Humanitarian Activities. The authorities do not allow sponsorship of political social events. A variety of state bodies, such as Committee of State Control and the tax authorities and criminal lawyers enforce the law. That said, many NGOs have no option but to open bank accounts in Lithuania or Poland to continue their proper operation. This allows the authorities to persecute unwanted NGOs allegedly for illegitimate financial operations.
On 2 August 2017, State Control Committee agents staged a raid in the REP’s Minsk office under the pretext of a criminal case against its chair, Hienadź Fiadynič, and his associate, Ihar Komlik, both charged with tax evasion. Throughout 2017 and 2018 the authorities have gathered information about REP leaders, undertaking raids, interrogating its members and impeding the organisation’s activities in all sorts of ways.
The State Control Committee released a statement alleging that the chair and general accountant of the trade union “opened accounts in foreign banks on behalf of the organisation for the purpose of personal enrichment.”
The trade union’s representatives fundamentally disagree with these accusations. In particular, the REP’s Homiel committee vice-chairman, Andrej Stryžak, said in an interview that the authorities “launched an orchestrated campaign against the trade union because of its activity.”
This situation largely resembles the infamous case of Alieś Bialiacki’s case. Bialiacki, convicted of tax evasion in 2011, spent almost three years of a 4.5 year-sentence behind bars before his release in 2014. This became possible because seven years ago Lithuanian Department of Justice passed information about a bank account belonging to the human rights centre “Viasna” (chaired by Bialiacki) to Belarusian colleagues. However, after the persecution of the human rights activist, Lithuania stopped cooperation with Belarus in this sphere.
Silent treatment from civil society
Despite ongoing interrogations, political opposition and civil society remain largely silent on the REP case. One reason is that, due to the large-scale campaign against independent trade unions in the 2000s, the REP lacks full integration into civil society structures. Throughout the 2000s independent trade unions and REP in particular actively opposed presidential Decree No. 29, which introduced a discriminatory system of short-term contracts.
The authorities launched a campaign against activists designed to weaken the influence of the independent trade unions. In some cases, they changed unwanted management of independent organisations during orchestrated internal elections, while in other cases they forced members to transfer to pro-governmental trade unions. Also, the authorities prevented the formation of cells at the enterprises by forcing out “rebellious” workers.
The International Labour Organisation qualified this situation as a failure to comply with Belarus’s obligations as regards freedom of association for workers and withdrew trade preferences. Belarus joined Myanmar as the only two countries in the world deprived of trade preferences at the time.
Though opposition parties recognise the importance of independent trade unions, they look on their activities with a grain of salt. While opposition leaders sail close to the wind and risk arrest for their activities, the REP can act within the boundaries of the law when defending the rights of workers in court. Stryžak says that for this reason, various organisations credit the trade unions for defending the rights of workers and contributing to the cancellation of Decree No. 3, but none of them supported the REP after the initiation of the criminal case.
Still, human rights activists will speak in support of the REP. Recently they handed information on the ongoing repressions to Miklós Haraszti, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus.
The REP’s case represents a test for Belarusian civil society, which will show whether recent protests against decree No. 3 contributed to the building of solidarity networks between people not previously politically engaged. Should people stand firmly against the repressions of REP, it could ruin the authorities’ plans on the implementation of the second version of the infamous law – Decree No.1 “On the support of employment”.
Vasil Navumau is a visiting fellow with the Open Society Foundation’s Global Dialogues Program – Fellowship of the “Artes Liberales Institute” Foundation (FIAL). He is also the editor of the Belarusian journal e-gov.by, devoted to discussion of ideas in the sphere of e-government formation and e-participation enhancement in Belarus.