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Russian television turning into the ‘Trojan horse’ in Belarus?

On 28 November 2017, participants of the Russian political talk-show Mesto Vstrechi , compared Belarus to an ‘unfaithful wife,’ a ‘prostitute’ and a ‘second Ukraine.’ The show reflected angry reactions to the participation of Belarus in the recent...
Source: euromaidanpress.com

On 28 November 2017, participants of the Russian political talk-show Mesto Vstrechi [Meeting Place], compared Belarus to an ‘unfaithful wife,’ a ‘prostitute’ and a ‘second Ukraine.’ The show reflected angry reactions to the participation of Belarus in the recent EaP summit in Brussels and its recent attempts to improve relations with the EU.

Soon thereafter, Belarusian TV and Radio Company, which controls the content of the Russian broadcaster NTV within Belarus, removed Mesto Vstrechi from the TV schedule. Both Belarusian official media and the president of the country complained of foreign media destabilising and misinforming the society.

Currently, Belarusian TV channels eagerly use Russian-produced content, ranging from news to entertainment. Yet the other side of the coin is the Russian domination of the Belarusian media market, with a potential to become a security issue.

NTV crossing the line?

The Russian TV has a history of going after Belarus and its leadership. Back in 2010, on the eve of the presidential elections, it broadcast a film, presenting Lukashenka in a negative light and reprimanding him of not keeping his ally promises. Eventually, Belarusian president had to negotiate with Putin a special agreement to stop personal attacks.

This year, Belarusian president did not directly comment on the NTV incident but lamented in general about the disgraceful behaviour of the powerful states’ media and their pseudo-analysts. Speaking at the 2nd Congress of Belarusian Scientists on 13 December, he blamed them for the destabilisation of the Belarusian society, yet cautiously refrained from specifying the states he meant.

Belarusian official media were more clear on the subject. One of the leading official newspapers, Belarus Segodnia, reacted to the NTV talk-show with a sarcastic caricature, accusing the channel of “bringing dirt into the house.”

Political discussion on ONT. Source: youtube.com

One of the ONT channel’s shows in early December also took time to uncover the anti-Belarusian hysteria in the Russian media. Participants criticised their one-sided approaches to Belarus and a selective choice of participants, depriving Belarusians of opportunities to defend themselves in a fair discussion.

Both the head of the oppositional Popular Front (BNF) Ryhor Kastuseu and political scientist Vadzim Baravik pointed out the fact that Russian media had been spreading a provincial image of Belarus for a long time. The deputy of the Belarusian House of Representatives Ihar Marzaliuk stressed a strategic partner status of Belarus for Russia. At the same time, he confirmed that Belarus would not renounce friendly relations with Ukraine and has a right to pursue its own interests, including the rapprochement with the EU.

Hybrid media market in Belarus

Television and radio within Belarus remain under strict state control and supervision. According to the survey on the Information Security of Belarus, presented on 14 December 2017 by the Eurasian States in Transition (EAST) Research Center, the domination of Russian TV and radio in Belarus remains unchallenged. Currently, only one TV channel, Belarus-3, uses exclusively Belarusian language for broadcasting.

The EAST survey reveals that up to 90 per cent of the content offered by the Belarusian cable TV providers is Russian. For instance, all popular entertainment shows, such as X Factor, are available only in their Russian versions, as these are less expensive to acquire than to produce new ones.

Entertainment shows, along with news and political talk-shows are also available on so-called ‘hybrid’ channels, such as NTV-Belarus and RTR-Belarus. Controlled by the Belarusian TV and Radio Company and carrying Belarusian names, most of their content nevertheless remains Russian. Nearly 43 per cent of the viewers in Belarus watch Russian and ‘hybrid’ channels on a regular basis.

Apart from spreading a colonial view on Belarus, some entertainment shows have dubious quality, offering stories about aliens, conspiracy theories, and anti-science. In October, Belarusian STV announced that it would broadcast a Russian REN TV show, presenting the ‘flat Earth’ hypothesis.

A long fight against the Russian propaganda ahead

Source: foreignpolicy.com

After the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014 and the flood of pro-Russian propaganda, Belarusian authorities have been trying to limit the Russian information power on the ‘hybrid’ channels.

Yet taking off the schedule some of the most offensive shows or moving them to late time slots turns out to be insufficient. According to the political analyst Valer Karbalevič, Aliaksandr Lukashenka still has not figured out how to deal with the issue of the Russian TV in Belarus.

Opening up the TV market for other neighbouring countries, such as Ukraine, might be a viable solution. However, Belarus slows down this process, even though Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents agreed on this issue three years ago.

In the ideal-case scenario, the increase of the Belarusian-produced content could be achieved by liberalising conditions for Belsat, an independent Belarusian TV channel broadcasting from Poland. Having celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017, it is known for providing independent coverage of Belarus-related themes and producing political and entertainment programs in the Belarusian language.

Considering these options, Belarusian authorities’ greatest fear is that media based outside Belarus could become the major providers of alternative views and opinions, dangerous for the regime’s own stability.

Hence, the usual practice of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry is to deny accreditation for Belsat journalists, making their work in Belarus illegal and placing them at risk of persecution or arrest. For instance, in April 2017, the accusation of “illegal production and dissemination of media content” resulted in several fines for Belsat journalists from Homiel Larysa Ščyrakova and Kastus Žukouski. The amount of the fines for both exceeded 3.700, which equals an average annual salary of a working Belarusian.

In the long run, going cheap by broadcasting Russian television further cements dependence of Belarus in the Russian sphere of influence, as it has been in the Soviet times. For the future, Belarus has to figure out a viable strategy to survive in information wars, yet one thing remains clear – the regime is unlikely to loosen its control over the media.


Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach holds a PhD in History from the University of Alberta, Canada.
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