Key factors that influenced the media sphere of Belarus in 2015 were the presidential election and the economic crisis. The economic downturn led to a significant reduction of the advertising market, first of all at the expense of traditional media, which may reduce both the competitiveness of national media as compared to foreign, and the competitiveness of traditional media as compared to new media. In the current economic situation state media can count on state support (which is declining though) in the current year, which will put independent media in a predicament.
As the election campaign of 2015 showed, the practice of limiting the freedom of speech did not significantly expand. However, new mechanisms of control over independent media are created, and the potential threats to the freedom of speech are growing.
- The negative impact of the economic crisis on traditional media and the loss of their competitiveness in comparison with new media;
- The deteriorating situation of independent media as a consequence of the economic crisis;
- Slight improvement of the situation with the freedom of speech shortly before the election and the lifting of sanctions;
- The expansion of potential mechanisms of media control.
Economic crisis and mass media: numbers
The main and most obvious marker of the economic crisis which had developed latently since mid-2014 but fully manifested itself at the beginning of 2015 is the evolution of the advertising market. According to forecasts, in 2015 the reduction of the media advertising market should have reached 35%.1 In reality, the advertising market decreased by 33% in U. S. dollar terms.2 The market size amounted only USD 78 million as compared to USD 116 million in 2014 (see Figure 1).
Reduced advertising costs primarily affect traditional media. If the share of online advertising in total advertising costs in the current situation increased (from 17% to 23%), the share of TV advertising fell from 54% to 49%, which in monetary terms corresponds to the decline of TV advertising by 39%. The share of advertising on radio and in the press as a whole remained practically unchanged (see Figure 2). Thus, the advertising revenues of radio stations and print media decreased on average by 33%.
The reduced influence of traditional media on the background of the growing importance of new media manifests itself in the evolution of the number of editions and print runs. The number of published newspapers and magazines has not increased since 2009.3 At the beginning of February 2016, according to the Ministry of Communications 1,591 titles of print media were registered.4 As compared to January 2014, the increase totals only 2.3% (see Figure 3).
In the current situation of the economic crisis a new trend appears. If during the review period the number of magazines grew and the number of newspapers fell down, then in 2015 we witnessed a break in the trend. Materially more costly ‘heavy formats’ that attract greatest advertising budgets are declining, whereas the number of materially ‘lighter’ publications starts to increase.
In January 2014, the number of magazines totaled 936 titles while in February 2016 it sank to 867. On the other hand, the number of newspapers, which decreased from 713 titles in January 2010 to 619 in January 2014, rose to 724 (as of February 2016), which is a structural consequence of the downturn in the media market (see Figure 4).
In spite of the greater independence from the advertising revenues that state media have (due to government support), the reduction of the advertising market was tangible for them too. In an interview with SB. Belarus Segodnya, STV-channel General Director Jury Kazijatka said: “We have the help of the State that pays for us the signal propagation and issues preferences, returning some part of taxes. We spend this money to buy equipment and create new programs. But we could not but feel the loss of the lion’s share of the advertising money; therefore, some of the entertainment projects were put off”.5
The fact that the economic crisis affects independent media more is reflected by the emergence of new types of print media. If from January 2014 to February 2016 the number of state publications increased by 5% (from 410 to 431), the increase in the number of non-state publications totaled only 1% (from 1145 to 1160). The regional situation and the development of relations between Belarus and the EU did not allow counting on the increased donor support of independent socio-political media.
Prerequisites for the preservation of the influence of traditional media and enhancement of their competitiveness, as compared to new media, are not created. Instead of the top mass communication channel – the TV – new forms of video content spreading appear. The audience of interactive television providers broadens. The number of ZALA (IPTV) subscribers in 2014 increased by 175.2 thousand and reached 1.02 million users.6 Mobile services to view TV content develop (Smart Zala from Beltelecom, voka from Velcom, etc.). The American streaming service Netfix voiced its plans to enter the Belarusian market.
As far back as in 2014 it became evident that the national media system was not able to provide information security.7 The population meets its information needs largely at the expense of Russian content. Neither state nor independent media in Belarus have a significant impact on public opinion. The reduction of the advertising market only makes matters worse, threatening information security even more.
At the same time changes in state approaches towards media are unlikely to be expected. During ten years the State Program on Introducing Digital Television and Radio Broadcasting in Belarus until 2015 was implemented. In the list of the approved state programs for 2016–2020 there are no programs aimed at strengthening information security. The state program The Development of the Digital Economy and the Information Society, which is the responsibility of the Ministry of Communications and Informatization, touches upon “the informatization of the state run public authorities”,8 as it is said in the explanation, and does not affect the sphere of mass communication.
Freedom of speech in the election year
The main intrigue of 2015 was the question of how strong the oppression of journalists would be during the presidential campaign. However, the self-censorship of the media, on the one hand, and the desire of the Belarusian authorities to meet the expectations of Western countries on the other, contributed to a decrease in the intensity of repression against journalists compared with previous periods.
As the authors of the BAJ monitoring put it, “among positive aspects it is worth noting the decrease in the number of short-term detentions of journalists by the police and the lack of repression against journalists and the media after the election. The latter may be explained by the desire of the official Minsk to achieve a positive assessment of the election by the international community, by the lack of serious political tension in the country during the election, and by the ‘cooling’ effect intended for the media which was achieved as a result of the preventive tightening of the media legislation and the practice of its application”.9
In addition, an interview of Alexander Lukashenko to independent media dated August 4, 2015 should be regarded as a positive point as well. Another indication of the improvement of the situation with the freedom of speech is the willingness of public broadcasters to invite independent experts to take part in public political programs such as the Sunday analytical program Kontury (‘Contours’) and the analytical program Delo printsipa (‘Matter of Principle’) on ONT TV-channel.
However, despite some positive shifts, we cannot say that the situation with the freedom of speech changed radically. The state continues to control the leverage over distributors of print media (by means of subscription and Bielsajuzdruk (periodical distributing network). Besides, new forms of control appear: since July 2015 media distributors must register at the Ministry of Information.
Despite the improvement of the situation with journalists who cooperated with foreign media during the election period, the prosecution of journalists picked up in December 2015: Lidzija Ščyrakova and Kiryl Žukouski who cooperate with Belsat TV-channel were held administratively liable. The Ministry of Information continues to issue warnings to independent media: in accordance with the new law on media two warnings are enough to stop the publication.
The situation can be described as follows. In general the actions of public authorities are aimed at strengthening their control over mass communications for information security, even if the application of these mechanisms is postponed due to circumstances. But the only obvious result is the lack of the development of the media sphere.
Contrary to a popular belief that the presidential election is becoming a less interesting and significant event for the country’s citizens, the analysis of the election coverage in mass media shows the opposite. As the authors of the BISS Political media barometer monitoring say, the presidential election causes an unprecedented increase in the size of communications.10 This suggests that the election is an event in the life of the country which stimulates the interest in politics. As a result, politicians participating in the election, and those who opposed it were mentioned in the media more often.
The authors of the study explain this by the fact that politicians, experts and media representatives start to take an active part in the discussion of the electoral process, regardless of the position they take: from “there is no election in Belarus” to “the presidential campaign brings intrigue”. Together they produce, so to say, a real discourse of the election. However, according to the study, the presidential candidates did not take an advantage of the increased interest of the media to advance their political structures – their names were more often mentioned without affiliation.
It should also be noted that, according to the results of the research, the initiative to cover the electoral process comes from the media, and in most cases politicians are just mentioned in connection with the coverage of various stages of the electoral campaign.
It should be noted that the interest of the media in political processes such as presidential elections, is very high. However, the process is not covered in a way showing the substantial part of politicians’ work or to promote political structures that stand behind the candidates.
The economic crisis aggravates the problem of information security, recorded in 2014. In the economic downturn traditional media are losing competitiveness, while independent media find themselves in a worse situation in comparison with state-owned media. The prerequisite for the development of the national media system is not created. In the coming years we can expect a reduction of the influence of the Belarusian mass media on public opinion.
The authorities are trying to compensate foreign influence, creating new forms of potential control over the communication space, but these measures are unlikely to be effective. The improvement of the situation with the freedom of speech will depend on political and geopolitical factors, but significant positive shifts are not to be expected.