While the Summer was warming up the streets of Minsk, Belarus proceeded towards a complete DTT coverage and strengthened its own radio-television systems with new technology and new channels. But the topic of freedom of the press within the country still remains very much discussed...
After the announcement by the public radio-television company Beltelradiocompany with regards to the launch of two new channels, the Belarusian government is also expected to send two new satellites into orbit, all the while heading towards DTT coverage of the whole country, expected for the year 2015. But will an increase in channels and the advent of new technology also signify a major increase of voices and will that be a sign of the opening of freedom of the press in Belarus?
The system of the Belarusian radio-television is heavily controlled and influenced by the State. According to official statistics supplied on the website of the Ministry of Information (Mинистерство информации Республики Беларусь) as of July 2013, the televisions were 89, of which 57 were private (Russian) and the rest had either a total or partial presence of the State.
With regards to the radio (although this article will predominantly analyze TV), there are 166 stations on all the national territory, of which 23 private. The majority of the public radio is dealt with locally and the transmitters are monitored by authorities of different municipalities and regions.
The television channels that belong to Betelradiocompany are: Belarus 1 (the main network), Belarus 2 and Belarus 3 (the first TV channel to go to digital) which also has a particular focus on culture.
There are then the younger channels. Belarus 24 (previously known as Belarus TV) was the subject of restyling as of the 1st of January, with a new logo and a review of programming. Created in 2005 for the foreign audience, it transmits in Russian and Belarusian (the two official languages), and has a licence for transmission in Russia, and is that which can be defined as all-round general TV. Belarus 24 transmits via the satelitte Express-AM22, with coverage on Russian territory, Europe, Middle East and North Africa and on the satellite Galaxy 19 (97 degrees W) which covers the North American Territory.
Finally there is the even younger NTV-Belarus which started transmitting the 4th of July and whose programming is based on that of the Russian NTV ( a TV which originally belonged to the company Media Most of Vladimir Guzinsky and is now the property of the public Gazprom Media). Five regional channels also exist.
These channels will be enriched by the addition of two new channels, as announced in March by the president of Beltelradiocompany, Gennady Davydko. They are Belarus 4, aimed at families with TV series and game shows and Belarus 5, dedicated to sport. Amongst the national network there is ONT TV, which is essentially a translation of the Russian ONT, and STV. Using cable it is possible to view a whole host of international TV such as Eurosport, BBC or Euronews. The foreign media that have been consented authority to broadcast on the Belarusian Republic territory are 152.
FREE VOICES FROM ABROAD
Alongside these channels, which are the most viewed in the Republic, the only other voices that go against general consensus are those from television (and radio) broadcasters that would not find space in Belarus and so often operate outside the national border. This enables them, but only partially, the freedom to produce independent information without the direct pressure from the authorities. These are often founded and built from expats of Belarus with the support of foreign institutions, organizations, associations or entities which are located in different countries. This also includes Radio Liberty, Radio Racyja and Radio Europe. With regards to TV the only voice singing outside the hymn-book is Belsat. Although it is transmitted in Belarusian and is highly visible via satellite or web (according to the EU it has an audience of around 3 million people), it cannot be considered as Belarusian TV, due to the fact it is transmitted from a foreign country (Poland). Belsat, managed by Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy started transmitting in 2007 on a symbolic date, the 10th of December (The International Day of Human Rights) and is funded by donations from European countries such as Sweden, Norway and Holland although it’s main donor was in fact Poland, which in 2012 financed the channel with around 5 million dollars.
Belsat has a varied schedule and dedicates ample space to information, with programmes such as “In Focus” and “Studio Belsat” and confronts issues that are not to do with the Belarusian TV. As well as this, it transmitts documentaries of various types and also dedicates space to satirical programmes which are not so commonly found on public TV. The opposing channels have correspondents in Belarus that follow the news, officially accessible to all (based on the law of information 427-3 of 7th July 2008, which entered into practice February 2009) but in practice reserved to a few. A case of example is that of the transmission of the broadcast run by Romaszewska-Guzy, Belsat: their journalists have complained to the police about the difficulty of accessing information and have had their accreditation denied which are compulsory for journalists that work on national soil - this happened in 2009, in 2010 and also more recently, with the reason being there were irregularities in their request.
In Belarus not having the accreditation to access press conferences, or official information of the Authorities, means getting a “warning” from the power of attorney and being denied any further requests of accreditation. A similar thing also happened to the journalists of the privately owned Radio Racyja.
Another indirect form of control on the independent radio-television broadcast is the system of registration, which also requires a concession of a licence given by the government. The frequencies are conceded via an offer, which is not the case of public TV or those networks controlled by the State, who until a short time ago were also VAT exempt.
Finance is also a powerful weapon for the government to support its media “friends”. Finance for the public media has recently been 43 millions of dollars (with funding for advertising at 42m for TV, out of a total of 76.2m and around 4m for radio, according to Zenith Optimedia). This year, according to the documentation of the economic programme of 2013, the State is expected to assign around 79 million dollars to public media, around 60million euros (source Belarus Association of Journalists). An increase of funds that contrasts what was declared to the public agency Belta in November 2012 by the same president Lukashenko, following a meeting with the president of public tv Gennady Davydko, in which he declared a cut to the budget and a reduction of finance to the public media by 25-30%.
In an economy very much controlled by the State and which sees the public production sector contribute for more than 70% towards the GDP, even access to the advertising market becomes difficult for independent voices. Most of all it is difficult for the market itself to expand and not to be suffocated by the presence of the public sector.
For Belarus the private media (which doesn’t get public funding) can have up to 30% of advertising; the public media until 25%.
VARIED TV, VARIED CONTENTS
As has been recognized by various observers and international bodies, including oSCE and the EU, this abundance of public channels and networks provides a platform where the authoritative state has a great influence on and on which direct and indirect censorship happens. Following the news of these broadcasters (which are generally transmitted in Russian, the second official language introduced after the referundum in ’95), the idea is a country different to that described by the channels of opposition.
Coverage of events on behalf of broadcasters controlled by the state neglects news regarding protests, opposition or political prisoners; it deals very little with important social themes; investigative journalism is almost absent; the flow of information deals very much with president Lukashenko’s character, with services lasting even up to 12 minutes to explain in detail the activities of presidential protocol (such as visits to local factories, institutions, sittings with ministers) versus 4 minutes to a standard service.
Belarusian TV offers predominantly entertainment programmes, with a certain ratification to the content, which together with sport, is one of the most appreciated topics.
Within the programmes of major success, there are also those of ONT, the most watched channel in the country, with a share between 26-27% (Novak survey) and with the anchorman Alexander Averkov. These programmes are similar to that of the Italian ’Io Canto’ and ’Talent Academy.’
The second most popular channel is NTV Belarus (with a share between 16-17%) which bases its programming on TV series (such as the Russian “The Return of Muktar”) and thrillers with only a little space dedicated to information, which instead is dealt with by the first channel and Belarus 24. STV, one of the most followed within the capital, with its varied programmes including entertainment, information and successful films at prime-time, appeals to a young demographic – those aged 20-49.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN WITH DIGITAL?
The Belarusian government declared their aim with regards to radio-television communication, as to have DTT coverage of the entire country in the next two years. At the moment digital coverage is around 94% of the territory.
Many ask themselves whether this expansion of technology will go hand in hand with an expansion of voices, even those which are more dissenting or opposing with respect to the standard of information which has so far been applied in Belarus - a country in which the TV is the most popular means of information.
Despite the positions taken by the Authority which has declared in multiple locations the freedom of media and expression (which in theory is also guaranteed by the law) the country remains in one of the lowest positions in charts of freedom of the press according to authoritative bodies such as Press Freedom House or Reporter without Borders.
Originally published: http://www.millecanali.it/millecanali-novembre-2013/0,1254,57_ART_212138,00.html