Modernization of state media will have opposite effect
Most likely, merger of five Belarusian major state print media will have the opposite effect than intended and will increase the bureaucracy in a new media holding. It will reduce the state’s means for supporting government’s information policies in the eyes of the population and the international community.
The authorities’ plans to merge five state newspapers into a single media holding under the Presidential Administration, announced early January, are intended to cut down public spending. Exactly the same logic is behind the government’s personnel reform: costs cutting via staff lay-offs and functions’ reconfiguration.
In particular, based on Sovetskaya Belorussiya newspaper, it is proposed to establish a single holding company, which will include newspapers, published by various governmental bodies: Respublika, Narodnaya Gazeta, Belorusskaya Niva and Znamia Yunosti. As a result, all the print media will be controlled by the President’s Administration, which issues Sovetskaya Belorussia newspaper with the largest circulation.
In reality, this approach will result in the expansion of state bureaucracy in the new media holding (personnel department, marketing, logistics, etc.) at the expense of actual editorial teams. As a consequence, the number of ‘technical’ staff, who is not responsible for the implementation of the national information policy will increase.
The problem is that despite the impressive number of staff responsible for ideological work in the government and in the state media, the Belarusian authorities failed to elaborate proper state ideology, which would become an additional factor ensuring the civil servants’ loyalty. Even President Lukashenko acknowledged this problem during a meeting with students from the Presidential Administration Management Academy in September 2010.
The lack of “soft power” within the government during the last few years (it could be the state ideology) has resulted in the brain-drain of younger journalists from the state media to private information start-ups or international media (a group of journalists left Sovetskaya Belorussia, as well as popular hosts from BT TV, STV, ONT, and other TV Channels.)
Most likely, the priority budget cuts at the state-run media will become an additional factor impairing state’s functions, along with the declared reduction of the state apparatus by one-quarter. As a result, the state’s ability to control political elite and public opinion in Belarus will reduce in the next two years.
Following crackdown and arrests of participants in the spring protests, the authorities resumed arrests as punishment for participating in street protests in addition to fines, which for some time were the only punishment for political activity. On September 22nd, 2017, the riot police detained the Belarusian National Congress leader Nikolai Statkevich, the opposition politician was placed in detention centre on Akrestin street. On the same day, after serving seven days of arrest, another BNC leader, Vladimir Neklyaev, was released. He was sentenced for organising a street protest on September 8th against the West-2017 exercises. Other participants in the protest have been fined too. The authorities are likely to continue to use fines and arrests against political activists to punish for their protest activity.