"Sovetskaya Belorussiya" and propaganda discourse

Whether depicting the US as the pariah of international politics, Belarus as a leading player in the world community, or the EU as a sinking ship, the Belarusian state newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya plays fast and loose with the facts. A discourse analysis shows that over a period of just one month in 2005, the Orange Revolutionaries are depicted as rioters, NGOs are accused of sponsoring Vladimir Putin’s overthrow, Jean Marie Le Pen described as “insightful”, and the Belarusian rouble declared to be strong. This is propaganda at its crudest, writes the author.

This essay analyses the state newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya and touches both upon its contents and style. Hopefully, it shows how the discourse of the press is related to various political trends characteristic of the politics of the Belarusian government. Articles have been taken covering a period of approximately one month: from 20 May to the 21 June 2005. Furthermore, only articles put under the rubric of “politics” by the editors of the online version of Sovetskaya Belorussiya (SB) have been analyzed (a total of 36 articles). Not all the articles have received the same amount of attention; this is related to their informative richness or specificity rather than the author’s preferences.

Basic trends

It is useful to provide overview the articles as a whole. I use five criteria: time, author, trigger for the publication of the article, geographical focus, and style. My use of the word “trigger” and its identification may seem mysterious, but my basic idea is that the origins of a text can be traced by looking at the sources that are used in the text. When it comes to the articles analyzed, there are three major groups of triggers available: 1) events; 2) public statements as reported by the news agencies or other sources; 3) direct borrowings from other press sources. The ultimate origin of an article is difficult to identify (it would require a separate investigation for each text), but one can see at that at least fifteen articles were the reaction to other newspapers. Taking into account the relaxed citation standards in the mass media (especially, in eastern Europe) and looking deeper into those articles that are supposedly triggered by certain events or public statements, a considerable borrowing from other mass media sources could be expected even there. To summarize, the journalists often base their stories upon the stories of someone else, something confirmed by the relatively low specialization of the columnists – one journalist cannot have a deep knowledge of so many countries and languages. Though I checked the citations only from some articles, the general trend seems to be that the Western press reaches SB readers via Russian sources. Moreover, the journalists very rarely used analytical material (possibly, also due to their lack of specialization).

Style and logic

Style is a more complicated criterion. While conducting this analysis, I was mostly interested in two issues: the emotional colouring of the articles and how much of their own interpretation the journalists put into the text. Emotional aspects are important since they are the basis for propaganda when appealing to certain audiences. Rational arguments assume and encourage independent thinking, so they are of little value for an agitator. Unfortunately, analysis of emotional aspects is difficult. Despite widespread accusations that the contemporary mass media prefers negative news, the emotional tone of articles becomes meaningful only when their content has been taken into account. Another complication is related to the variety of possible emotions, which can be hardly captured by simple classification.
With these reservations in mind I attempted an initial analysis: this revealed several predominant intonations: 1) negative or “apocalyptic” predictions (“the list of victims won’t end with these names”); 2) sarcasm (“new national sport for Kyrgyzstanis: let’s forcibly seize the white house”); 3) negative descriptions (“The outrage of terrorism levelled all differences”); 4) neutral statements (“the President stated that in Russia forests must not be privatized”); 5) defensive arguments (“they will continue to freely pay visits to one another as they used to”) 6) positive descriptions (“significant changes for the better are especially evident”); 7) positive or “utopian” predictions (“Belarus will gain access to the advanced Western technologies”).

In most articles these intonations were blended; therefore, in order to make a summary, I simplified the classifications. Neutral statements are usually the backbone of newspaper reports, however in the SB neutrality was overshadowed by other intonations. There were just two articles that could be considered emotionally neutral (on Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Russian journalists and a discussion of ecology). The first article was a special case in the sample – the selected words of the Russian President were reported without comment (though a selection of the text was made). The second article presented various contradictory views. Six articles, essentially discussing domestic issues or Belarusian cooperation, presented positive descriptions or predictions. Eighteen articles were basically negative and mainly addressed EU issues and US foreign policy. Nine articles, in addition to negative descriptions or predictions, employed sarcasm; this was mainly reserved to CIS countries that have seen recent regime changes. Defensive arguments were often present during discussion of issues related to Belarus, but these were dominated by other types of arguments.
The second issue of style addresses a major problem in the mass media – too frequently journalists propagate their own point of view (for example, “bearing in mind the way it began it is not surprising”) rather than provide sufficient information to the audience. I call the first position “didactic”. Of course, if a journalist faithfully reports various facts, their selection can still be biased (as is the case with many articles under scrutiny). However, didactic statements on various topics sometimes lead to the absurd situations.
Let’s look just at one example, an article on The Washington Post source during the Watergate scandal. “By the way, the fact that George Bush has engineered numerous and complicated reforms in the secret services, even creating an analogue of the Soviet NKVD of the 1930s – the Ministry of Internal Security – leads us to think that “deep throats” may soon appear in the bedrooms of ordinary Americans.” I do not see any argumentation here, rather a chain of associations with some missing elements: the Bush administration increased coordination between various intelligence branches and created the Department of Homeland Security – the Department of Homeland Security works on internal security issues – the NKVD worked on internal security – the NKVD was a repressive organization frequently violating personal privacy – ergo the DHS will start violating personal privacy too.
The Department of Homeland Security employs 180 000 people and is responsible for border protection, immigration issues, emergency management (or civil defence), protection of the political leadership and important infrastructure and counter-intelligence. The last task is shared with other agencies, such as the FBI. Given that the population of the US is currently above 296 million, there are about 1647 US citizens for one DHS employee. The 1937 census (the reliability of the 1939 census is questioned) in USSR included 162 million people. If we follow the proportion, the equivalent of the DHS should have had around 98 000 employees. However, in 1941, the number of border guards only reached 168,200! Those interested might check the Belarusian figures – according to my calculation the Belarusian equivalent of the DHS should have around 5940 employees.
In the given sample, just ten articles may be classified as informative – these are mainly the articles on Belarus – whereas the remaining articles are didactic. This is not a big surprise given that the SB is a state newspaper. Even if its journalists were enthusiastic to provide an objective coverage of events, the newspaper’s objectives would be overriding. The intentions behind the didactic style range from enlightenment goals to a pure propaganda. I will leave the reader to decide where to locate the SB on this scale.

Friends and enemies

Another important question is what countries are covered by the articles. The geographic focus of SB was very limited during the sample period. There was just one article on global issues (air pollution), and this was related to Belarus’ choice to ratify the Kyoto protocols. Four articles addressed the conflict in Iraq, two articles enthusiastically described Chinese-Belarusian relations. A major part of articles (thirteen) reported on the politics of the EU countries (mostly emphasizing internal discord and prophesizing the Union’s fall). Another ten articles (also mainly critical) were related to the US. Eleven articles focused on the CIS countries: five on Georgia, four on Ukraine, four on Kyrgyzstan, two on Uzbekistan (all these countries were covered in negative terms), three on Russia (exclusively positive). Although most articles mentioned Belarus, only three discussed solely Belarusian problems; Belarus was a major object of another seven articles.
The aim behind anti-EU articles was the reduction of the appeal of its enlargement. The articles dealt overwhelmingly with economic and political difficulties within the EU. For this purpose, even the statements of xenophobic nationalists are considered insightful (“I disapprove of the nationalist Le Pen, but he was damn convincing when talking about the apocalyptic figure of “Pole Peter the plumber”, who would, if the Euro-constitution had its way, take away the honest French people last euro for the morning croissant”). Some of the articles claim that there is little chance of other countries joining the Union in the foreseeable future (“Referendum is certainly an answer to the immediate pretenders to membership, such as Turkey and Ukraine.”). The SB authors claim that there will be few economic benefits for the new member states (“No one will share anything with anyone for nothing”). The latter are labelled in various ways – “recruits”, “poor relatives”, “hoards”, “junior Europeans”, “fault-finding and intrusive”, “uncorkers of trans-oceanic bottles”, “unashamed upstarts”, and so on. The failure to ratify the EU constitution is demonstrated as the lack of popular support behind the European government (“The more the poses of politicians fail to reveal the consolidated opinion of all population”). Finally, many articles express the wish that the EU withdraw its attention from Belarus. Typically for the SB, this wish is expressed in terms of a fact (“There is still no unified foreign policy in the EU, at least unified to the extent it is declared. This also concerns its attitude towards Belarus.”).
The latter positions are also used to discuss issues related to the US. The journalists of the SB use the war in Iraq and any other event to demonstrate that the US has no moral right to criticize the Belarusian government (“to disclose the ‘personality cult’ of the main apologist of human rights all over the world”). The antipathy to the US expressed by the Belarusian state newspaper reaches the level of conspiracy theory: “[9/11] was not a turning-point in US foreign policy. There is a feeling that the Americans act according to a plan they conceived long ago; the attack on the skyscrapers only corrected their actions, adding more aggression.” In fact, the probability of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq was low before the attacks. Again, all sources can serve to prove the point, even Amnesty International.
On the other hand, contacts with China are described with rose-tinted spectacles: “China has been and remains the most important strategic partner of Belarus”. The enthusiasm goes to extremes: “Belarus is a reliable partner and ally to China” (when did the two countries sign a treaty of alliance?). One possible explanation is that the government of Belarus is feeling its international isolation: loud statements and loud denials often reveal a speaker’s vulnerability. Therefore, when the journalist states that “the overwhelming majority of states conventionally called the centres of world power” are strategic partners of Belarus, the reader should be very attentive. It then appears that the majority of great powers are Russia and China. Furthermore, the US is only one of the superpowers maintaining abnormal relationships with Belarus: “this detachment […] speaks for the affectation and exceptional unilateralism of the American position, the forming of which does not depend on the Belarusian party”. With a single stroke of a pen, the US is made into a dim-witted pariah of international politics, while Belarus plays a role of “not only of full and authoritative member of the world community, but also of reliable and consequent partner”. This wishful thinking explains Belarusian interests in the Chinese connection.

Depicting Belarusian success and harmony

As I have mentioned, Belarusian issues are described in predominantly positive terms and less didactically. It seems that journalists feel freer to make controversial statements on international issues (thereby potentially damaging Belarusian international relations), whereas reports on internal issues mostly followed closely the statements of government authorities.
Two articles discussed the requirements for political parties and non-governmental organizations to register at specifically designated offices. The articles did not explain why these changes were necessary. In fact, the urgency of the change is compromised by promises to exempt certain organizations “acting in the social and youth field, veterans’ organizations, and associations of disabled”. Interestingly enough, this is at the full discretion of the President (“But here the last word belongs to President.”) In other words, legally those organizations have no rights, although the President show grace. Furthermore, legal requirements are provided with the aura of morality (“Nobody used a selective approach here. The law demands the same for everyone”) and political parties are depicted as willing collaborators (“They treated this problem with understanding”). This description raises a question – what was a point of writing the articles if everything was so harmonious? It is obvious that the new legislation favours organizations that have more resources (relationships with the government being one of them).
An article on privatization coupons follows a similar style – the cabinet of ministers and the parliament are described as being two equal partners (“they have been seeking a compromise for several years”), genuinely defending public interests (“you must not reproach the Government that we don’t care…”). The article seems meaningless – there is no point of reporting something that does not happen – until a reader reaches the end of the article: “some coupon holders consciously do not put them into business, expecting to receive a compensation”. Thus, the article is encouraging people to use the coupons.
A more business-oriented article describes the falling value of the euro and the US dollar, again revealing its objective – to encourage people to save in Belarusian roubles – only at the end (“The rouble behaves stably and it is still preferable and more profitable to keep savings in Belarusian currency.”) If one looks at the official exchange rates between 20 June 2004 and 20 June 2005, one can see that despite economic problems in the US and EU related to globalization, the rising demand for oil in the emerging market economies, and other issues (that work to the benefit of Belarus), the Belarusian rouble has fallen from 2589 to 2609 roubles against the euro and risen from 2155 to 2149 roubles against the dollar.
If one looks at long-term trends, the picture is different. On the basis of IMF data, it is possible to calculate that between 1998 and 2004, consumer prices in Belarus rose 6737 per cent. In comparison, the average inflation rate between 1998 and 2004 was 281 percent in the other CIS states. The relevant data on the exchange rates is as follows: between 1998 and 2004, the Belarusian rouble deteriorated from 30.74 to 2170 roubles to the US dollar. On the basis of these figures, one might say that the exchange rate followed the inflation rate (the US dollar rose against the rouble by 6959 percent). The estimate of the rate of exchange of the euro (ECU) is more complicated, but the trends should be the same.
Therefore, for Belarusians who want to make a long-term choice of which currency to keep savings, the rouble seems less safe than advertised in the article. For those concerned with short-term savings, one could offer a much easier argument for choosing the national currency: the currency exchange involves both the commission losses and currency fluctuation risks.
Finally, there is an article on Belarus focusing on the benefits of ratifying the Kyoto protocols; it can be characterized as totally anti-environmental. Environmental issues are treated as a part of politics or economics. The journalist quotes the infamous words of Vladimir Putin’s adviser Andrey Illarionov on the Kyoto protocols as being “economic Auschwitz” and plainly claims: “It’s ok to breathe fresh air, but it is better still to do so on a full stomach”. It seems that environmental cooperation is not an area in which Belarus needs recognition as a “full and authoritative member of the world community, and a reliable and consistent partner”. A more reflective reader might consider whether it is not a general trend that the government of Belarus is willing to cooperate in every area that requires no effort from the Belarusian side.

Criticizing and hiding

The critique of the recent political changes in the former CIS countries are the most propagandist. For example, an article on changes in Ukraine after the Orange Revolution, supposedly a reprint of an article by John Dizard published in The Financial Times on 10 June 2005, of which a more or less accurate translation into Russian was provided by www.inosmi.ru on 14 June. The Belarusian version misses two important sentences: “Instead of establishing Ukraine’s effective independence from Russia, the government has allowed it to remain an economic colony”; and, “Ukraine imports most of its oil from Russia, which gives the eastern neighbour a level of influence the US government agencies can only dream of”.

The main part missing is the description of the slow development of the oil industry in Ukraine, which is related to narrow Ukrainian business interests and their connection to the government. The essential idea of the original article (and its Russian translation) is that western nations expected the new government of Ukraine to decrease economic dependence on Russia and open up to Western investment, while in fact, due to the selfishness of Ukrainian business and government, this is not happening.
The selfish interests of the business and the government are “to push all Western companies out of the country” and “fund a vote-winning pension payment”. Since these aims would probably not seem illegitimate to many readers of SB, the first is cut out of the original text, while the second is manipulated by using the translation “populist”, which has negative connotations (one may wonder what to call Lukashenko’s promises to raise salaries, scholarships, and pensions).
What is the impression one receives from the edited version in SB? That because the new government is corrupt, everything in Ukraine is bad and even getting worse. Here is the most striking explanation of why Ukraine is not doing well: “Such crises are solved successfully and painlessly on the condition that the authorities remain united”.

Anti-revolutionary pathos

Probably the most extreme case of partisan writing in the newspaper is an article by Aleksey Bartosh published on the 1 June. It summarizes the investigative reporting of Vincent Jauvert, published in Le Nouvel Observateur on 25 May, and in Russian translation in www.inosmi.ru on 27 May. Since the original version is barely recognizable, I refer to the Russian version rather than the French original.

The motivation behind the article is clearly the fear of the impact of political changes in Ukraine, and to some extent Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, upon the current Belarusian government – this is the only way to explain the fury directed towards the changes. The aim is to stress the strength of the Belarusian government – “Cheap tricks won’t work in Minsk” – and discredit the opposition.
The author uses the defamatory descriptions of intellectuals typical of ideological writings: “the intellectual uses four-letter words more eagerly than a drunken sailor”; “he’s afraid of a door creaking”; “having noticed a barricade […] he quickly locks himself in the flat”. The author uses the old propaganda technique of depicting opponents as sincerely mistaken, implying that all dissenters are wrongdoers, and putting the author of the propaganda beyond criticism. In other words, instead of doubting the government after noticing that some respected people oppose it, the reader is encouraged to doubt the respected people.
The changes in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan are categorized as basically criminal: “struggle of clans”, “mob talks”, “repartition of property”. The motivation for the attempts to change the government, according to the author, was greed and revenge: “in 1991, the Eastern wind threw them out of office”. In this way, the author attempts to scare the anti-Communist population away from the opposition. However, the overall inventory of labels is diverse: the associations with Tsarism and Nazism are used simultaneously (“Priest Gapon is far behind this cunning “technologist” who can be only compared to those who set Reichstag on fire”). According to the SB author, instructions on how to deal with arrest are “exactly how ruthless and violent storm-troopers are trained”.

Citing Vincent Jauvert on the future after the political changes, the author misses out positive sentences (“The Serbian example is quite encouraging”), and in other places adds his own interpretations (“It’s easy to imagine – in the day: talks about liberal values, at night: orgies. Forget your morals and bring sexuality to the masses!”). Some of the interpretations are absurd: for example, that NGOs are promising to pay billions (Russian roubles? Belarusian roubles? US dollars?) to overthrow Vladmir Putin.

Simple omissions are numerous. For example, the last two words of the sentence “Success is grounded, first of all, on d�marche without violence” are left out, which changes the original meaning considerably. Entire sections of the original are distorted. Where Vincent Jauvert expresses disbelief in the charges against the political campaign consultants, Aleksey Bartosh “corrects” the sentence to make the charges appear true. By omitting to mention the shared values between consultants and the US government, Bartosh makes them look plain selfish. Finally, he omits the distinction between different US foundations, lumping them all together into one big and frightening image of the enemy. The image of the enemy is magnified by adding a phrase about American objectives to destroy Russia, which is represented as more or less equal player in the original article. In another example, most of the ideas of the French author are reversed: “bloody repression” is turned into the euphemistic “actions”; “shooting at the crowds” into “rebuffed”; “nationalist” into “statesmanlike”; “spying, and manipulating” into “starting to work”. To summarize, the original article (or its Russian translation) was cut into pieces, which were then used to support the argument of the SB. Besides compromising the French journalist, who probably does not know about the “translation” of his article in Belarus, this is propaganda in its crudest form.

Published 14 December 2005
Original in Belarusian
First published by Arche 4/2005

Contributed by Arche © Nerijus Prekevicius/Arche Eurozine


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