Independent Telegram channels have become the main source of direct information about what is happening in Belarus. The authorities should actively cooperate with the Telegram community on information issues related to Belarusian sovereignty.
Wojciech Przybylski writes that the lack of information sovereignty is “like the absence of legislative or executive power, without which democracy cannot survive”. Let us consider this thesis within the Belarusian context (Part One).
An integral part of information sovereignty is the identity of citizens, which is formed under the influence of media and social networks in conditions of a guaranteed right to privacy and anonymity.
How has ensuring anonymity strengthened the information sovereignty of Belarus?
Unlike Viber, WhatsApp and other popular instant messengers, the anonymous Telegram communication application has unexpectedly become the most politicised new media in Belarus.
At the same time, it is the only “intra-Belarusian” media space in which, in addition to real freedom of speech, there is also important semantic content.
And this is a great success for the informational sovereignty of Belarus, since Telegram, successfully turned by Kremlin-led technologists implementing projects of influence inside Russia and abroad, into a powerful weapon in hybrid Kremlin games, has also turned out to be a reverse-use weapon.
The independent Telegram channels of Belarus, defending the country’s independence, are at the forefront of the information war.
Its short-note format makes Telegram an ideal platform for propaganda. But unlike old media, Telegram has turned into an actual fourth power in Belarus since all three “classical” branches of the Belarusian state do not yet control it.
In turn, the independent Telegram community owns significant leverage of pressure on the executive branch of the Belarusian state.
And by this, it gains influence on formally judicial and formally legislative, both being completely dependent on the presidential administration due to the peculiarities of the Belarusian power architecture.
Publications of the most popular Telegram channel of Belarus, NEXTA, become an occasion for the high-profile thrashing of “vertical people” on different levels. Leaks of internal documents force officials to “rollback” illegal orders and Soviet-fashioned enforcement.
In the last 25 years, the subordinates of Aliaksandr Lukashenka were able to clean up the non-state media market and journalism towards the condition of a scorched field. However, they remain unable to gain control over anonymous Telegram channels.
As of mid-April 2020, we can confidently say that within the framework of Belarusian Telegram community the foundation of information sovereignty has been set up.
Simultaneously, the community gains momentum to lay the founding stone of an actual system of checks and balances with respect to the executive branch of state power, which effectively means all power branches in Belarus.
The fourth power and the collapse of loyalty
At the height of the Belarusian-Russian confrontation in December 2019, the Belarusian segment of Telegram became one of the main platforms of the information war between pro-Russian and pro-Belarusian narratives.
The backbone of effective non-state pro-Belarusian propaganda was formed in the Telegram community during the tensest period of conflict in parallel with a weak, untimely and repulsive construction of ‘classic’ Belarusian state propaganda represented by state-owned channels.
As of mid-April 2020, Belarusian Telegram community is a space of established information sovereignty where pro-Belarusian channels dominate the national segment and are independent of both each other and the authorities.
They set daily agenda, and effectively beat both ‘Eurasian’ propagandists, purely Russian propagandistic creatures and, moreover, Belarusian state-owned public channels.
The COVID19 epidemic only confirmed how slow and inactive Belarusian state-run media can be in times of crisis, and how quickly non-governmental units such as independent Telegram channels and their administrators respond to crisis challenges in media extent.
This is the first lesson that Belarusian officials can learn from the growth of Telegram channels. Without cooperation with society, the state will lose its battle for information sovereignty because this pillar of independence cannot be built ‘from above’.
In this regard, it is time for Belarusian officials to admit that a person of any political orientation can be an ally of the Belarusian state: the degree of loyalty to Alexander Lukashenko and his closest associates has nothing to do with professionalism and citizen’s ability to protect the sovereignty of Belarus.
In the meantime, officials cannot come to terms with the fact that a group of young children beat the entire executive branch (which includes all state institutions in Belarus) and takes away not only the monopoly on information but also the status of the presenter of the information agenda.
In the worst traditions of Soviet and Russian television
Unfortunately, in the worldview of a state administrator with a Soviet-era history, the entire non-governmental socio-political press in Belarus works solely to put sticks in the wheels of the existing “Soviet” government.
The only predictable way Belarusian authorities may impose information sovereignty concept is, foremost, through a further tightening of the screws in the same fashion it happened – with no exclusions – all through the last 25 years.
On February 11, 2019, Alexander Lukashenko met with leaders of the Belarusian state media. At this meeting, he coined a thesis about “information sovereignty” being an integral part of national security.
Then, Lukashenko voiced his famous “press is not only a means of delivering information, but also a full-fledged weapon, moreover, a weapon of mass destruction.”
This phrase once again confirmed that within a “besieged fortress” state media cannot solve any problems other than bleaching the power, squabbling the opponents and reporting information on milk yield and the amounts of iron smelted. Non-state press was again left to speak ‘either good or nothing.’
A month after Lukashenko met the leadership of the state-owned media, an updated Information Security Concept was published. Inter alia, it mentioned information sovereignty.
In the language of Belarusian legislation, it is “an inalienable and exclusive primacy of the state’s right to independently determine the rules of ownership, use and disposal of national information resources, the right to implement an independent external and internal state information policy, as well as the right to form national information infrastructure, and ensure information security”.
A quarter-century of Lukashenko’s political behaviour hint that for the Belarusian state (means, for Mr Lukashenko himself) the ‘information sovereignty’ only recalls practices similar to Russian ‘sovereign democracy’. In this framework, the state exists in a spherical vacuum where it controls everything it can reach – and from which it paranoidly expects a non-existent, but inevitable threat’.
At the same time, privacy and the right to anonymity are natural elements of information sovereignty projected towards the scale of an individual. A citizen has a natural right to control incoming information. This is why in the absence of national competition on ‘TV button’ and with unlimited administrative resources, state TV flaunts its ratings.
However, with open competition online, the fiasco and uselessness of Belteleradiocompany (BTRC), СТВ and ОНТ state TV channels in their current form become apparent.
Nevertheless, to strengthen information sovereignty, the authorities have announced their plans to create yet another Belarusian information channel, ‘a BBC or Euronews look like’.
As rebranding of CTB television channel showed, even with a completely reviewed visual image of a Belarusian television channel with large budgets, the content remains ‘exemplary’ in the Soviet meaning of the word.
Reports on Belarusian “special path” in milk production and “the battle for the crop” do not excite local Internet audience, not to mention the outsiders.
Since 2019, Belarusian authorities run a campaign to localise television content, but the results of this initiative so far look secondary and depressing.
Television channels are reducing the volume of Russian content, but meeting the requirement to broadcast at least 30 per cent of local content is often similar to the old Belarusian game “manipulating the statistics”.
A much more noticeable solution was the replacement of the “Russian” formats and images customary for the viewer with their Belarusian copies.
Copying the style of Russian propagandists – Irada Zeynalova, Dmitry Kiselev and others – not only in the manner of presenting information but even in gestures and intonation inevitably gives the feeling that this is the worst copy of a poor original.
All types have one thing in common: they are not original and do work not as an independent national product, but instead as a reference to the Russian context and content – which is more expensive, effective and often, more professional.
The viewer is bored to watch the copies, which inevitably returns them to the original – and completely devalues the attempts of the Belarusian authorities to create an alternative to Russian TV channels.
Forced to respond
In sum, to form truly independent and popular national television agenda, state television channels in Belarus must refuse to copy Russian television images in favour of global (non-Russian) media products and original images.
The state must immediately lift an informal ban on private political television and radio broadcasting.
When it comes to online messengers, we see that the Belarusian non-governmental Telegram community is turning into a full-fledged institution of power. In times of COVID19 crisis, it will become an even more significant force with its own mobilising agenda.
The presidential administration will inevitably be forced to respond to Telegram news feeds in the upcoming months. This could be expressed through the provision of actual (or close to actual) statistics, a reversal of controversial decisions and more generally, a response to abuses of power committed by individual ministries or regional elites.
This is the second part of a two-part special on information sovereignty in Belarus. The first part is available here.
This article is published as part of the Prospect Foundation project “Online Media Literacy for Editors and Administrators of Social Media Public Pages”, managed by iSANS and supported through grants from the International Visegrad Fund. A Russian version of this article is available on Reform.by.