Information sovereignty of Belarus: old new truncheon or cooperation tool

What is information sovereignty, and why is it needed?

The concept of information sovereignty takes on various, often opposite, interpretations in the context of a new hybrid confrontation exploited by Russia, China, and smaller autocrats against the global democratic project.

As a rule, in the FSU region and within some countries of Central Europe, governments turn to the concept of information sovereignty to achieve control over national media space. The goal is prosaic – the marginalization of ‘objectionable’ media, political rivals, and other convenient ‘enemies’ that can be identified in order to destroy political competition and the freedom of speech.

These days, the leadership of Belarus is also trying on the concept of information sovereignty, mainly in light of censorship and other methods of suppressing uncomfortable voices. The situation is becoming increasingly tense after the economic crisis has been multiplied by COVID-19 spread.


The issue of information sovereignty has never been – and will not be – an exclusive matter of government and state authorities. Information sovereignty is impossible without private sovereignty, without the ‘self’ of citizens themselves and public participation in maintaining the stability of their own state. So, it always balances between national security and freedom.


An important aspect of informational sovereignty is that one of its dimensions, which is state sovereignty, always intersects with the individual sovereignty of citizens themselves. This is also the foundation of state identity in the narrow sense of the term – meaning  the identity of its national bureaucracy. But authoritarian leaders of state systems such as the one built-in Belarus forget about that.

Polish political scientist Wojciech Przybylski suggested in his recent publication that in view of Russia’s ‘hybrid war’, information sovereignty needs to be understood ‘as synonymous with a strong and independent media’. However, in the context of Belarus, the phenomenon of information sovereignty should be considered in slightly different refraction. Firstly, due to the fact that independent socio-political press in this country is under severe state pressure. Secondly, because public journalists are driven into an extremely narrow space between the red-and-green flags of self-censorship.

 

Their paths will cross again

In December 2019, protests against the integration of Belarus and Russia took place in Minsk and other large cities of Belarus every week. Only a few political rallies in Minsk and the regions were enough for Lukashenka to voice Putin a message reinforced by powerful media picture: ‘Volodya, I would be happy to unite, but the people are against it.’

For the first time in many years, the interests of Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his opponents inside Belarus coincided out loud. This allowed Lukashenka to take advantage of opposition rallies against integration with Russia – in his own favor. For the sake of this, Lukashenka has played along with the protesters a little and added a deliberately theatrical grotesque to the process. Both lonely policemen with megaphones and plain-clothed secret service joggers in Minsk downtown October Square, who occasionally sprinted from the Palace of the Republic to the Palace of Trade Unions to portray at least some action against unauthorized protests, looked nothing, but a show that was run for the sake of being publicly noted. In the end, the Telegram channel of the presidential administration, «Пул Первого» (’The First Man’s Pool’), thanked the protesters for supporting Lukashenka in his negotiations.

It is a good question – whether, during pandemic-time presidential elections (to be held until the end of summer 2020), Belarusian nomenclature will further seek for support – or at least a truce – from those whom they consider rivals. No one wants the events of December 19, 2010, to happen again (and an almost inevitable involvement of Russian authorities and special services). At the same time, the type of COVID-19 crisis management that Lukashenka chose for himself does not add popularity to the existing way of country management as a whole. There will be no protests on the streets, but searching for new social contracts has already become an inevitable reality for Belarus – against the backdrop of rapidly growing risks, public discontent, and fast-decreasing income of both state employees and private business.

 

The victory of ‘new’ philistine nationalism – and justice instead of money

Social transformations do not occur immediately after you replace the used “Lada” with used Volkswagen Passat B3. With all necessary technological progress and access-to-consumption adjustments, Belarusians as a whole have not changed too much in their archetype over the past 25 years. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that by 2019, the “new” Belarusian philistine nationalism (which had been forming since the early 1990s) has finally taken over the “old” Soviet philistine nationalism within at least one – but key – topic. Collective Belarus smoothly approached the end of the long-standing “civil war” of whether joining another state is even an option. The protests of December 2019 only confirmed this conviction.

Both the society and the “vertical” have realized that good relations with the people of Russia are necessary, but Belarusians and Russians will live in different states – regardless of oil and gas prices. It took several phases of Kremlin’s enforcement to “brotherly love” throughout 2019 for people to realize their preferences against unification with the Russian Federation. Besides, the more efforts Russia makes to coerce Belarusians into cohabitation within a “single” state, the further the ‘philistine’ Belarus (including its bureaucrats) drifts away from a real, not declarative, union with its Eastern neighbor. The confrontation between Lukashenka and Putin on oil and gas front seems to have finally buried the prospects of building the Union State “on love basis”. On the 20th anniversary of the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State the region not just witnesses new normality in relations between the two countries. It also saw the image of the last resting place for numerous obligations undertaken in 1999 by the parties to the agreement.

From the standpoint of the information sovereignty construction process, the events of December 2019 turned out to be decisive for Belarus. For the first time in many years, Lukashenka’s regime and its opponents were able to engage in a dialogue with each other and unite in a short-lived alliance against a common external threat.

A short-term truce between the authorities and the opposition ended with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis management model chosen by Lukashenka causes a storm of criticism among his traditional opponents, but also within the system – primarily, within the government, and among the ordinary employees of the Ministry of Health. Most likely, there’s no possibility of showering money on all doctors and officials a few months before the presidential elections.

 

Telegram channels: new institutions beat the old model

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 Belarusian realities and prospects.

An integral part of information sovereignty is the identity of citizens, which is formed under the influence of media and social networks in the conditions of the guaranteed right to privacy and anonymity. How has ensuring anonymity strengthened the information sovereignty of Belarus?

The dynamic development of Telegram channels in Belarus is a great example.

Unlike Viber, WhatsApp, and other popular instant messengers, anonymous Telegram messenger has unexpectedly become the most politicized 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 a much more important semantic content.

And this is a great success for the informational sovereignty of Belarus, since Kremlin-led technologists who implement projects of influence within Russia and abroad have successfully turned Telegram into a powerful weapon in hybrid war campaigns. In 2019, independent Telegram channels that defend Belarusian sovereignty, found themselves at the forefront of information war with aggressive Kremlin-led channels – though, ready and well-equipped.

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 (December 2019). Then, the backbone of Telegram community has been formed by local channels: effective, non-state-owned, often politically oppositional to the existing rule model, but pro-Belarusian – in parallel with weak, untimely and repulsive construction of ‘classical’ 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. They are independent both mutually and from the authorities. They set daily agenda, and effectively beat both ‘Eurasian’ propagandists and purely Russian propagandistic creatures – moreover, Belarusian state-owned public channels.


COVID-19 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 the 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 a person in president’s seat and his closest associates has nothing to do with professionalism and citizen’s ability to protect the sovereignty of Belarus.

Yet, the officially appointed media bureaucracy cannot come to terms with the fact that a group of young media hippies beat the entire executive branch of power (which, de-facto, includes all state institutions in Belarus) and took away not just the state’s monopoly on information, but the status of the one who sets up nationwide media agenda.

 

The features of Telegram-community in Belarus

As was noted above, 2019 events of the information confrontation between Belarus and Russia that peaked in November – December, turned out to be decisive for Belarus. Pro-Belarusian independent Telegram channels were able to dominate a whole communication platform – which Russian propagandists once considered their patrimony.


Аnonymity, mobile platform, and the format of immediate short notes make Telegram an ideal platform for quick delivery of information to the audience – and for propaganda.


The explosive growth of Telegram popularity in Russia and its subsequent weaponization by the “Kremlin towers” ​​became possible due to the lack of media freedom and real public political discussion. Kremlin technologists replaced them with so-called “sinks” and “insides” in their information game.

In Belarus, of course, there are problems with the free existence of independent media and political discussions, but this is where the similarities end.

Due to a number of circumstances, the independent Telegram community in Belarus does not generally aim to deliver leak intrigues. Rather, it aims to solve specific problems, including the protection of Belarusian information space.

The solution of specific problems and the protection of Belarusian information space made local telegram a real public institution that outgrew an ‘internal-circle party’ format due to external pressure.

As the events of the last two years have shown, in conditions of open competition, alone administrator of a Telegram channel turns out being much more successful media player and propagandist than the entire ‘presidential’ media team – be it Russian or Belarusian.

Here, of course, we are talking about the actual effect and subscribers, not about the technological markups of the audience.

Pro-Russian channels (administered from both Russia and Belarus) look marginal against the background of the pro-Belarusian real telegram community. Primarily, this is because of the quality of the content of pro-Russian channels that broadcast regular conspiracy theories based on Kremlin guidelines.

However, the situation with COVID-19 response has slightly aggravated the situation around Belarusian sovereignty, primarily due to poor information management of the crisis by the state. An attempt to keep a poker face within a bad game pushed the audience to search for any alternative information in the conditions when people were already used to not trust the state sources.

Independent Belarusian Telegram community turned out to be the main channel of real data about the actual situation in the early days of the epidemic. It also was the source of public medial needs across the country. This, of course, caused irritation of the authorities who desire to ‘sort them out.’

However, such a reaction was at least short-sighted, since this was exactly when Russian-born channels entered the game. They caused panic, presented the situation in an apocalyptic light and called for Russian ‘humanitarian intervention’.

It is clear that in this situation, the independent Belarusian Telegram community worked to protect Belarusian information field from another ‘humanitarian intervention’.

Against this background, it becomes clear that there is not just a need to change information management, including COVID-19 response. There is now a clear need for equal dialogue and cooperation between the state and independent pro-Belarusian Telegram community which has proved its ability to protect the interests of independent Belarus regardless of political preferences of Telegram administrators.

 

In the worst traditions of Soviet and Russian television

Unfortunately, in the vision of state administrator who is weighed down by a burden of exclusively Soviet past, the entire non-governmental socio-political press in Belarus was created solely to put the poles in the wheels of the existing, ‘Soviet’, government. The only predictable way Belarusian authorities may impose the information sovereignty concept is, foremost, further tightening of the nuts.

On February 11, 2019, Aliaksandr Lukashenka met with a number of top bureaucrats who manage Belarusian state media. At this meeting, he coined a thesis about “information sovereignty” being an integral part of national security. Then, Lukashenka 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 can not solve any problems other than bleaching the power, squabbling the opponents and reporting information on milk yield, and the amounts of iron smelted. The non-state press was again left to speak ‘either good or nothing.’

To strengthen information sovereignty, the authorities have announced their plans to create yet another Belarusian information channel, ‘a BBC or Euronews looks like’.

As the 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 term. Reports on Belarusian ‘special path’ in milk production and ‘the battle for crop’ do not excite local Internet audiences, not to mention the outsiders.

A much more noticeable solution was the replacement of formats and images customary for Russian TV… with their Belarusian copies.

Belarusian state TV talents copy the manners, gestures, and intonations of Russian propagandists, like Irada Zeynalova and Dmitry Kiselyov. 

Same is the case for Belarusian television comedy format – the content does not correlate to the shape and ambitions of hosts, who are forced to balance between the global late-night show format and the mothballs of state TV leadership.

All types have one thing in common: none of the images is original. And none of them is an independent national product, but a reference to the Russian context and content – way more expensive, a lot more effective and, often, more professionally tailored. Ongoing play-off of Russian public images on state TV leads to two possible inputs. It’s either within their internet access plans the creative producers of state TV are exclusively limited to YouTube profiles of Russian TV channels, or Belarusian state ideology sets “high artistic level” limits of creative frameworks so high that they are of no interest to anyone – except the ideologists themselves.

The audience doesn’t want 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. Please, don’t try this at home.

 

Summing up, we can note the following:

  1. Belarusian independent media community, including pro-Belarusian Independent Telegram channels that support Belarusian independence, were at the forefront of the information war between Belarus and Russia in 2019. The authorities should actively cooperate with the Telegram community on issues of information support related to Belarusian sovereignty issues.
  2. To form a truly independent and popular national television agenda, state television channels in Belarus must refrain from copying Russian television images in favor of global (non-Russian) media products and original images. The state must immediately lift the informal ban on private political television and radio broadcasting.
  3. Privacy and the right to anonymity for citizens form the foundation of national information sovereignty. Without broad civic participation, achieving national information sovereignty is impossible.
  4. The use of the information sovereignty concept to explain new repressions against the independent media community will increase critical attitude towards the authorities.
  5. Loyalty to a person in the president’s seat and his inner circle has nothing to do with professionalism and citizen’s ability to protect the sovereignty of Belarus.

 

Joseph Sawitsky
iSANS Media analyst

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. The article is published on the partner’s site @visegradinsight. A Russian version of this article will soon be available on Reform.by.