How Media in Belarus and Russia Joined the Information Battlefield

Both countries have been flooded with incitement alongside deliberate confusion between fiction and historical facts.

How Media in Belarus and Russia Joined the Information Battlefield

Both countries have been flooded with incitement alongside deliberate confusion between fiction and historical facts.

Thursday, 24 March, 2022

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, experts in Belarus say that the country’s media is increasingly echoing Moscow’s propaganda war.

Russia has used Belarus as a springboard and key partner for its invasion and is now closely associated with the military campaign, although President Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly stated that his troops will not take part in the conflict.

Observers note a deliberate confusion between fiction and historical facts in the state media propaganda both Russians and Belarusians are bombarded with.

The Russian media is flooded with slogans about the necessity of the establishment of the so-called Russki Mir (Russian World) – a term can be defined as the restoration of Russian influence to the borders of its historic empire and the Soviet Union.

The concept has been adopted by Putin’s administration to justify the invasion of Ukraine and observers note that this aspect was one way in which Belarussian propaganda was now mirroring Russian rhetoric.

Julia Volchok, 33, used to work for an independent media outlet in Belarus before it was deemed to be extremist and liquidated. She argues that Belarussian media was copying that of Russia in its own “rather peculiar” way.

“I’d rather describe it as a pretty loose imitation,” she continued, adding, “If the Russians focus on the formation of a ‘we are the Russian World’ feeling, in Belarus they speak about the necessity to confront the imaginary enemy, for us to all to stand against it.”

Indeed, Minsk is facing repercussions including international sanctions and economic disaster due to its perceived support for the Russian invasion.

Others note the growing danger of online incitement in both countries.

“Hate speech and intolerance towards the ‘other’ are growing at an unprecedented scale in Russian society due to the dominating propaganda that promotes dehumanisation,” said Alexander, 40, a media lecturer at a Moscow university who asked to remain anonymous.

“In social networks terms such as ‘non-humans’, ‘meat’, ‘Nazis’, and ‘bastards must die’, etc are widely used [about Ukrainians] being indicators of emotional reduction and simplification,” Alexander said.

“Total deductive generalisations require complex abstract constructs people have no time for. Online format also simplifies communication, since ones interlocuter remains invisible, missing. We all are witnessing the destruction of humanistic discourse and the achievements of the civilization of humanity in the 21st century.”

Volchok agreed that pro-Russian propaganda was at times capable of producing a dramatic effect on people.

“After watching either Russian or Belarusian state media I even start feeling hatred even myself – I might respond aggressively or literally sense the anger rising in me,” Volchok continued. “I don’t know how they do it but this pumping people with intensive negative emotions really works. And people actually believe it here.”

She recalled an example of just how effective such propaganda could be.

“A friend told me about her colleague who had shown up in the office on February 24 [the day of the invasion] saying, ‘That’s great! Putin has recognised the independence of the Donetsk and the Luhansk People’s Republics! Give us a few days and we’ll have dealt with it!”

In addition to incitement, state media both in Russia and Belarus have marginalised hard news while drawing attention to local events.

For instance, instead of reporting on the war unfolding next door, on March 6 Pul Pervogo, Belarus’ most popular state TV channel, focused on coverage of Minsk’s skiing marathon with President Alexander Lukashenko posing with his pet dog.

“State TV channels show only what they are allowed to show,” said Elena, not her real name, 44, a Minsk saleswoman. “People fail to tell the difference between the truth and lies. On the news they are constantly told about possible attacks, the enemies waiting at the borders of Belarus and the right decisions made by the Belarussian and Russian governments.

“The ongoing war is denied, just like the civilian casualties among the Ukrainian population. Moreover, the very word “war” is not used either – instead they call it ‘a special military operation’. People I know are all at a loss, they really don’t know what to believe.”

Independent media in Belarus was almost completely destroyed after the suppression of peaceful protests in 2020 that followed disputed presidential elections.

Lukashenko had in any case been working on the elimination of free press since his first presidential term in 1994, with independent newspapers closed and websites blocked. Journalists have been beaten prosecuted and even murdered.

In 2000 TV cameraman Dzmitry Zavadsky disappeared on the way to a meeting and his body was never found. Zavadsky had been receiving threatening calls before the abduction. The Council of Europe found that “that steps were taken at the highest level of the state to actively cover up the true circumstances of the disappearances, and to suspect that senior officials of the state may themselves be involved”.

Last year, a total of 113 journalists were detained and Belarus was named the most dangerous European country for media workers, according to Reporters without Borders. Most recently, on March 3 2022 Radio Liberty journalist Aleh Gruzdilovich was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Even consumers of news on social media face can face criminal charges. The government has taken action to curb the reach of the Telegram channels that became widespread during the 2020 protests.

“Subscription to extremist [Telegram] channels is promoting extremism,” Lilia Ananich, deputy chair of a government committee on human rights and media told Sputnik Radio last October. “And today it is criminally punishable. Thus, everyone should bear it in their minds – it’s high time to stop fooling around.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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