Despite State Propaganda, Independent Media 'Most Trusted' in Belarus

by Volha Birukova

Belarusian independent media tops the charts in terms of public trust, ranking higher than state outlets, but lower than the president himself, a recent IISEPS think-tank opinion poll said.

This means that a handful of private newspapers are more effective than the entire state propaganda machine. But after 15 years in power, Lukashenka is still the most influential news and opinion maker in this country with a population of 10 million.

IISEPS (Independent Institute of Social-Economic and Political Studies, NICEPI -- in Belarussian version, web-site ) has operated in the country since 1992. A few years ago, the office was forced to move to neighboring Lithuania, which is more friendly to independent sociologists . All recent opinion polls and researches has been done on Belarus territory so far.

45.3% of respondents said they trust independent media in Belarus, recent IISEPS opinion poll shows. The level of confidence in state media is only 44.7%.

This means that 30 private editions, including 10 national titles, one news agency and a few radio stations who have managed to survive despite years of pressure, are more effective than hundreds of state media including few channels of nationwide TV and radio heavily financed from the state budget.

In 2009, the state media received funds equal to $90 million-- 3 times more than 5 years ago. 76% of that amount is allocated to TV and radio.

Just to compare: the newspaper "Sovetskaya Belorussiya," funded by the presidential administration, distributes 500,000 copies around the country on a daily basis. The weekly "Belarusian market," one of the oldest private business weeklies, has circulation of only 12,000 and it's one of the biggest among free media.

The highest level of trust in free media came from respondents 18-29 years old with a high level of education.

The bad news for independent media: They still are in the top 10 by level of confidence, but moved down slightly from 4th place in 2008 to the 7th place in the list of 26 institutions from KGB to Protestant church.

IISEPS has no specific explanation for this fact but said there is an "additional demand for strong state" during world economic crises, which affected Belarus as well.

50.6% of respondents said they trust the president and he's in 3rd place after Orthodox church and the army.

"Orthodox church and the army -- are just nice symbols for Belarus people. Other our researches said nobody expect active actions or exit-strategy from them," IISEPS experts explained.

After Lukashenka's 15 years in power, with inflation highest among ex-Soviet countries, with an average salary almost lowest in the region, with a January 1st, 2009 one-day devaluation of the Belarus ruble by 20% after all mantras about "stable currency and growing salaries," such trust to the single leader may sound rather irrational.

This confidence may be based on the absence of any other alternative. Belarusians close their eyes and ears to many cases of disinformation from state TV and from the first person of the state. "Their deliberately closed eyes -- one more source of famous Belarus social and political stability," the report said.

Thus, the heavily brainwashed audience still live in space of Soviet-style myths and fears, thoroughly maintained by a state propaganda machine, while free media have no means to develop.

New York-based Freedom House ranks Belarus among 10 countries with the worst situation on media freedom in the world featuring 188-th place out of 195. Reporters Without Borders give Belarus 154-th place out of 173 countries by Press Freedom Index.

This facts leave no illusions about the possibility to change the situation and minds somehow soon. But the influence gained by free media is impressive.



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