Press Club Belarus

The framing of anti-government protests: “Aggressive” and backed by the West

Little more than a week following Belarus’ contested August 2020 presidential election result, as pro-democracy protests were unfolding across the capital of Minsk, employees of the state-owned media organisation Belteleradiocompany were dismissed, and Russian specialists were invited to provide information assistance in their stead. The presence of Russian TV crews was confirmed by President Lukashenkо on 21 August 2020, but signs had appeared a day earlier, in the form of changing methods of information manipulation, and new accents in the news coverage. In other words, we didn’t have to be told that Russian media were now, at least in part, coordinating Belarusian coverage of events – the coverage spoke for itself.

Propaganda is nothing new in Belarusian state news coverage. Under the leadership of Alexander Lukeshenko, state channels regularly disseminate political propaganda about the flaws and hypocrisies of the West. Belarusian propaganda draws on similar techniques of contrast, exaggeration and disinformation to those used by Russian media, but after August, Belarusian and Russian media representatives were joining forces to paint the protesters, contesting the rigged election result, in a negative light.

Before Russian intervention

Prior to the arrival of the Russian information specialists, Belarusian state TV channels focused on two broad themes in their rhetoric. One was Belarusian economic achievements versus the failings of other countries’ economies. The governments’ economic accomplishments were widely praised, often without supporting evidence. Meanwhile, TV channels focused extensively on economic downturns in western European countries due to COVID-19, portrayed as proof that Belarus’ response to the pandemic had been far more successful. Over time, the message was clear - Belarus prospers while the West struggles.

The second theme contrasted activities of regime supporters to those of protesters. State media drummed up support for upcoming pro-government rallies. For instance, STV reported that “peaceful rallies in support of security and order in Belarus will be held on 19 August in the regions and the capital [...]. All those who are not indifferent to the future of our country are invited to rally up in the center of Logoisk, Bobruisk, Borisov and Luninets. […] As we speak, people continue to express their support to the state, each other and stability in the country.” The portrayal of pro-democracy protests, on the other hand, sought to minimise their scale and demonise their participants as violent thugs and criminals.

After the arrival of Russian media specialists on August 20, coverage took a change of direction: support for Lukashenko himself became less overt, whilst focus redoubled on the ‘national stability’ and ‘sovereignty’ of Belarus seen to be threatened by the protests. The negative depiction of the protests, however, developed a darker hue. Conspiracy theories about “external interference” and an intentionally fomented "colour revolution" began to dominate coverage.

A game of comparison

Across all three major state TV channels, reports played out about threats to the integrity and independence of the Belarusian state from European states and the United States. STV’s Natalia Eismont told viewers: “today the main thing we want is that the West does not support those who destabilize the situation in Belarus.” Meanwhile, by contrast, Russia was portrayed as offering support for stability. TV channels tried to convince their audience that Russia’s support is readily available – including military support (although discussions about a joint confrontation against the West remained abstract).

Commentators also started asserting that there was a threat to the territorial integrity of Belarus from Poland and other NATO countries. For instance, Tomasz Sommer, Editor-in-Chief of Najwyzszy Czas magazine, commented that “it is quite obvious that in the event of the collapse of Belarus, Grodno [a Belarusian city near the Polish border] must be added to Poland.” Both the media and senior politicians began to mention theories about ‘colour revolutions’ and their indisputable connection with protest activity in Belarus. President Lukashenko himself told Belarusians:

“There is evident military support – the movement of NATO troops to the borders. All these actions are aimed at bringing a so-called new president here. The scenario of ‘colour revolutions’ is being used against us, and external pressure is also being put on the country [...]. Let us remind you that five major NATO exercises under the leadership of the United States are taking place in neighbouring Poland. On the training grounds there are more than half a thousand American cavalry soldiers and 70 armoured units. The North Atlantic Alliance units are being sent to the Baltic countries as well.”

Belarus 1 explained that “experts, with increasing frequency, draw attention to the similarity of the scenarios of revolutions in Ukraine and Belarus. However, if you look closely at the video footage, you do not need to be a political scientist to draw conclusions.”

Ukraine came up again and again as state channels reminded viewers of the dire consequences of a revolution, that “‘colour revolutions” tend to lead to decline in all areas of life. Audiences were told that mass protests and riots end, yet their consequences take over a year to remedy. The threat of ‘Maidan’ became the keynote in almost all news releases, such as "Do not turn Independence Square into Maidan”. ONT featured eye-witnesses of the Ukrainian events, including journalist Maxim Ravreba, who said “Maidan has come to Belarus. This is a typical colour revolution!” 

STV quoted the self-proclaimed mayor of Gorlovka Ivan Prikhodko “I want to convey to you the idea that war is scary. A small group of people acted the same way on the Maidan and brought the once prosperous country Ukraine to poverty, devastation, starvation, and worst of all – brought it to civil war.” The looming threat of civil war was repeated elsewhere. Belarus 1 highlighted the assertion of Viktor Tumar, Head of the Research Institute of the Armed Forces of Belarus, that “there are signs of a hybrid war in the events now taking place in Belarus.” TV channels demonstrated to their viewers that the Belarusian army was ready to respond to any non-peaceful actions.

Accusations of violence

As well as manufacturing narratives of foreign involvement in the protests, state TV channels actively introduced a narrative of unprecedented aggression by protesters against government officials and pro-government supporters. The picture painted was black-and-white, aiming to leave the audience in no doubt as to which side would guarantee stability and security, and which side posed a threat to society. President Lukashenko himself declared that “deputies, judges, members of election commissions, teachers are now under pressure. They receive messages threatening violence against their loved ones if they do not resign immediately. More than 150 such cases have been registered throughout the country”.

STV echoed these assertions, reporting that “some deputies of the House of Representatives and heads of local executive committees have become victims of hatred [...]. Pressure is being exerted on law enforcement officers, defense officials, journalists, public sector employees, deputies and teachers […]. A number of officials of Grodno Azot have sought police assistance after they received personal messages containing threats against them, as well as against their family and friends.”

The white-red-white flag, under which anti-regime protests are held in Belarus and abroad, has increasingly come under fire by state media. They de-legitimisating this protest symbol by claiming it is a symbol of Nazi collaborators. STV reported that “this banner was rejected by the overwhelming majority of Belarusians in a republican referendum. The main reason was that it was used by collaborators during the Great Patriotic War”. Similar stories, featuring various experts, were run by ONT and Belarus 1.

According to these channels, the irresponsible and destructive actions of anti-government protesters were far-reaching. “Just before in Minsk, an aggressive crowd damaged a police car,” read one report. “Absurd calls for strikes and attempts to spread panic,” read another. One broadcast reported: “An aggressive crowd of 300 people attacked 12 members of OMON (Special Purpose Police Unit), […] stones, glass bottles, metal rods thrown at the police could not only have injured them, but also risked their lives.” Questionable personal backgrounds were dredged up, whether or not they were founded, including dubious pasts and criminal histories, alcohol or intoxication, and connections to other countries or organisations to cast aspersions over whether they are ‘plants’ or ‘paid protestors’.

Western-style protests

In addition to being compared to “colour revolutions”, and to Ukraine, the protests were compared to anti-government demonstrations around unrelated issues abroad – specifically in Western countries. Carefully selected examples of escalating rallies and demonstrations are given. One was the escalation of Black Lives Matter protests across the US. Another was anti-lockdown protests in Europe (“unauthorized rallies were held in Berlin, London, and Paris. There were some arrests”). Or how, in Paris, football fans clashed with police in a riot in August, the Belarusian report stating: “to pacify the crowd, the police used batons and tear gas against the hooligans, who in turn responded with pyrotechnics, also stones and bottles were thrown [...] As a consequence, special units of the local police have detained more than 140 people, 49 of them are teenagers."

While these global protests provided a useful means of deflection for state media channels, so did the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Belarusian economy and health system had survived COVID-19, other countries had not, explained reports. Audiences were repeatedly informed about the numbers of tests conducted and cases of recovery – although no references or comparisons were provided for these numbers. Meanwhile, examples of other countries failing to deal with the pandemic were cited freely - “In Italy a record-breaking drop in GDP due to the coronavirus pandemic has been recorded”. Moreover, it is emphasized that Russia is offering help in the form of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Once again, the economic progress of Belarus was accentuated, audiences routinely informed of successes such as the crop yield, improvement of schools and kindergartens, progress on construction projects, or sales of BelAZ dump trucks. On 20 August, with STV running a detailed story about Lukashenko's visit to the ‘Dzerzhinsky’ agricultural complex, where “more than four thousand people work, there are no protesters here;” and quoted him as saying “That's right, we need to work. Going on strike means raising neither chickens nor cows.” The channel goes on to say of the protests “It is not just about economic losses. For example, if such a producer as [the chemical company] Grodno Azot is stopped, it may even lead to a man-made disaster”.

On the one hand, pro-democracy protests were positioned as a direct threat to Belarus’ successes in fighting, or at least shoring itself up against COVID-19, and to the economy more broadly (as we have seen). On the other hand, rallies of government supporters in response to the protest movements were portrayed not merely as defending Lukashenko’s election win, but as protecting the prosperity and stability that Belarus had cultivated. Overall, these Western-style protests were not just positioned as disorderly, but as potentially damaging the Belarusian economy by disrupting industry.

Painting a pro-government picture

Interestingly, after August 20th, the media took the approach of decoupling the pro-regime rallies from Lukashenko’s election win. While until 19 August, pro-government rallies were described as “gatherings in support of the President in different cities,” following 20 August, outlets no longer made a direct connection between the rallies and Lukashenko’s election win. Instead, such events were exclusively framed as being for an “independent and peaceful Belarus” and a “stable and strong Belarus.” This subtle but strategic repositioning sought to move attention away from Lukashenko’s regime and instead suggest the true target of the mass protests as the freedom and peace of Belarus itself; a stronger narrative with a more positive patriotic note, and one that could continue to be wielded by Kremlin propagandists even if Lukashenko himself were to step down.

Another tactic the state media used was to mirror protest tactics used by pro-government activists, creating the sense of a significant anti-riot movement. STV informed viewers about “those who are tired of riots and protests and are ready to openly declare their position.” STV declared that “more and more Belarusians are joining the patriotic marathon in support of peace and security in the state.” In addition to the usual rallies, bicycle and auto rallies were held, as were women's actions, “Female employees of various Belarus enterprises, students, deputies and, of course, mothers – everyone is worried about the future of our children and the future of the whole country”. It was emphasized that participants “are against any split in society, they want a peaceful and calm life.”

Finally, they highlighted increasing numbers of well-known people who support for the regime. State media focused on experts and famous people who have expressed support for the regime, notably ‘experts’ were previously not allowed in the Belarusian state media. In addition to Belarus personalities, post August 20th, more Russians were being profiled. For instance “MGIMO professor Elena Ponomareva speaks about technologies to foment tensions in society,” or “Revolutionary scenario and external hybrid pressure can deprive Belarus of its subjectivity, says Alexei Gromyko, Doctor of Political Sciences, Director of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences.” Elsewhere, “the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation Gennady Zyuganov is monitoring the events in Belarus closely and not indifferently,” and “Belarusians who went on strike do not understand that they have become victims of dirty technologies [...] says Russian political scientist Yuri Krupnov.” The direct involvement of Kremlin propagandists has opened the door for a much wider roster of ‘expert’ mouthpieces who can be counted upon to support the regime and the key disinfo narratives.

When analysed by Belarus Press Club, it became apparent that none of the information presented in relation to the protests or the economic situation in Belarus this summer was treated as open for debate. These media channels expect their viewers to take everything at face value. Facts that do not fit the official narrative are concealed. Commonly used manipulation tools include misleading contrasts and distortion of information. Viewers stand little chance of discerning this, and are rarely offered a counter message. And with the intervention of the Kremlin’s specialists, the disinformation machine in Belarusian state media has become an even stronger and sharper weapon defending the Lukashenko regime.

Olga Kharlamova, exclusively for Media IQ