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Belarusian Economic Woes Hit State Media

A military cadet pauses to read newspaper coverage of the presidential election at a kiosk in downtown Minsk.
A military cadet pauses to read newspaper coverage of the presidential election at a kiosk in downtown Minsk.
MINSK -- It isn't easy getting the editors of Belarus's state-run newspapers on the phone these days. When a reporter says he wants to discuss declining print runs, editors suddenly have meetings to go to or errands to run.

Even the print-media department of the Information Ministry is reluctant to talk. Deputy spokeswoman Valyantsina Myashcherskaya found herself at a loss for words.

"That is an interesting topic we have here -- the development of the mass media, particularly the state media," she said. "And why? What is causing this? No, I won't respond about this."

Despite Myashcherskaya's reticence, the numbers speak for themselves.

The total state budget for media in 2012 is about $60 million, down about 20 percent from the previous year. And about $45 million of that will go toward keeping state television and radio on the air.

The share of the pie for state newspapers and magazines is down to just $6.5 million, less even than the $9 million set aside for "other media matters."

No Money, No Readers

The results of such cuts are also predictable. "SB-Belarus Today," the organ of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's administration, has gone from a print run of 500,000 copies a day in 2010 to just 398,000 now.

The government daily "Zvyazda" -- the only daily paper published entirely in Belarusian -- and the parliamentary mouthpiece "Narodnaya gazeta" are both down to print runs of just 30,000. "Krasnaya smena" has been reduced to a one-sheet supplement to "Zvyazda." "Znamya yunosti," which in the heyday of perestroika had a circulation of 800,000 copies, is now a weekly with a print run of just 35,000.

Iosif Syaredzich of "Narodnaya volya" says the independent media is just happy to be left alone.
Iosif Syaredzich of "Narodnaya volya" says the independent media is just happy to be left alone.
Alyaksandr Klaskouski is a political scientist and former editor of "Znamya yunosti." He says the state media have not only been hit by the state's general budgetary woes, but by declining public confidence. Their failure to report accurately on the collapsing economy, two currency devaluations, and shortages of hard currency over the last 18 months has largely discredited them in the eyes of the public.

"No one is buying propaganda -- that's natural. We shouldn't complain that they are giving less budget money" to the state media, Klaskouski says. "That is the taxpayers' money and they are people of various views. De facto it means that they are paying to support propaganda that no one in fact needs now. We need to complain about the entire ineffective, anachronistic, decaying model."

In addition, Klaskouski adds, it is becoming harder and harder to persuade public-sector workers to subscribe to newspapers as the prices of bread and other necessities keep climbing.

'At Least The Government Leaves Us Alone'

The trembling economy is also bad news for the country's miniscule independent media sector, but managers there at least have experience innovating in the absence of state subsidies.

Iosif Syaredzich, who founded the parliamentary "Narodnaya gazeta" back in the early 1990s and oversaw print runs as large as 730,000 copies a day, is now editor in chief of the independent "Narodnaya volya," which comes out twice a week with a circulation of 26,000.

The paper has frequently been the target of government complaints and pressure on its printers and distributors. Syaredzich, however, continues to have faith in his readers.

"We don't get any support from the government -- the main thing is that the government doesn't bother us -- but from our readers," Syaredzich says. "That is the main support of any newspaper."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report

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