Uladzimir Matskevich: Mass media is the main instrument of civil society

Piotr Kuchta, EuroBelarus Information Service

Reelection of the Coordinating Committee of the Belarusan National Platform of civil society (BNP) won’t combat depression. We should work with people’s opinions instead.

EuroBelarus Information Service is presenting the second part of interview with Uladzimir Matskevich, the head of the Board of the International Consortium “EuroBelarus”, where the state of things in the Belarusan National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum on the threshold of regular conference of BNP’s organizations is discussed. The first part of the interview here.

We have a fixed idea that politics only presupposes participation in election and only aims at getting some place in the first estate. This way of thinking results in a very weak fourth estate. Civil society has no influence on some processes, on minds and conscience of people, it doesn’t create any benchmarks. As a result, all representatives of non-governmental sector have very bad reputation. Mass media probably cannot avoid publications about conflicts and mutual disagreements between some public activists, as it is interesting for the audience. However, impressive personalities can help media to enhance readability, attendance, and rating and give indirect advantage over other media, so media should be interested in producing celebrities. That is why I think that professional and public interests coincide here; it gives no political advantage. For example, Dmytro Yarosh is one of the brightest media persons, but he got less than one per cent at the election. We shouldn’t confuse electoral processes and processes of influence. Belarus should stop thinking about politics as a race for getting parliamentary seats; politics is the art of influencing and conducting common causes, and it is not exclusively parliamentarians who can do that. In our country reputation is to a much degree connected with the position that the person occupies, while real public activists and actual representatives of the civil society have their own reputation, not the reputation of their position. But the value of opinion is valuable per se; it doesn’t change with the change of position, while all these prejudices and misunderstanding are largely repressing civil society’s development, and is an actual problem both for Belarus and for Europe.

Finance and volunteering

European national governments and supranational structures have basically suppressed civil society and took it under their financial control. To organize campaigns, initiatives and run NGOs funds are needed, as voluntary donations can’t compete with them. But if in our work we reduce civil society to NGOs, we make civil society financially dependable, i.e. not free. And all these problems weaken our civil society.

If we come back to the discussion of the National Platform, for now we don’t even have one hundred organizations, while during the first years of its existence a lot of organizations took interest in the platform. But the interests consisted in becoming a part of the nation-wide structure and use it as a source of searching for funds. But as soon as many NGOs understood that they wouldn’t get any funds, they lost their interest in the National Platform. Money make people and structures dependent; but a lot of things can and should be done without money. Public activities are based on voluntarism in the first place, then come donations from those people who support those representing their interests; i.e. either voluntary work or voluntary donations support civil society.

When there are no such things, when NGOs became enterprises in some different form of ownership, we can’t expect serious and stable civil society structures. He who pays the piper calls the tune. For example, if we examine the situation with ecologic organizations, we’ll see that even obvious risks and dangers which should be combated jointly by the whole society bother only separate people, not even organizations. The same can be applied to the organizations that work with large target audiences, such as retired people. But it is the retired people who form a considerable number of civil society organizations, as these people don’t need to make a career anymore, they can move freely, and have freethinking. That is why in Europe the retired make a very big part of civil society, playing the roles of activists and volunteers; but it is not so in Belarus. The same is true for young people: students and youth organizations, who play significant role in the civil society in Europe. But in Belarus most youth organizations are headed by middle-aged people — it has become their work, their profession.

The main strength of civil society

The forthcoming conference will criticize management, the EU, and point out at different disadvantages. But reelection of the National Platform’s board won’t resolve these problems; we shouldn’t expect that someone will come and resolve all problems. We should try to solve it altogether, by using the main instrument, i.e. mass media, too. It is not demonstrations that keep civil society alive, it is opinions and decisions people make in accordance with the information they get. Thus, the main power of the civil society is the audience of newspapers, radio, Internet and TV.

Information warfare

We also have one more problem, but let’s hope it’s only temporal. I’m talking about the information warfare launched by Russia against Ukraine and due to which we forgot and neglected a lot of problems. A lot of serious events escape our attention; we don’t have time for them. I think that this anti-Ukrainian hysteria was started in order to distract Russians from numerous domestic problems, which are very serious. But this information warfare exerts its influence on Belarus, too.

We should look upon National Platform in the context of this information warfare where awful things are happening. The results of the latest social polls show the growth of hostility in relation to the fraternal Ukrainian people. Ukrainian civil society changed the policy of the Ukrainian state for the first time in many decades. And at the same time, Belarusan society doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to understand what is happening there. There is a split in the society, both among the common people who are influenced by Russian media and timid Belarusan media and also among the third sector. Our voice is barely heard; and it is good that “EuroBelarus” internet source takes a consistent and clear position on these questions; however, we only cover very small sector. All the rest don’t use media as a source and an area for civil society leaders, for exchange of opinions and influence. At the same time I should note that in the situation of information warfare basically all independent Belarusan media are quite reserved; we almost don’t use unverified data and propaganda. However, all that I mentioned earlier is still true.



P.S. Applications for participation in the Conference of the Belarusan National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society, which will take place on June21 in Minsk, can be still submitted. The subject of the conference is: “Belarus in conditions of regional crisis and stagnation of the Eastern Partnership”.

The conference can be attended both by the participants of the National Platform who signed the Memorandum on Cooperation, as well as other organizations (without the right for participation). For participation in the conference application should be sent to csfbelarus@gmail.com. The deadline is June 16, 2014.

You can find out more about the conference and applications here.