Rethinking the Social Role of the Media in a Society in Transition

Oleg Manaev (Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies)

Abstract: This article examines the process of rethinking the social role of mass media in a transitional society through analysis of its understanding by the main actors of mass communication in post-communist Belarus--Power, Media, and Public. Based on the results of various recent surveys and within the framework of conceptions of media as a "fourth estate" and as a guarantor of "participatory democracy," its author argues that free enterprise is the most efficient mechanism of this process.

Résumé: Cet article examine le processus de repenser le rôle des médias dans une société en transition; il analyse comment ce rôle est compris par les principaux acteurs en communications de masse dans la Biélorussie post-communiste, en mettant l'accent sur pouvoir, médias et public. Se fondant sur les résultats de diverses études récentes et sur les conceptions des médias comme "quatrième pouvoir" et comme assureurs d'une démocratie participative, l'auteur affirme que la libre entreprise est le mécanisme le plus efficace pour démocratiser les médias.


The collapse of communist ideology and party power after the failure of the August coup and the disintegration of the USSR in December 1991 affected the country's mass media, which became one of the most effective catalysts of perestroika. For decades their activity had been based on the Marxist-Leninist conception of press, of which two fundamental principles were Instrumentalism and Messianism. According to those principles, the media should, first, be the instrument of management and, second, "educate" the public (Manaev, 1991). Because the Communist Party lost its monopoly on both power and ideology, this conception lost its sanctity, and the media system entered a deep crisis.

There are three main variant strategies for overcoming this crisis--both in theory and in practice.

The first is conservation or restoration of the previous system of interaction amongst the main actors of mass communication, perhaps in one of the Republics or separate regions, if not in the scale of the former USSR. And as this interaction is only one particular case of social interaction, practically it would mean restoration of the previous social system as a whole.

The second variant is substitution of one or more of the actors of mass communication by others. In practice this means substitution not only of people but also of the structures which represent power and media. Depending on time and place this substitution could be complete (absolutely new people and structures) or partial (new people in old structures or vice versa). And as structural changes in this case are not followed by functional ones, this variant would mean only partial transformation of the previous system, which would continue to function on the basis of the same main principles.

The third variant is complete change of the model of mass communication itself, including radical changes of its structures and functions. The main features of such a model could be described as follows:

in the political aspect--attainment by the media of their political independence from power through their separation and legal guarantees of this separation;
in the economic aspect--attainment by the media of their economic independence from power through the division of property between different actors and through different forms of ownership;
in the socio-cultural aspect--attainment by the media of their dependence on their audience, through which the former passive recipient transforms into the active partner in information interaction who has differentiated, contradictory, and changing interests;
in the technological aspect--taking possession of new communication technologies (telecomputer technology, multimedia, etc.) by all actors of mass communication;
in the professional aspect--division of information into facts and opinions, news and comments.

Obviously, the last variant differs from the previous ones, first of all by changing the social role of media. From the instrument of power's impact on the public, the media transforms into the guarantor of effective interaction of different elements of the public or, let us say, of the peculiar form of existence which makes up civil society. The first and necessary condition of such a variant of overcoming the media crisis in a transitional society is rethinking of their social role by the main actors of mass communication--Power, Media, and Public.

Let us try to define to what degree these ideas have changed, and also to consider to whose ideas the social role of media really corresponds.

The theoretical framework within which I will try to answer these questions is based on two basic conceptions. The first one considers mass media as the "fourth estate" in modern society and places its main emphasis on their independence (Dennis, 1993). The second one interprets mass media as a guarantor of the development of civil society or "participatory democracy" and places its main emphasis on their availability for free expression of the citizenry (Matta, 1987).


This research is a part of the project "Media in a Transitional Society: From Totalitarianism to Democracy," conducted from 1992 to 1994 by IISEPS and headed by the author. It included the following research procedures:

two representative national polls in the Republic of Belarus, the first one conducted in April 1992 (n = 999 respondents), and the second in November 1993 (n = 1,148); the sample error in both cases was p = 0.03;
two content analyses of the leading republic periodicals: the first one was conducted in 1992 and devoted to political and economic interpretive models (1,300 issues of five newspapers in the year sampled); the second one was conducted in 1993 and devoted to national-cultural interpretive models (1,382 issues of six newspapers in the year sampled);
content analysis of registration documents of all periodicals registered by the Ministry of Information to April 1, 1992 (n = 550 documents);
focus-interviews with experts and media policymakers: leaders of main political parties and public movements (n = 47, January 1993), editors-in-chief of state and non-state media (n = 19, September 1993), businessmen who have their own media (n = 13, October 1993), and state officials (n = 13, November 1993);
analysis of projects related to the Law on the Press and Other Media and Law on Broadcasting of the Republic of Belarus.

The information and civil landscape of present-day Belarus

In the 1990s the information landscape of Belarus--one of the 15 independent states of the former USSR--changed fundamentally. First, quantitatively: to the end of 1993 the Ministry of Information had registered 660 periodicals (i.e., during only five years their numbers increased threefold), the one-time circulation of which exceeds 10 million copies (i.e., one copy for each citizen of the Republic, babies included). The Ministry also registered 165 television and more than 40 radio stations (during the same period their numbers increased more than 10 times). There are also about a dozen information agencies in Belarus now.

Second, qualitatively: now not only the state or one political party are media owners. More than one third of all periodicals in the republic belong to the new social actors--different structures of the forming civil society (political parties and public movements, non-state business, independent trade unions, church, national minorities, etc.). Most electronic media also belong to these structures. Some characteristics of media content have also changed: there are more magazines and advertising supplements now, periodicals in Polish, Ukrainian, English, and other languages have appeared, the genre structure both of print and broadcast media has been enriched, and so forth. The technology of production and consumption of mass information is also changed: there are some local cablevision networks, thousands of dish antennas for satellite TV program reception, and dozens of computer publishing systems.

During these years the civil landscape of the country has also changed drastically. If before 1989 there was only one political party--the Communist Party of Belarus, which held absolute monopoly on all branches of power--now the Ministry of Justice has registered more than 25 political parties and several hundred different public movements and associations, which fill out the whole traditional political spectrum (but not equally): from the extreme left communist to the extreme right (both of national and liberal/conservative character) wings. After workers' strikes in April 1991, involving almost a quarter of a million people, independent trade unions formed, uniting more than 15,000 members. Some of these parties and associations are represented at the Parliament of the Republic (for example, communists have about 18% and national-democrats 12% of seats). However, no political parties except the Communist Party legally existed in the spring of 1990, during the last elections; elected deputies have become members of different parties after they became members of Parliament.

New structures have appeared not only in politics but also in economics. There are thousands of different non-state business structures in the republic now (small and private enterprises, joint ventures, limited companies, corporations, co-operatives, etc.) wherein almost 15% of the active population works. The number of similar structures in culture--such as private or public research institutes, colleges, theatres, exhibitions, bands, and so forth--also increases constantly.

Despite the fact that the civil society in Belarus is forming very slowly and with difficulty, since former communist nomenclature absolutely dominates in politics, economics, and culture as before, this process, undoubtedly, stimulates the quantitative and qualitative changes in mass communication mentioned above.

On these grounds power representatives declare that the reformation process, including reformation of the media system, is doing well; that by the richness of its "information space," Belarus takes a leading place in the whole of Europe; and that the most important problem for further development of the media system is the problem of finances and technology. However, the question is this: has the social role of media in Belorussian society changed radically? Let us try to answer this question using the theoretical framework introduced above.

Power's understanding of the social role of media

The legislative power's understanding of the social role of media can be considered through analysis of the development of legislation. The proposed Law on the Press and Other Media, which was worked out by a parliamentary commission on Glasnost, mass media, and human rights, was first presented to Parliament in the autumn of 1990. However, for more than three years the conservative majority of Parliament (85% of deputies were members of the Communist Party) refused even to discuss this project, considering, they said, that it was more important to guarantee shops had goods and fields had manure than to spend their time guaranteeing "so-called free speech." Only in autumn 1993, when the proposed law was represented by the same commission together with the government, was it included in the parliamentary agenda and, after a stormy discussion, passed first reading. In 1993 the proposed Law on Broadcasting, worked out by the Belorussian state teleradio company together with the government, was also presented to parliamentary commissions. It is difficult to say now when both of these laws will be passed completely and come into effect. Up to now Belarus is one of few republics of the former USSR--if not the only one--where mass media are regulated by the Soviet Media Law of 1990, that is, by the law of a country that has already disappeared from the political map of the world.

Both proposed Belorussian laws were based on the ideas of the "Conception of Development of the Information Space of the Republic of Belarus," which was worked out by specialists from the Ministry of Information, state media, and the Journalism faculty of the Belorussian State University. This voluminous document was passed by the Board of Ministry and published in the governmental press in the spring of 1993. Although its preamble says that "it is grounded on the idea of free media as one of the main guarantees of human freedom and democratic society" ("Conception," 1993), most of its chapters argue an interpretation of "free speech" as state tutelage over the media. This tutelage is understood as a "material and technical guarantee and financing of media," and its main mechanism is the "formation of the most favourable regime of taxation, state subsidies and credits...retaining state control and state delivery of the main material and technical resources to the media." As for the criteria of selection of what constitutes "proper media," they are formulated very clearly: those media will be supported that "illuminate actual socio-political, public, economic, material and technical problems from the attitudes of the state's interests, strengthen public concord and do not admit the extremist publications and expressions that bring damage to the spiritual and moral health of the people" (emphasis added). The "Conception" also defines by whom and in what manner media accordance to these criteria will be identified: "The State regulation of media is realized through the Ministry of Information." On the whole conforming to this logic, the Law on the Press and Other Media in its third chapter, devoted to media freedom, says that "the State promotes creative, economic and financial autonomy of media, in particular those that actively form national consciousness, [and] enrich the spiritual potential of the people" (Bulletin no. 16, 1993, p. 191). The relevant chapter of the proposed Law on Broadcasting, called not "Media Freedom" but "Competence of the Republic of Belarus in Regulation of Broadcasting," is even more frank: this competence includes not only "promotion" but also the "realization of direct guidance...defining general grounds of broadcasting on the whole territory of the Republic...the financing...control of the Law...realization of the united scientific-technical politics...rational arrangement and effective development of technical means of broadcasting, etc." (Proposed Law, 1993, p. 2).

And state tutelage covers not only the state media. The second chapter of the Law on Broadcasting, defining the sphere of its use, says clearly that "this Law covers all kinds of TV and radio independent of whom they belong to." Moreover, Minister of Information Anatoly Butevich, trying to persuade deputies to pass the Law on the Press and Other Media in November 1993, used as his main argument the recent development of non-state media: "the legal regulation in our sphere is extremely necessary today because a lot of media founders are cooperative and small enterprises [i.e., non-state] and private persons" (Bulletin no. 17, 1993, p. 41). The other very interesting argument for the necessity to strengthen state regulation of the media, as it was mentioned by the "Conception," is that "the State defends media from the hard pressure of market relations, with the purpose to guarantee their economic and political independence" (emphasis added).

The real reasons why the state has (after three years of resistance) turned to media laws include the following: the rise of a free market economy, political democracy, and civil society--including formation of new actors of mass communication that could not be regulated by the traditional means of totalitarian society, administrative instructions, the right to determine who will be eligible to be a telecommunications carrier, and "political subordination." Law as a social norm and the procedure of its realization has never been a main mechanism of social regulation in this society: more often it was considered as a mechanism of indirect action. Therefore, mechanisms of direct action (such as selection and appointment of key groups in the media system) have been preferred. Now those in power turn to media laws but try to formulate and use them as an additional instrument of its control over the media and not as a guarantee of free speech. A simple content analysis of both media laws shows that of the two main social actors whose interaction is guaranteed by mass media--the Public and the State--the latter absolutely dominates: in the Law on Broadcasting the number of times they are mentioned is 39.5% to 60.5%, respectively, and in the Law on the Press and Other Media they are 33.5% to 66.5%, respectively.

By the way, the same understanding of free speech is reflected at the highest level of legislation--in the new Constitution of the Republic. Thus, at the end of 1993 the Parliament refused to pass an amendment according to which "citizens of Belarus have the right to gather and disseminate information freely." As a chairman of the Constitutional Commission said, expressing the sentiments of most of the deputies, "such an amendment gives too much freedom" (Filimonov, 1993).

The same understanding is demonstrated by representatives of executive power. Thus, in the very first of his public speeches the head of the department of press, radio, and TV of the Council of Ministers, Sergey Povalyaev, expressed his anxiety over present-day Belorussian press being "excessively informed" and about "the democratic processes in society being accompanied by excesses," and formulated the strategy of his department as follows: "the process is going on and it is time to control and regulate it" (Povalyaev, 1992). Prime Minister Vyacheclav Kebich himself explained how control and regulation should be exercised: "The Government gives credits to newspapers and magazines which maintain the correct position. What is the use of crediting a newspaper which makes attempts at subverting the stability in our country? I shall support all the press except publications opposing the Government" (Kebich, 1992, emphasis added). Minister of Information Butevich moved further, declaring at a meeting with heads of non-state TV and radio stations that "as the State gives to the independent TV and radio the right to exist, it must guarantee that their programs correspond to the State interests" (Butevich, 1993). In this way, the state tutelage, again, covers all media independent of the kind and form of their ownership.

The same understanding of media is demonstrated by representatives of judicial power. Thus, the Supreme Court of Belarus at its session in December 1992 passed a special resolution concerning judicial practice in defence of the "honour and dignity" of citizens and organizations in their lawsuits against mass media. Now, according to this resolution, it is not enough for the media to publish retractions only; the lawsuits must be examined in court. Plaintiffs are no longer required to pay any duty for the claimed moral compensation (before that they had to pay 10% of the claimed compensation in advance of the lawsuit); practically, this means that plaintiffs can claim any sum of money because nothing limits them now. In addition, the list of information which might insult honour and dignity now includes so many cases that the media could be accused for any publication. One more limit to media freedom is added by the new Criminal Code, passed in the spring of 1993. Now, according to its 154th chapter, "Disgrace," "dissemination with deliberate purposes of reliable information which disgraces some person, is punishable by a fine" (emphasis added). Certainly, there is a similar clause in the criminal codes of most countries, but usually it sets responsibility for dissemination of unreliable information, that is, slander (Sokolova, 1993). Now Belorussian journalists will have many doubts whether or not to publish information (especially about power) even if they have irrefutable proof. And, while containing journalists, such regulatory provisions give a free hand to those in power. In 1993 alone, dozens of such cases were heard in Belarus (i.e., authorities vs. media), and they were all lost by journalists.

Focus-interviews with power representatives who supervise the media leave no doubts that power understands media as before--as a "fighting weapon"--and their freedom as a "state tutelage over them": those print or broadcast media getting more state tutelage, that is, subsidies, equipment, premises, and so forth, are freer (see Table 1). It is not surprising that, evaluating the most important features of the media, the worst estimation of their influence on power was given by power representatives: "What kind of media influence on us could be discussed when we are their owners?" At the same time they say with cynical dissimulation that "media express opinions of all groups of the society" (the estimation of media democracy is the highest among these respondents). For the same reason the highest average estimation of media features is given by this group, in essence: "Everything is OK! There is no cause for any anxiety."

Table 1
Understanding the Social Role of Media by Different Social Groups (%)
Media policymakers
Understanding of social role of media Authorities in-chief Businessmen
(n = 13) (n = 19) (n = 13)
Role of media in modern society?
Means of information 33.3 90.5 54.5
Means of ideological impact 50.0 14.3 9.1
Means of consolidation and
stabilization of society 41.7 0.0 9.1
Means of communication 8.3 19.0 18.2
Means of education 0.0 9.5 27.3
Should the media be controlled?
Yes 100.0 100.0 81.8
No 0.0 0.0 18.8
Who should realize this control?
Laws and courts 58.3 66.7 90.9
Public, public structures 58.3 33.3 9.1
The state, state structures 58.3 14.3 9.1
What should be regulated by Media Law?
Rights and obligations of
journalists and editors 41.7 52.4 36.4
Relations between media and the state 25.0 19.0 9.1
Keeping state secrets 25.0 14.3 45.5
Journalists' access to information
and responsibility of officials for
refusing to give it 16.7 57.1 27.3
Citizens' rights to information 16.7 19.0 63.6
How can the national interests of Belarus in
mass communication be defined?
Education of public in national spirit 41.7 57.1 27.3
Formation of sovereign information space 33.3 0.0 18.2
Free exchange of complete and
objective information 25.0 28.6 27.3
Who must guarantee national interests in
mass communication?
The state 91.7 61.9 25.0
Laws and courts 25.0 47.6 62.5
Should the state subsidize the media?
Yes 100.0 75.0 63.6
No 0.0 25.0 36.4
Should the state protect the media
(through favourable taxation, etc.)?
Yes 91.7 73.7 63.6
No 8.3 26.3 36.4
How do you regard media privatization?
Positively 50.0 73.7 63.6
Indifferently 33.3 14.3 27.3
Negatively 16.7 9.5 0.0
What kind of media is more important
for the progress of the society?
State media 16.7 9.5 0.0
Both state and non-state media 16.7 38.1 14.3
Non-state, private media 8.3 33.3 85.7
In some cases the sum is more or less than 100% because respondents could choose several answers at the same time or choose other answers.

1 Types of Media in Dependence on Founding
Partnership and Ownership
Box1: box invis height 2 width 4.25 Box2: box height 2 width 2 at Box1.c "State founding partnership" at Box2.n + (0,.4) "S" "t" "a" "t" "e" " " "o" "w" "n" "e" "r" "s" "h" "i" "p" at Box2.w - (.5,0) line from Box2.n to Box2.s line from Box2.w to Box2.e "+" at Box2.n - (.5,-.2) " " at Box2.n + (.5,.2) "+" at Box2.w + (-.2,.5) " " at Box2.w - (.2,.5) "I" at Box2.c - (.5,-.5) "II" at Box2.c + (.5,.5) "III" at Box2.c + (.5,-.5) "IV" at Box2.c - (.5,.5)

Perhaps someone (especially a Western reader) could say: "Well, but it is only power's attitudes to the media, not real practice." However, these people do not limit their understanding to their outlook; they realize it in practice very successfully. And if under the communist regime this understanding was realized through censorship and appointment of the key groups in the media system, now it is realized through founding partnerships and ownership (see Figure 1).

State participation in founding partnerships conveys its legal right to appoint editors-in-chief and members of the editorial board, to propose or to "correct" the editorial policy, and so forth. State ownership conveys its legal right to own print and broadcast equipment and premises, to give subsidies, to control frequency allocation, and so forth. Type I in Figure 1 means maximum media dependence on the state, types II and IV--partial dependence, type III--maximum independence.

If we examine mass media in Belarus in terms of their numbers we can say that, as was mentioned above, only one quarter of broadcast and two thirds of print media belong to type I; the others belong to type II; only very few periodicals belong to type III (such as the newspaper Nasha Niva which is printed in Vilnius); and none of them belong to type IV (during the communist regime there were many of such periodicals, for example, Sovetskaya Belorussia or Znamya Yunosty, because they made a lot of profit for their owners).

However, if we examine the same media in terms of their potential audience (i.e., circulation of periodicals or number of listeners and viewers of radio and TV time of original broadcasting) we face quite a different picture: already 95% of broadcasting and 90% of print media belong to type I. Therefore the "traditional" understanding of the social role of media by power has turned into their total monopolization and a lack of both freedom of media and free access to them for the citizenry.

Certainly, such a traditional understanding of the social role of media by power is not explained at all by ideological reasons ("to keep the purity of Marxist-Leninist principles") but by exceptionally practical reasons. In the summer of 1994 the first presidential elections were held and in spring 1995 parliamentary elections are scheduled. Power's monopoly over the media allows it to manipulate the electorate and, finally, to prolong its power monopoly--in short, to retain the existing social system. Thus, up until now none of the political opposition in Belarus has received permanent time on air despite all their efforts to get it. In the autumn of 1992 the joint democratic opposition in Parliament applied to the Ministry of Information for two hours on TV and one hour on radio weekly but was refused. In February 1994, one of four main demands of a national political strike organized by free trade unions was to give the opposition 15 minutes on air daily; this also was ignored.

I should also note that, unfortunately, not only representatives of the old power elite share this understanding but also most of the representatives of the new political elite which is forming in open and vigorous struggle against the old one. For example, most of the leaders of the main political parties and popular movements of Belarus, whom we interviewed in 1993, in response to the question "What are the best relations between your organization and its periodicals?" answered "best of all is when our periodical is the organ of the organization." Over 40% of them, defining purposes for the foundation of their periodicals, answered "to create the organization through publication of the periodical," that is, they follow the classic Leninist definition of press as "a centre and basis of political organization" (Lenin, 1976, p. 101). And these are not their words only, because 30% of these organizations really do publish their own periodicals, and some of these media faced the same problems in relations with their owners as the state media have with power structures (Manaev, 1993a).

Therefore, to a certain extent, the hopes of many democratically minded people for liberation of media through changing political elites--through the re-election of the Parliament and change of government--have proven to be illusory. A real difference between the old and new political elite is that the old elite definitely prefers the first variant of overcoming the media crisis (see above); many representatives of the new elite prefer the second variant that leads to transformation of the previous model of mass communication but not its radical reformation.

Media's understanding of their social role

It becomes obvious that despite a fast growth and differentiation of media in Belarus we cannot speak about any radical reformation because power and property in mass communication are redistributed by the state monopoly which is, if not total then absolutely, dominant. What role do the media themselves play in this process? How do journalists and media policymakers understand their own social role?

At first glance their attitude to power appears changed: many journalists and media policymakers now not only do not consider power to be the energetic centre of the system (and as their natural boss) but consider it as only one element of this system whose activity also needs controls and limits (sometimes they even consider power to be their main enemy). However, analysis shows that these changes are quite superficial: rejecting persons and power institutions, many journalists do not reject the paternalistic character of power and therefore accept its tutelage in mass communication. Other journalists, rejecting on principle power's pretensions to tutelage, identify themselves only as a force which stands against power or controls it (a watchdog function) but not as a force which guarantees functioning and development of civil society, its "nervous system." In other words, they identify media as a "fourth estate" but not as a guarantor of "participatory democracy." Moreover, their attitude to the public is not changed on the whole: like power they continue to consider the public to be a passive recipient that needs different inputs (information, education, organization, etc.).

This attitude is clear, first, through the example of journalists' participation in working out the "Conception" and Media Laws mentioned above--documents interpreting media freedom as state tutelage and approving the criteria of media selection by the degree of their accordance to the state's interests. Second, it is clear from the results of focus-interviews with heads of the leading media of the Republic (half of them representing state and half non-state media).

So, all journalists agree that media should be controlled and one third of them consider that such control should be realized through different public structures. Most of those who consider that such control should be realized through laws consider these laws as guarantees of either their access to information or their rights and obligations. Only 19% of them mentioned the rights of all citizens to information, forgetting that this was the media's origins. If in the sphere of social control and legal regulation journalists demonstrate particular "professional egoism," in the sphere of "high politics" they demonstrate open adherence to the state ideology. Thus, most of them identify national interests in mass communication as "education of the public in the national spirit" and agree that the state should guarantee them. In other words, many of them accept the idea of media as a fourth estate but not the idea of media as a guarantor of participatory democracy. Such a high level of "national consciousness" of media leaders (as well as of state officials) looks especially spicy (i.e., piquant) in Belarus where during the Soviet period communist politics of denationalization reached their greatest level in the whole of the USSR, and mass media played a leading role in this process.

One quite logical result of such ideology is the means through which journalists would try to overcome the crisis of adapting to democracy and the free market economy. Three quarters of them agree that the state must subsidize media and two thirds agree that it must protect the media (through favourable taxation, prices on equipment, paper, etc.). It is interesting that interviewers noted in their field report a strange contradiction: heads of state media complained of political and economic pressure from different state structures (for example, the director of the state information agency BELINFORM said openly that "authorities call me rather often and demand to comment on information but not to publish `pure facts' "). Journalists gave the worst estimation of media independence (see Table 2), but at the same time they complained of a deficiency in state protection (subsidies, etc.): "Others got more." This interesting fact was also noted by interviewed authorities: "Well, the editors complain about the lack of freedom but come to us and ask for our protection!"

As in the case of power representatives, journalists' ideas about media and their social role are not limited by their outlook but realized in practice, first of all in the content of mass information.

Content analysis of leading media of the republic in 1992 revealed the evident domination of socio-etatistic models of interpretation of political and economic reality (the most important element of these models is the state as the main social actor and guarantor). Moreover, domination of these models was observed in media that stick to quite contradictory political views and reflect positions of both ruling and opposition political elites.

Content analysis of 1993, devoted to the national-cultural interpretational models, shows that one very typical peculiarity is generation of an "enemy image" that is a classic feature of a closed society or a national dictatorship (Soros, 1993, p. 7). Almost half the publications described other nations as the enemies of Belarus in the past or present, most clearly Russia and Russians. Separation from Russian superethnos and opposition to it is accompanied by a decisive orientation to Western Europe. However, orientation to the West is declared as only the alternative to Russia, because Western liberal-democratic values and principles are not accepted as an example for Belarus's own development. Analysis of the models that are offered for future development of the sovereign state revealed the evident domination of elements of closed society: priority of state interests over individual interests, state regulation of economics and protectionism to businessmen of definite nationality, and so forth. In other words, one ideological paradigm--communism--is changing into another--a socio- (or national) etatistic paradigm. The interpretational models of open society based on values and principles of liberal democracy dominate only in a few of the business press (i.e., non-state and non-party press).

Table 2
Estimation of Main Media Features by Different Social Groups
Social Groups
Media features Audience Authorities Journalists Leaders Businessmen <-X>
Swiftness +0.40 +0.75 +0.70 +0.70 0.43 +0.42
Objectivity 0.16 +0.07 0.75 0.28 0.85 0.39
Democratism 0.40 +0.23 0.91 0.45 1.30 0.57
Influence 0.37 0.42 +0.14 +0.26 +0.10 0.06
Independence 0.50 0.77 1.18 0.56 1.10 0.82
<-X> 0.21 0.03 0.40 0.07 0.72 0.28
Each feature is estimated by a scale varying from +2 (the media give swift information, the media give objective information, the media express opinions of all social groups, the media influence power, the media are an independent force, "fourth estate") to 2 (the media give no swift information, the media give biased information, the media express opinions of only a few social groups, the media do not have any influence on power, the media are only an instrument of different forces).

Certainly, it is very difficult to expect that thousands of Belorussian journalists would interpret the social role of media in terms of a fourth estate or especially participatory democracy, considering the concrete conditions within which they act, and also the theoretical training that they received in the Journalism faculty of Belorussian State University. The notorious "Conception of the Development of Information Space" that became the basis of the media laws was worked out under the supervision of professors from this faculty. One of the very indicative elements of the "Conception" is its proposal concerning the future of this faculty. Following the modern trends toward autonomy and independence, the authors proposed to establish an Institute of Journalism instead of the faculty. But where? Within the Ministry of Information! So instead of making efforts to be as much as possible independent of the state through strengthening the autonomy of the University, Journalism faculty leaders tried to be incorporated as much as possible into the power structures. While at the University the Journalism faculty is only one among many (and not as important as the faculties of Mathematics or Physics), within the Ministry it would be the only one and have the opportunity of having direct influence upon the government and vice versa--from top to bottom, as a part of ruling structures. What does academic freedom mean for these people in comparison with intimacy to power?

It is therefore not surprising that many people who work in non-state media in Belarus (in broadcasting media--the majority) have quite different professional experience: they were engineers, computer programmers, researchers, and so forth, but not journalists. Perhaps I can say that new understanding of the social role of media in a transitional society withdraws beyond the bounds of traditional professional journalism.

The public's understanding of the social role of media

As for the public, more and more people in a transitional society identify themselves as active actors in the history of their country (political, economic, cultural, information, and other social processes) and begin to consider the power and the media as their partners in social interaction or even as means that secure public life. Certainly, the public's understanding of the social role of media is very contradictory. Even those puny shoots of media pluralism and independence that appeared in Belarus in the last three to four years have shocked many people. "If media aren't an instrument of power or messianism," people asked themselves, "what are they really?" Different groups of readers, listeners, and viewers have tried to overcome this shock and answer this question differently.

Some of them are looking for a media based on previous, familiar principles. Since, for the most part, the media in Belarus are controlled and managed by the old traditional structures and continue to realize the main principles of Soviet journalism, this group perceives this to be the most favourable regime.

Another sector of the public simply limits or even cancels its contacts with any media. Dynamics of consumption of mass information in the last few years demonstrate that the number of such people consistently increases. Thus, while in April 1992 8 to 9% of respondents did not read any periodicals, by November 1993 the figure had risen to more than 13%. Over the same period, the number of people who listen regularly to Belorussian radio decreased from 64.4% to 35.1% and those who watch Belorussian TV regularly from 68.6% to 31.8%, that is, the audience was cut almost in half. Confidence in media also decreases rapidly. During the same period the level of confidence in TV decreased by 2%, in the press by 5%, in radio by 10%. In November 1993 in response to the question "What media do you trust most of all?" 23.3% of respondents did not answer at all and 16.3% answered "none of them" (for comparison: in 1985, 70% of respondents usually trusted the media).

But I do not evaluate this process negatively. It is part of a global process of re-evaluation, rethinking values, norms, and principles of our past, present, and even expected future. It is not only natural but also necessary for a society which is trying to overcome totalitarianism. The quicker the society is emancipated from the old ideas and expectations, the quicker it will be ready for the acceptance of new ones, including new ideas concerning the social role of the media.

To the question concerning necessity of control over the media half the respondents answered that such control should be realized but through "the media legislation," one third through "different public structures," one fifth that such control should not be realized at all, and only one sixth through "different power structures." In other words most of the public prefers a legislative form of media control despite the lack of such experience in their past. And, vice versa, that form of control which they endured in their previous experience is rejected by most of them. As for the essence of such control--"Why is such control necessary?"--only 18.9% of respondents considered that it is necessary "for State control over the public," 30.7% considered it necessary "for the public control over the State," and nearly half could not or did not answer.

On this example we face one of the most fundamental problems of a transitional society: many values, norms, and principles that were based on the previous social experience are discredited now, but those values, norms, and principles (political democracy, free market economy, media pluralism, etc.) which should be accepted have never been present in social experience. The problem is that people cannot live without values, norms, and principles, on the one hand, but, on the other hand, social experience cannot be formed in a matter of weeks--it takes time. Therefore, many of these new values, norms, and principles are accepted a priori, and so public consciousness in the transitional society is so contradictory and unstable. For example, 45.5% of respondents consider that a rise of commercial, private, and other non-state media "promotes development of culture and morality of the society" and 49.3% are sure that it "promotes reduction of culture and morality of the society."

All the mentioned results demonstrate that once the process of rethinking the social role of media by the public really starts, it outstrips the process of real change of this role. As was shown in Table 2, the audience gave the worst estimations of those features that directly correlate with the changing social role of media--democratism, influence, and independence. It is interesting that during the year and a half between the two polls the structure of these estimations changed: the worst estimation is given now not to media independence but to their influence (compare Tables 2 and 3). Probably the reason is that pluralization of sources and content of mass information in Belarus has not led to an increase of its influence on power but, vice versa, has decreased it. I think this illustrates a process of rethinking the social role of media. In the past, media influence was based on their instrumentalism and direct incorporation into power structures ("media are a fighting weapon of the party"), but today it must be based on the authority of public opinion and structures of civil society which are only forming now.

Table 3
Estimation of Main Features of Different Media by the Public
Different media
Media features Belorussian Belorussian Belorussian Ostankino
press radio TV TV <-X>
Swiftness +0.19 +0.14 0.05 +0.52 +0.20
Objectivity 0.05 0.03 0.08 +0.08 0.02
Democratism 0.03 0.11 0.23 0.08 0.11
Influence 0.28 0.37 0.38 0.16 0.30
Independence 0.22 0.24 0.28 0.13 0.22
<-X> 0.08 0.12 0.21 +0.05 0.09
As against Table 2, the scale of estimation here, in 1993, was varied from +1 to 1 with the same formulation of answers.

Accepting these new criteria, the public begins to evaluate the real position of media in the society more and more adequately (therefore they prefer Ostankino TV from Moscow to national media: 78.8% of respondents vs. 31.8%).

The mechanism of changing the social role of media

From the point of rethinking the social role of media in the transitional society the most conservative actor of mass communication is power and the most progressive is the public. As for the media, they stay ambivalent because they have partially changed their attitudes to the power but not to the public.

Now the question is: what can stimulate the changing of the social role of the media in the transitional society--especially its rethinking by the main actors of mass communication--most effectively? I can note some of these mechanisms. It could be formation and development of a legal basis of media activity which would fix their possibilities and limits very precisely. It also could be restoration and development of a cultural-historical experience which would establish a system of social values, norms, and principles, guaranteeing the most efficient self-realization of individuals, social groups, and the public as a whole. However, in those concrete historical conditions that Belarus faced after the collapse of communist power and ideology and the disintegration of the USSR, the most effective mechanism of changing the social role of media, guaranteeing realization of the above-mentioned third variant of overcoming the crisis in the media system in a transitional society, is expansion of free enterprise, including privatization of state media and the foundation of private media.

2 Changing of Mutual Attitudes (Understanding) of the Main
Actors of Mass Communication Box1: box invis height 2 width 4.25 Box2: box invis height 1.3 width 1.5 at Box1.c Circle1: circle rad .5 at Box2.n Circle2: circle rad .5 at Box2.sw Circle3: circle rad .5 at "MEDIA" at Circle1.c "POWER" at Circle2.c "PUBLIC" at Circle3.c arrow from to Circle3.n arrow from Circle2.e to Circle3.w arrow from Circle2.n to Circle1.sw arrow dashed from Circle3.nw + (0,.1) to Circle1.s arrow dashed from Circle3.nw to arrow dashed from Circle1.s to " arrow from + (.4,-.4) to Circle3.c + (.2,-.2) "FREE" "ENTERPRISE" at + (.6,0)

- - - - - - Attitude (understanding) is changed.
------ Attitude (understanding) is not changed.

My certainty is based on the fact that a part of the public--which begins to understand that the value of mass media is not in their capacity to help people to choose "the only right way" but in their capacity to broaden the freedom of choice itself--consists mostly of people who are involved in free enterprise (those who in the transitional society are the embryos of the middle class).

Thus, 18.2% of interviewed businessmen declared themselves against any control over the media (see Table 1) and more than 90% considered that if such control is necessary it should be realized only through the law and the courts, and that legal regulation of media first of all must guarantee "the citizens' right to information." National interests in mass media should not only be in "public education in national spirit" but also in "free exchange of complete and objective information," and these interests should be guaranteed by the law and the courts but not by state structures. In all aspects precisely this social group successfully and actively advocates the values, norms, and principles of civil society. As a rule, many of these people not only understand very well the cost that they should pay for it but are ready to do it: more than one third of them are against state protectionism in mass communication in any form. In contrast with journalists who understand media privatization mainly as privatization of their material and technical base (premises and equipments), businessmen also take in mind intellectual property.

Their lowest average estimation of media features (see Table 2) also confirms that this social group has already accepted many of the new values, norms, and principles and therefore evaluates social reality more adequately. Thus, their estimation is 2 times worse than journalists', almost 5 times worse than that of the audience, 10 times worse than new political leaders, and 24 times worse than state authorities. Their worst estimations are given to media democratism and independence because businessmen know very well from their own experience what kind of obstacles should be overcome in a redistribution of power and property in mass communication (see Figure 1).

Another argument for the choice of free enterprise as the most efficient mechanism of changing the social role of media is the fact that most people who decided to found independent media (including professional journalists), founded them as different business structures (co-operatives, small or private enterprises, joint-stock companies, etc.) or within existing business structures but not as organs of any political parties or public associations (Manaev, 1993b). All of almost 30 TV stations that in the autumn of 1993 founded the Belorussian Association of Non-state Television (uniting more than 350 people)--the only organization that really opposes the state monopoly in broadcasting--have such business structures. In contrast with businessmen who begin to understand media in terms of a fourth estate or participatory democracy through the ideology of free enterprise, independent journalists do it vice versa--they begin to understand free enterprise as a mechanism of civil society development through the ideology of free speech, media as a fourth estate and guarantor of participatory democracy. In other words, for businessmen free speech is good for free enterprise, while for journalists free enterprise is good for free speech: they both come to the same conclusion but from different starting points.

Certainly, insertion of the mechanisms of free enterprise into mass communication could lead to another media dependence--on money and business (and, therefore, also on a rather small social group); such counterarguments I hear often in the West. However, first, the essence of media dependence on money and business cannot be compared with the essence of their dependence on political power and the state. Business, by definition, is the interrelation between production and consumption and therefore depends on its consumers. But under political power, the state in the extreme case (and totalitarianism is just this case) becomes self-sufficient: its owners become both its producers and consumers and do not depend on those who have no political power. That is why the insertion of mechanisms of free enterprise into mass communication in the transitional society creates a very important and necessary media dependence--dependence on their audience. Second, in post-totalitarian society any social mechanisms withdrawing beyond the bounds of private initiative (including so-called "public" ones), as a rule, are incorporated by the power structures of the state and finally help them to prolong or even to strengthen their existence.

It seems paradoxical but all main actors of mass communication in the transitional society are interested (certainly, in differing degrees) in the realization of this mechanism. Thus, power representatives who take part in the process of privatization of state media or the foundation of private media begin to feel a taste of profits that finally strengthens their own independence within the power structures (therefore half of the interviewed authorities expressed positive attitudes toward this process). Journalists who become owners of their media begin to feel a taste of creative self-realization and freedom of expression (three quarters of interviewed editors-in-chief agreed with this proposal). And as for readers, listeners, and viewers, they, benefiting from pluralistic and independent mass media that work under conditions of competition, begin to feel a forgotten taste of choice of information. And those who have already felt this taste will never forget it: thus, most of the interviewed businessmen responding to the question "What kind of media are more important for the progress of Belorussian society?" answered "non-state, private media" (for comparison, most of the authorities answered "state media" and most editors "both state and private"). Thus, a new understanding of the social role of media confirms the new social experience of the actors of mass communication, and new social experience confirms and strengthens this understanding. Finally, mass media as a fourth estate and guarantor of participatory democracy transforms from an abstract ideal and a subject of bitter discussions into existing reality.


Respondents could note several answers at the same time; thus, the total sum is more than 100%.


Bulletin no. 16 of the 13th Session of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, 12th convocation. (1993). Minsk: Publishing House of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus.

Bulletin no. 17 of the 13th Session of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, 12th convocation. (1993). Minsk: Publishing House of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus.

Butevich, Anatoly. (1993, February 5). Developing information space. Belarusski monitoring, p. 2.

Conception of the development of the information space of Belarus. (1993, April 9). Zvyazda, p. 5.

Dennis, Everette E. (1993). The internationalization of the First Amendment. In Oleg Manaev & Yuri Priliuk (Eds.), Media in transition: From totalitarianism to democracy (pp. 151-157). Kiev: ABRIS.

Filimonov, Dmitry. (1993, December 30). Belarus: Information hole in the centre of Europe. Svoboda, p. 2.

Kebich, Vyacheslav. (1992, June 9). Towards stabilization of the society. Belarusskaya Niva, p. 1.

Lenin, Vladimir. (1976). Complete works: Vol. 12. Party organization and party literature (pp. 95-104). Moscow: Politizdah.

Manaev, Oleg. (1991). Theoretical roots of the totalitarian model of mass communication. Philosophskaya i sotsiologichaskaya mysl, 5, 11-21.

Manaev, Oleg. (1993a). Mass media in the political and economic system of transition society. In Oleg Manaev & Yuri Priliuk (Eds.), Media in transition: From totalitarianism to democracy (pp. 119-150). Kiev: ABRIS.

Manaev, Oleg. (1993b). The alternative press in a transition society (Belarus). In Peter Lewis (Ed.), Alternative media: Linking global and local (pp. 73-86). Paris: UNESCO.

Matta, Fernando Reyes. (1987). A model for democratic communication. In Robert White (Ed.), Mass communication and social development (pp. 79-97). London: Sage.

Povalyaev, Sergey. (1992, May 4). Our purposes. Sem'dney, p. 3.

Proposed Law on Broadcasting of Belarus. (1993). Publications of the Ministry of Information of Belarus.

Sokolova, Irina. (1993, January 18). New limits for free speech. Femida, p. 2.

Soros, George. (1993). Open society vs nationalist dictatorship. A lecture given at the Harvard Press Club on November 9, 1992. New York: Soros Foundation Publications.

  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.