Global Economics

Belarus: Sex, Lies, and YouTube


The country's authoritarian government launches ITV, joining the EU, BBC, and others in distributing messages via Web video

As the video-sharing site takes off, policy-makers and politicians try to find ways to catch a ride. Including authoritarian Belarus.

YouTube, the wildly popular website, has a new clone from an unlikely competitor. Belarus recently launched its own video-sharing site, called ITV, giving the authoritarian government the distinction of being in the vanguard of a technology trend.

But ITV isn't likely to become the free-for-all site that YouTube has become, mixing homespun videos with political content. In the first place, Belarus remains a nation where information is controlled by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime and where Internet cafes are required to track sites visited by customers. It's "high-tech totalitarian propaganda," one Belarusian journalist said of ITV.

Cost, too, is an impediment. Online connections are expensive in Belarus, making sites like YouTube too expensive for the typical Internet user. The ITV site, however, is subsidized, and telecommunication companies are offering free access to it. Officials are now hoping citizens will choose their less expensive (and more controlled) alternative for video viewing.

ITV may have a limited audience in a nation of 10 million, but YouTube has millions of visitors and has become the leading source of video sharing. The European Union, acknowledging the potential of what has been mostly an American phenomenon known as the "YouTube Effect," has launched a site.

YouTube is primarily a depository for entertaining clips, film and television show trailers, and family videos, but it is also becoming a portal for sharing political messages and satire. It is gaining prominence as mainstream media rebroadcast video clips and as users rebroadcast news programs or manipulate reports and political speeches. The Internet search engine Google paid $1.65 billion in 2006 for the consumer media company that was launched a year earlier, banking on its potential as a source of entertainment and information.

Politicians and policy-makers are starting to take YouTube seriously. In 2006, a widely watched YouTube clip filmed by foreign travelers that showed Chinese soldiers shooting Tibetan refugees spurred the U.S. ambassador to China to publicly denounce the country's treatment of refugees.

This week, candidates in the 2008 U.S. presidential election answered public questions sent in via YouTube clips in a live debate. Earlier this month, Australian Prime Minister John Howard used the site to deliver a video announcement about new environmental policies and funding.

While the United States accounts still for roughly half of registered YouTube users, global traffic is increasing. And to meet regional viewers' demands, Google localized the site in several European languages in June.

EU CATCHES ON

The European Union is traditionally known for plodding discourses and multinational policy debates on market liberalization. But the European Commission recently launched its own YouTube channel, EUTube, offering snazzy animations and cheeky video clips related to the EU's work. Some choices include "AIDS, remember me?" and "Europe leads the fight in climate change." Officials say the site will offer audiovisual content to a new audience (about half of YouTube's users are under the age of 20, according to 2006 data) and broaden the EU's appeal.

"This initiative reflects the commission's commitment to better explain its policies and actions on issues which concern citizens across the EU, such as climate change, energy, or immigration," Margot Wallstrom, the commission's vice president in charge of communication strategy, said in a June press conference.

These topics haven't drawn huge audiences. But what has, with nearly 4 million visits in just a few weeks, is the 44-second "Film lovers will love this" clip, which shows scenes of raucous lovemaking from European cinema, and concludes with a line promoting the "coming together" of regional filmmaking.

The clip has drawn varied reactions. Poland, which with its deep Roman Catholic roots is one of most socially conservative EU states, decried the video as inappropriate and demeaning. Others, satisfied with the global attention, have noted that the clip has publicized EUTube more rapidly than anyone expected.

Sex video or no sex video, EUTube isn't the only recent addition to YouTubes European sphere. Media outlets like the BBC and EUXTV, which has channels in five languages, have a YouTube presence. Poland has a channel for its public broadcaster, TVP. Moreover, Google recently announced 150 content partnerships with other European television and broadcast companies, as well as with several sports teams.

As the site's European appeal broadens, regional powers could mimic these individual examples or take the lead from the EU and local media sources, using YouTube channels as new avenues for disseminating information.

PENDING EFFECT

Nonetheless, the launch of EUTube and the convergence of visits to the sexy film clip underscores that YouTube is still more of an entertainment site than a venue for political dialogue and information.

But just as some governments have shut down "old media" and even put bloggers out of business, they are taking action against YouTube and its more hard-hitting offerings. Turkey temporarily blocked the site because of a clip criticizing the modern republic's revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Morocco, Iran, and Thailand have also blocked the site at various times.

Belarus is taking a different route. With ITV it is stepping in to provide a censored alternative to YouTube -- in one Belarusian journalist's words, still only a "niche phenomenon."

YouTube, for now, poses little threat to countries that still like to control what the public sees and hears. The mostly English content also limits the potential market. YouTube also requires fast Internet connections, and the number of people with access to the Internet, even in the new EU states, is well behind northern and western Europe. Central Asian and Caucasian countries are even bigger laggards in Internet use, according to the 2006 UN Human Development Report. In Belarus, only about 16 percent of the population uses the Internet, meaning that ITV has a long way to go before it threatens YouTube.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen how other politicians and policy-makers react to the video-sharing sites. For now, Internet users with the money and access can escape from news, chat and blogs by viewing quirky home videos, snippets of the European sex cinema, or reruns of Belarusian news. This may not cause great shifts in policy-making, but politicians and authoritarians are both starting to take notice.


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