Belgium

last updated: May 29, 2020
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RSF ranking: 12th out of 180 (RSF, 2020)
Population: 11.6m (Worldometer, 2020)
Percentage in the capital: 18% (2.1m; World Population Review, 2020)
GDP: 532.27b (Statista, 2019)
EU member: since 1 January, 1958 (EUROPA, 2020)
Official languages: Dutch, French and German (EUROPA, 2020)
Press councils: Raad voor de Journalistiek (Flemish), established in 2002 (RVDJ, 2020), Conseil de déontologie journalistique (French and German), established in 2009 (CDJ, 2020).

Press freedom environment: Freedom House classes Belgium as a “free” country with a total score of 96 out of 100 (Freedom House, 2019). This score is split 39/57 for political rights and for civil liberties (Ibid.). At the time of writing, Freedom House did not have a “narrative report” for 2020, and the most recent one is from 2019. The report describes Belgium as a “electoral democracy” that has a stable political and civic environment, however, corruption and threats of terrorism are more recent problems the country has faced (Ibid.). In terms of evens from the previous year, the terrorism alert level was lowered from 3 to 2 (with 4 being the highest), after the deadly attack at the Brussels Airport in 2016; and the New Flemish Alliance left the coalition government in place at the time because they did not support a government-backed agreement with the UN on migration, which spurned the most recent elections in May 2019 (Ibid.; see also: BBC, 2016). In the “Civil Liberties” section of the report called “Freedom of Expression and Belief”, Belgians have access to diverse media, however, there were incidents of journalists being arrested while covering issues to do with migrants and migrant detention, as well as while filming protests against the government (the report did not provide further details; Freedom House, 2019).

Media landscape

Newspapers and market

Belgium has two media markets driven by language, the French-speaking one and the Flemish-speaking one (Picone, 2019), sometimes described as the Walloon and Flemish regions (Standaer and Mertens, 2016: 1). Like all the other countries, these media markets are adapting to online formats as well as new financial models (Picone, 2019).

The Media Landscapes report for Belgium stressed how print circulation of newspapers has been in decline across the country (Evens and Raeymaeckers, 2017). Between 1960 and 2016, circulation of newspapers had reduced by 52% from 2.5m to 1.2m (Ibid.). The figures, however, are mostly due to the French-language press (which had decreased from 1.4m to 330k), which has reduced at a greater rate than the Flemish-language press (Ibid.). French language press made up 27% of circulation at the time of writing of the report in 2017 (Ibid.). In terms of the numbers of newspaper titles, these were reduced from 48 to 15, with independent newspapers reducing from 34 to 5 (Ibid.). Three media groups controlled the Flemish-language market until 2013; De Persgroep, Corelio, and Concentra, with the latter two merging into one called Mediahus (Ibid.). Mediahus has a portfolio of strong brands that include De Standaard (broadsheet, quality), Het Nieuwsblad (tabloid, popular), Het Belang van Limburg (regional), and Gazet van Antwerpen (tabloid, popular; Ibid.). De Persgroep has in its portfolio De Morgen (Berliner, daily), and Het Laatste Nieuws (Berliner, daily; Ibid.). Three media groups control the French-language market; Groupe Rossel, IPM, and Tecteo, that have 7 newspaper titles between them (Ibid.). Groupe Rossel has as a part of its portfolio Le Soir (Berliner, daily), and owns a 50% stake in Mediafin, which owns the financial newspapers for Flanders and Wallonia, De Tijd and L’Echo (Ibid.). IPM has in its portfolio La Libre (tabloid, popular) and La Dernière Heure (DH; format unknown, daily; Ibid.). Corlio owned L’Avenir (regional newspaper group) but sold it in 2013 to Publifin (Ibid.). Together Mediahus and Groupe Rossel own Metro (free, daily; Ibid.). De Persgroep has since expanded into the Dutch market to increase its portfolio by buying up titles under the portfolio of PCM, which had Dutch news brands, and MECOM, which had both Dutch and Danish news brands (Ibid.). The network of media ownership and concentration is complex for the Belgian context, with Evens and Raeymaeckers (2017) noting that “it is interesting to notice that the international expansion of the media groups is aligned across cultural identities”; where French-language companies gravitate towards France, and Flemish-language companies towards the Netherlands (see Appendix for a list of news titles).

Five groups, including public broadcaster RTBF, control the Belgian media market, down from nine prior to 2018 (Picone, 2019). Digital news publications have been struggling, namely, Apache and Médor, with Flemish-language Charlie Mag looking to crowdsourcing for financial support, and French-language 24h01 closing down in March 2019 (Ibid.). A recent government initiative to help support these has seen the reduction or elimination of VAT extended to some digital outlets (Zenner, 2019).

A perceived threat to press freedom has increased in recent years, with government initiatives that allow censorship of news work prior to publication (RSF, 2020), which was triggered by the brief arrest of a journalist employed at the French-language tv and radio public broadcaster, RTBF, who was covering a story on migrants (Hope, 2018). Other issues have to do with funding, with RTBF employees striking in February 2019 and the Association of Belgian Journalists voicing support for French-language media group, L’Avenir, facing restructuring (RSF, 2020), with an alleged list of 30 journalist being labelled as “disposable” (Picone, 2019). Strict laws on protecting journalists’ rights to keep sources confidential, however, are some of the “most protective in the world”, according to Reporters Without Borders (BBC, 2018).

Flemish-language context: in brief

A 2008 study conducted in collaboration with the Association of Flemish Journalists (VVJ), took place with 682 Flemish journalists (Raeymaeckers et al., 2012: 143). The study involved contacting all journalists for the Flanders region, and resulted in a 30.6% response rate (Ibid.). At the time of the study, Flanders had 2,356 journalists, with 38% of these working at a daily newspaper and 27% working for weeklies or magazines (Ibid.). In the study, 90% of the participants had a degree in higher education, 62% with a university education and 28% with a vocational or other degree (Ibid.: 145). In terms of their role perceptions, a majority of respondents thought that accuracy in reporting was important (90%), as well as speed of work (80%; Ibid.: 150; see p.151 for full results). In general, the study found that although male journalists predominate, women have been increasingly joining the workforce albeit with a glass ceiling to more senior roles, and Flanders’ journalists are predominantly ethnic Belgians (Ibid.: 152). Principles remained stable between a previous study in 2003 and this one from 2008, with editorial independence maintaining priority, however, since the study was conducted around the time of a global financial crisis, it was anticipated that changes would be made in terms of job losses at news rooms (Ibid.).

In 2018, major conglomerate, De Persgroep, merged with Medialaan, and formed a physical space called News City in Antwerp (Picone, 2019). With this, commercial broadcaster VTM, popular news website Het Laatste Nieuws and “news brands” De Morgen and Humo were brought together (Ibid.). Separately, publisher Mediahuis also relocated to Antwerp, while moving key newspaper, De Standaard to Brussels (Ibid.). For a more detailed report on the key conglomerates from the Flemish context, see the report from the Flemish Regulator for the Media (2018).

French- and German-language context: in brief

Due to the divisions between language and culture in the Belgian context, there is a historical legacy of ‘political parallelism’, with French being spoken by the elite and heavily influencing the development of print newspapers in the 19th century, however, French print media have been in decline in recent years (Evens and Raeymaeckers, 2017). The German-language context is so small that it only has one newspaper, Grenz-Echo and public broadcaster BRF as a part of its mediascape, serving 76,000 German speakers (Ibid.).

Audience news consumption

The 2019 Reuters Digital News Report combines results of weekly usage across television, radio, and print, as well as online in Belgium, and separates these for the Flemish and French contexts only (Newman et al., 2019: 73). In terms of the Flemish side, the public broadcaster, VRT, ranks at the top at 76% for tv, radio, and print, and 27% for online (Ibid.). In terms of the top four newspapers, Het Laatste Nieuws (Berliner, daily) was at 53% for online and 36% for print, Het Nieuwsblad (tabloid, popular) was at 35% for online and 26% for print, De Standaard (broadsheet, quality) was at 14% for online and 9% for print, and Gazet van Antwerpen (tabloid, popular) was at 12% for online and 9% for print (Ibid.). In terms of the French side, the public broadcaster, RTBF, ranks at the top at 71% for tv, radio, and print, and 33% for online (Ibid.). In terms of the top four newspapers, DH (format unknown, daily) was at 24% for online and 15% for print, Le Soir (Berliner, daily) was at 23% for online and 20% for print, L’Avenir (regional; formerly Vers l’Avenir) was at 21% for online and 15% for print, and unspecified regional news was at 11% for online and 15% for print (Ibid.).

Public service media

Belgium has a long tradition of public broadcasting, with commercial broadcasting introduced in 1987 (Raeymaeckers et al., 2012: 141). However it does not have one single organisation that serves the entire country (BBC, 2018). VRT is the public broadcaster that serves the Flemish community, and RTBF is the public broadcaster that serves the French community (Evens and Raeymaeckers, 2017). Media ownership (TV, radio) is concentrated and cable TV from France and the Netherlands is accessed by Belgian audiences (BBC, 2018).

Public trust in the press and media

According to the 2019 Digital News Report, overall trust in Belgian news was at 47%, with Belgium ranking 7th out of the 38 countries in the study (Newman et al., 2019: 73). In terms of the Flemish side, overall trust in news was at 55% and the most trusted sources of news are VRT News (public broadcaster) and Radio 1, and the least trusted are Joe FM and Apache.be (Ibid.). On a scale of 1-10, the most trusted brands for news are public broadcaster VRT News (7.37), and the top five newspapers following these are De Tijd (financial news; 7.2), De Standaard (broadsheet, quality; 7.07), Het Nieuwsblad (tabloid, popular; 6.9), Het Laatste Nieuws (Berliner, daily; 6.74), and De Morgen (Berliner, daily; 6.69; Ibid.). In terms of the French side, overall trust in news was at 41% and the most trusted sources of news are RTBF (public broadcaster) and Le Soir (Berliner, daily), and the least trusted are Metro (free, daily), and MSN News (Ibid.). On a scale of 1-10, the most trusted brands for news are public broadcaster RTBF (7.07), and the top five newspapers following these are Le Soir (Berliner, daily; 6.93), La Libre (tabloid, popular; 6.57), L’Avenir (regional, formerly Vers l’Avenir; 6.44), DH (format unknown, daily; 6.23), Metro (free, daily; 6.01); in addition, there was a mix between domestic and international television and radio stations (Ibid.).

In 2016, 1,000 Belgian participants took part in Special Eurobarometer 452, titled Media pluralism and democracy (Eurobarometer, 2016: factsheet for Belgium). Here, 71% of participants thought that the national media represented a “diversity of views and opinions”, and 47% thought that the media were “free from political or commercial pressure” (Ibid.). Likewise, 44% thought that public broadcasting services were free from political influence (Ibid.). General trust in media was at 64%, reliability in television was at 73%, radio at 76%, and newspapers (both print and online) at 71%; trust in social media platforms was at 31% (Ibid.). A low number of participants were aware of regulatory bodies at 21%, with 48% thinking that they were free from political or commercial influence (Ibid.). In the study, 13% of Belgian respondents thought that journalists, bloggers, and social media users were the targets of hate speech and abuse (Ibid.).

Online only/digital entrants

In terms of online-only brands, the Reuters Digital News Report for 2019 lists the following as the most-used sources of news “used last week”: knack.be (7%), and newsmonkey.be (5%) for the Flemish side, and 7sur7 (21%) for the French side (Newman et al., 2019: 73).

In terms of digital entrants that publish longform news stories there are two main ones in Belgium; Apache (for the Flemish region), and Médor, for the Walloon region (Picone, 2019). However, there have been events run in Belgium by French Live Magazine (Ciobanu, 2017), which is “is a living newspaper” that runs evening events where “journalists, photographers, artists — original thinkers — take the stage to tell their story in words, sounds, images, or motion” (Live Magazine, 2020).

Recent studies and context

Recent data on risks to media pluralism in Belgium show that Belgium has mixed rankings with “medium risk” to market plurality (47%) and social inclusiveness (41%), with “low risk” to political independence (13%), along with basic protection (8%; Valcke et al., 2018: 3-11). Given the risks to news work mentioned above, this report seems slightly outdated in that it cites Belgium’s then-high position in the RSF ranking as an indication that Belgium has a strong environment for the protection of journalism work (Ibid.: 12). That said, the report mentioned a few areas that needed examination, namely, the “continued criminalization of defamation”, problems with rights to information, and job insecurity for journalists (Ibid.). The Belgian media market is highly concentrated and features “cross-media links”, and it cites the “existing regulatory framework on transparency of media ownership and the permanent monitoring of media concentration and ownership structures by the Flemish and French Community media regulators” (Ibid.). The report describes that in terms of social inclusiveness, more work should be done to include minority groups (in terms of the language minorities), as well as better representation for women both in the news and as news workers (Ibid.).

In terms of the current RSF rankings, Belgium is ranked as 12th (out of 180) on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, a drop from 9th in 2019 (RSF, 2020). According to the 2019 Digital News Report, overall trust in Belgian news was at 47%, with Belgium ranking 7th out of the 38 countries in the study (Newman et al., 2019: 73). Internet penetration for Belgium is at 94.4% (Ibid.: 72).

Regulatory environment

Due to the diversity of languages and cultures in Belgium, there is no centrally-regulated approach to media regulation (Evens and Raeymaeckers, 2017). Media legislation falls under the remit of two regional media regulators, the Vlaamse Regulator voor de Media (VRM, Flanders) and the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA, Wallonia; Ibid.). The VRM has a division that deals with topics on independence and protecting minors, as well as monitoring the relationship between the government and the public broadcaster, while the CSA has divisions that deal with topics like advertising and licensing (Ibid.). The Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT) is responsible for certain (unspecified) regulations for radio and television in the capital, manages frequencies, and monitors market competition for electronic communications, consisting of electronic communications telephony, internet, and digital television (Ibid.).

The press councils

There are two press councils in Belgium, the Raad voor de Journalistiek (Flanders), and the Conseil de déontologie journalistique (Walloonia).

The Raad voor de Journalistiek (RVDJ) has versions of its website in Dutch (main pages), French, and German, as well as a little information already translated into English. The RVDJ describes itself as “the independent body for self-regulation of the Flemish press in Belgium”, where “it is a non-governmental organisation, which responds to questions and handles complaints from the public about the journalistic conduct of the press” (Raad voor de Journalistiek, 2020a). Created in 2002, it receives subsidies from the “Flemish community” and is partially funded by publishers and audio-visual media companies, and half-funded by the VVJ (journalist union; Ibid.). It is composed of 18 members, split into thirds between 6 journalists, 6 representatives from publishers and media companies, and 6 “who are not members of the media” (Ibid.). The Secretary-General also serves as the council’s ombudsman and helps with media disputes at an approximate success rate of 30% (Ibid.). Decisions from the RVDJ are published both on the council’s website as well as in the magazine run by the VVJ union called De Journalist, and summaries are published there by the party or parties named in the complaint. Only individuals or organisations affected can file a complaint (Raad voor de Journalistiek, 2020a). The RVDJ acknowledges its Wallonia region counterpart, the CDJ, on its website and offers the following mission statement:

The Raad voor de Journalistiek aims to provide the public with a free and fast way of redressing possible mistakes by the media. The RVDJ also acts as a forum for discussion about the ethics of journalism. Its decisions are meant to underline the rules of good journalistic practice and to encourage ethical and professional standards of journalism. (Raad voor de Journalistiek, 2020a)

The RVDJ has updated its code of ethics since data collection, with the version at the time of writing being dated from June 4th, 2019 (Raad voor de Journalistiek, 2019).

The Conseil de déontologie journalistique (CDJ) has versions of its website in French and German. The CDJ was founded in 2009 and describes itself as a “a self-regulatory body for the French and German media in Belgium”, where “it is made up of representatives of publishers, journalists, editors-in-chief and civil society”, with three key areas: developing journalistic codes of ethics, informing the public and the sector of its work and activities, handling complaints and mediation of complaints, and offering opinions on topics related to journalistic ethics (Conseil de déontologie journalistique, 2020a).[1] The CDJ acknowledges its Flanders counterpart, the RVDJ, as well as the press councils for Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, and the AIPCE; even though AIPCE is an association of press councils (Ibid.). The CDJ’s membership is made up of 40 individuals (20 active, 20 alternates), which are individuals from the media realm, such as publishers, editors, editors-in-chief, journalists) and outside of the media realm, such as associations, universities, lawyers (Conseil de déontologie journalistique, 2020b). The council hears complaints, and also engages in independent investigations (Ibid.). At times, the CDJ can be called upon by the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (Audio-visual superior council) or the courts (Ibid.). The CDJ is funded by publishers and journalists, as well as subsides from the “French community” (Ibid.). Complaints must be made in French or German, or in another language with both the other language as well as a French or German translation submitted with the complaint (Conseil de déontologie journalistique, 2020c). Anyone can file a complaint, as long as it concerns journalistic ethics (Ibid.).

Recent press council report/cases

The annual reports are only available in the press councils’ respective languages. They should be requested directly from the press councils because the most recent one online at the time of writing is from 2018 for the French council. The Flemish council does not have its annual reports readily available on their website.

A cursory look at the CDJ annual report for 2018 showed that they received a total of 161 complaints, 80 of which were not admissible, 77 were taken up as casework, and 4 resulted in mediation (Conseil de déontologie journalistique, 2019: 7). The cases that were inadmissible were due to reasons such as an absence of reference to the codes of ethics, retraction, or outside of the CDJ’s remit (Ibid.: 8). The complaints came from individuals (67%), organisations (21%), journalists or media (6%), a mix of organizations and individuals (5%), or were independent inquiries from the CDJ (1%; Ibid.: 9).

Other bodies and codes of ethics

Belgium has the following organisations: Algemene Vereniging van Beroepsjournalisten van België, also known as the Association Générale des journalistes professionels de Belgique, which has two divisions, the Vlaamse Vereniging van Beroepsjournalisten and Association des Journalistes Professionels (Evens and Raeymaeckers, 2017); a search of the websites showed links from the Association Générale des journalistes professionels de Belgique to both the CDJ (French-language press council) as well as the RVDJ (Flemish-language press council that has translations of its code of ethics in French; Ibid.).

Journalism culture

In the Worlds of Journalism Study for Belgium (n=592), Belgian participants had worked an average of 12.64 years as journalists, and most of the respondents at 96.3% hold a university or college degree (Standaer and Mertens, 2016: 1). About half of the respondents at 50.4% specialised in journalism (Ibid.). Most of the respondents were men, with a smaller number of women at 36.5%; the profession tends to be mostly male in Belgium, but with increasing female journalists in the under 25 age group (Ibid.). Half of respondents were beat journalists working at specific desks like politics, local news, or sports (48.6%; Ibid.). In the study, the categories that most participants responded to in terms of values (i.e. more than 50% responding “extremely” and “very important”) were: “Report things as they are” (94.2%), “Be a detached observer” (85.3%), “Provide analysis of current affairs” (70.4%), “Tell stories about the world” (69.3%), “Educate the audience” (59%), “Provide information people need to make political decisions” (58.5%), “Promote tolerance and cultural diversity” (57%), “Monitor and scrutinize political leaders” (55%), and “Let people express their views” (53.1%; Ibid.: 2). With regards to professional ethics, most of the participants in the study “strongly” or “somewhat agreed” that they must respect codes of professional ethics in every instance (91.2%), half thought “what is ethical in journalism depends on the specific situation” (53%), and smaller number thought that “it is acceptable to set aside moral standards if extraordinary circumstances require it” (30.3%), and a small number thought that ethics came down to the individual’s judgement (16.8%; Ibid.: 3).

Other information

Governing framework
Federal Constitutional Monarchy (EUROPA, 2020)

Parliament
Belgian Federal Parliament

Seats in parliament
150 (Belgium.be, 2020)

Last election
2019 (Blenkinsop, 2019)

Seats held by women
42% (The World Bank, 2020)

Ruling party
The New Flemish Alliance (European Parliament, 2019)

Populist party
Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), established in 2004 (BBC, 2019).

Origins of key minority groups
Muslims and Jews are targets of hate speech; separately, the use of three national languages prevents national cohesion (Minority Rights, 2019).

Constitutional text on freedom of speech/expression/the press

  • The State does not have the right to intervene either in the appointment or in the installation of ministers of any religion whatsoever or to forbid these ministers from corresponding with their superiors, from publishing the acts of these superiors, but, in this latter case, normal responsibilities as regards the press and publishing apply.
  • The press is free; censorship can never be introduced; no security can be demanded from authors, publishers or printers. When the author is known and resident in Belgium, neither the publisher, the printer nor the distributor can be prosecuted.
  • In cases of political or press offences, proceedings can only be conducted in camera on the basis of a unanimous vote.
  • A jury is sworn in for all criminal matters, as well as for political and press offences, with the exception of press offences motivated by racism or xenophobia. (Comparative Constitutions Project, 2019)

Media model (Hallin and Mancini, 2004: 67)
Northern European or Democratic Corporatist Model

Key events
click here for the BBC’s recent articles on Belgium.
click here for The Guardian’s recent articles on Belgium.

Appendix

News outlets by publishing houses:

  • Mediahuis: De Standaard, Het Nieuwsblad, Het Belang van Limburg and Gazet van Antwerpen, Metro as free daily (with Rossel)
  • De Persgroep: Het Laatste Nieuws, De Morgen
  • Roularta: De Tijd/L’Echo (via Mediafin)
  • Groupe Rossel: Le Soir, Sudpresse (La Nouvelle Gazette), Grenz-Echo and De Tijd/L’Echo (via Mediafin), Metro as free daily (with Mediahuis)
  • IPM: La Libre Belgique and La Dernière Heure
  • Publifin: L’Avenir (formerly Vers l’Avenir)

Source: Evens and Raeymaeckers (2017)

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[1] “Le Conseil de déontologie journalistique, créé en 2009, est un organe d’autorégulation des médias francophones et germanophones de Belgique. Il est composé de représentants des éditeurs, des journalistes, des rédacteurs en chef et de la société civile.”

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