Journalists enjoy a relatively high degree of trust, yet they are subject to violence by police and protesters during demonstrations, as well as online threats directed, above all, at women. The media sector is apparently free from political pressure and is protected by an effective legal framework, some provisions of which remain controversial.
Made up of French-speaking Wallonia and Flemish Flanders, Belgium has two quite separate, and small-scale, media markets. As a result, they only rarely compete. A small number of companies owned by a handful of prominent families with varied economic interests dominate the daily print press. The Belgian government administers the big regional radio and television broadcasters, RTBF and VRT, in accord with the views of their boards, on which the four major political parties – Socialist, Liberal, Christian, and Green – are represented,
Political parties may try to exert their influence on the RTBF and VRT coverage, but public broadcasting is, in principle, protected against political pressure. A high council of broadcasting in Brussels-Wallonia, whose membership spans the ideological spectrum, ensures the plurality of currents of opinion. The government does not always condemn threats against journalists. But officials have announced the establishment of an experts’ group following massive dissemination of fake news by the anti-vaccine movement.
Belgium does not have a comprehensive law on press rights. But the media do enjoy solid legal and constitutional guarantees. Source confidentiality has been protected by a federal law since 2005. And a national ethnics council serves as an efficient self-regulatory body for news operations. However, defamation remains criminalised under Belgian law, with the journalist the only party required to face the justice system if a case goes to trial. In January 2019, a clause in a memorandum allowing a judge to suppress or prohibit dissemination of articles without having to justify the action sparked intense controversy among journalists.
Belgian media have been hit hard by a significant decrease in advertising revenue, now channelled toward online platforms. The Covid-19 pandemic has also diminished advertising sales. These losses have been partially compensated by an increase in subscriptions. A recent case has raised the question of press susceptibility to economic pressure. In 2018, two reporters from the Wallonian paper, L’Avenir, were dismissed after covering a financial scandal involving the Nethys company, which was then the major stockholder in the paper.
The Belgian press overall enjoys a high level of public trust, especially in Flanders. Nevertheless, the pandemic has been shedding light on the issue of disinformation. And a wave of criticism toward the Flemish media accuse them of covering the public-health emergency from a pro-government perspective. To respond to the growing distrust, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation adopted, in early 2022, a media education curriculum to develop students’ capabilities in critical analysis.
Journalists covering demonstrations against pandemic public-health measures were subjected to intimidation and threats by protesters. And police violence, along with online threats with a racist or sexist cast, have led to a sense of lack of safety among journalists. In this climate, some of them decided against covering certain events deemed to be too dangerous. And some journalists even quit the profession.