Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns the decision by the board of governors of Belgium’s French-language public broadcaster, Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF), to cancel the election debate that it was supposed to broadcast yesterday jointly with its Flemish-language counterpart, Vlamse Radio en Televisie (VRT).
The board’s standing committee opposed the debate on the grounds that the regulations of the Higher Council for Broadcasting (CSA) forbid the participation of extreme right-wing parties in any debate broadcast by RTBF. Known as the “media cordon sanitaire,” this rule has been in force at RTBF since 1991. It does not, however, apply to VRT, which allows all parties to participate in its political programmes, including the far-right Flemish party Vlaams Belang.
After getting a green light from RTBF’s legal department, the standing committee gave the go-ahead for an alternative debate in which the four leading French-speaking political parties would take part. But, while not opposing the holding of the debate, one of those parties, Mouvement Réformateur (MR), refused to participate. As a result, the initiative collapsed.
“It is surreal that that the public broadcasters of Belgium’s two main linguistic communities do not follow the same code of conduct,” Reporters Without Borders said. “French-speaking journalists are just as capable as their Flemish-speaking colleagues of giving viewers a rigorous analysis of all political views.
“The ‘cordon sanitaire’ imposed by RTBF’s management is utterly unacceptable in a European Union country and sets a terrible example that governments in some countries will quickly use to justify the absence of opposition parties in the current affairs programmes broadcast by their own public services”.
“As a public TV broadcaster, RTBF has a duty to inform Belgian citizens about the entire national political context, especially when elections are about to be held. This clearly includes analysis of the most extremist movements. Like any news organisation, RTBF cannot be held responsible for the views that interviewees express on the air, regardless of whether the broadcast is live. While RTBF’s management and journalists should make it clear they disagree with any racist views that may be voiced on the air, it is not their job to censor them.
“It is unacceptable that the members of RTBF’s board of governors, who are all nominated by the four main French-speaking political parties, should ‘select participants’ for a political debate and intervene to such a degree in the details of political broadcasts. While all the political parties should clearly be invited to participate in political debates, insisting that each of them participate is also surreal and highly questionable.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We urge RTBF’s board of governors to reverse this decision as a matter of urgency and to allow the station’s staff to organise a joint television debate with VRT in which all of Belgium’s political parties are invited to take part. We also urge the French-speaking community and the CSA to urgently abolish the ‘cordon sanitaire,” a form of censorship that is incompatible with European democratic standards.”