To end impunity. In Belgium, hostile sentiment towards journalists is growing

Charlotte Michils, legal expert, indicates the data collected in Flanders by the monitoring platform of the Belgian Flemish trade union VVJ

OSSIGENO 31 October 2021 – Charlotte Michils from the VVJ belgian union of journalists, sent the following message to Ossigeno per l’Informazione, to contribute to the public discussion that will take place on 3 November in Syracuse, to answer the question : how to stop impunity for crimes against journalists? See  End impunity! November 3rd, UNESCO-Ossigeno round table in Syracuse (Sicily) – Ossigeno per l’informazione

Belgium place is 11th in the Press Freedom Index ranking. Our country no longer ranks in the top 10, but the 11th place is of course excellent. Does that mean that there are no safety issues for journalists, no press freedom threats at all? Or maybe that we Belgians don’t have a right to complain?

At the beginning of 2019, the Flemish Association of Journalists launched its Platform for Reporting of Abuse against Journalists. At the basis lied a few – in Belgian terms – major incidents against journalists. Incidents indicative of the times back then. Times marked by social unrest, climate strikes, yellow vests protests, and so on.

Two annual reports later the number of incidents amounted to 45. The alerts submitted pointed towards problems such as online intimidation and a slowly but nevertheless steady uprise of SLAPP – vexatious lawsuits – against some small internet outlets in Brussels and Antwerp. Next to these relatively newer phenomena: also smaller & bigger issues such as confrontations with politicians & spokespeople, police and also private sector entities & individuals.

At the end of May this year we also decided to do a survey and to take stock of incidents in a more active way after threats were filed against DPG Media, one of Flanders’ big news outlets. Threats which resulted in an evacuation of DPG Media headquarters in Antwerp.

Of course, one should always put things into perspective: by the time the survey results were published Dutch crime reporter Peter De Vries had died after shooting. In Flanders no journalist was shot to death, fortunately. In addition, no journalist is involved in tens of lawsuits because of their critical reporting either, as is the case in other EU countries. But, at the same time, the survey results shouldn’t be minimalized either. Even one or two intimidating lawsuits have a chilling impact on a small news outlet or a freelance journalist. Each complaint should be addressed individually and politically. Each complaint should be taken seriously, also by the police.

Back to the survey results: the survey yielded a few hundreds of responses. 4 out of 5 journalists report a growing anti-media sentiment. Half of them have allegedly been victim to verbal or physical abuse. Among them: those who are more visible than others, think of camera crew and photographers. The same goes for online visibility.

It is clear that more knowledge on how to react or anticipate incidents is key. At the same time this should not just be in the hands of journalists, editors, news outlets and journalists’ associations. An apt approach by the justice department, police as well as politicians is necessary to address these challenges, even in countries with a robust press freedom tradition.


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