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Media Landscapes

Belgium

Written by Karin Raeymaeckers, Els De Bens, Steve Paulussen, Annelore Deprez, Yannis Tenret

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Belgium is situated in the centre of Europe. Belgium became a unitary state in 1830. It is geographically a small country (30,528 km²) but densely populated with some 10 million inhabitants. It has three officially recognised languages: Dutch (58 percent), French (31 percent) and German (11 percent).

Dissensions between Flemings and Walloons have had a decisive impact on political life. Despite the tensions between the communities, the gradual formation of a federal state in which Flemings, French-speaking and German-speaking citizens enjoy equal rights, has come about through parliamentary action in a democratic way.

Belgium has a multi-party system with no clear majority parties. The emergence of a popular extreme right party in Flanders, Vlaams Belang, disturbed the traditional political balance. Until recently, majority parties have succeeded in keeping this extremist party out of government.

Belgium is a highly industrialised country with a high standard of living and an excellent social security system. But its population is ageing, the number of single-person households is on the rise and the working population is no more than 35 percent of all Belgians.

Since 1950, dozens of newspaper titles disappeared in the process of concentration. The number of independent media firms shrank from 34 to only five. In Flanders, the market is controlled by three groups: Corelio Media, De Persgroep and Concentra. The French-language press is dominated by two groups: Rossel and IPM.

In Flanders, the Corelio group controls the biggest share of the market with its quality paper De Standaard and the two popular titles, Het Nieuwsblad and De Gentenaar. Its third popular title, Het Volk, was abolished in 2008. In 2006 the Corelio group was able to acquire the Walloon group Mediabel. This group publishes 10 regional newspapers and an impressive array of free titles.

A second important group in Flanders is De Persgroep, with the popular titles Het Laatste Nieuws and De Nieuwe Gazet and the quality paper De Morgen. The popular titles are rather right-wing liberal, while De Morgen has a more progressive streak. Het Laatste Nieuws is the best-selling title in Belgium, with a circulation of more than 300,000 copies. The third Flemish group is Concentra, which publishes two regional titles: Het Belang van Limburg and Gazet van Antwerpen.

In Wallonia, the Rossel Group is the biggest editor. It owns the quality title Le Soir. This paper has a neutral perspective. The group also publishes popular titles under the company name Sud Presse. Rossel has been coping with receding sales. It also has a share of the German title, Grenz Echo, which has a small circulation (10,000 copies).

The second, much smaller group in Wallonia, is IPM. It publishes two titles: La Libre Belgique, a conservative quality paper, and the popular La Derniere Heure, a right-wing liberal paper.

Media ownership in Belgium was until recently determined by language interests. Only a few years ago did the Flemish newspaper group Corelio take an interest in and eventually buy out a Walloon media group, Mediabel. Other recent developments include joint investment procedures in which Flemish and Walloon media firms team to buy newspaper titles. The former independent titles, De Tijd and L’echo, both financial newspapers, were taken over by a consortium of Rossel and De Persgroep. There are also other joint ventures in media ownership. Concentra and Rossel together publish the free daily, Metro (133,112 copies in Flanders; 122,412 in the French-speaking part of Belgium).

The ownership structure of newspapers continues to be Belgian, with the historical exception of Frenchman Robert Hersant’s share in Rossel (40 percent since 1989). But the Rossel family bought Hersant’s share in 2005, so Rossel is again 100 percent owned by the Belgian family Rossel/Hurbain.

International investments at Belgian media groups are a relatively new phenomenon. In the magazine market, the group Roularta expanded its interests toward the French market. The media group De Persgroep invested in the Dutch market. In 2003 it acquired shares of the title Het Parool and in 2009 it acquired the titles of the large Dutch media group PCM, which is the editor of de Volkskrant, NRC Handelsblad, Trouw and Algemeen Dagblad. The Dutch media regulator allowed this acquisition on the condition that De Persgroep seek a buyer for NRC Media, the company behind NRC Handelsblad and NRC.next. De Persgroep is in the process of doing this.

Half of all Belgian newspapers are distributed as single copies; 55 percent are sold with subscriptions. Readership is slowly declining; with 160 readers per thousand, Belgium ranks between high and low newspaper consumption in comparison with other European countries. French-language titles in particular have negative readership trends. The decline in Flanders is relatively small but continuous. The general-audience public title Het Laatste Nieuws manages to escape the negative trend and keeps attracting a growing audience.

The largest decline is for mid-market titles, but the circulation figures of regional newspapers are also negative. The total audit circulation figures of printed paid for dailies published at least five days a week in 2007-2008 was 1,117,628 in Flanders (1,250,740 including the free title, Metro) and 558,268 in Wallonia (680,680 including Metro).
The Belgian newspaper industry has suffered from the financial crisis of 2008, which marked the start of a profound economical crisis. Advertising revenues were shrinking; media that were largely dependent on advertising revenues became highly vulnerable. Media companies introduced plans to reduce staff; some reduced newsroom staff by one third.


Newspaper groups, their titles and their circulation figures:  


Flanders

Circulation 2007-2008

Circulation 2007-2008

Market share in %

Corelio (VUM)

 

 

38.2

De Standaard

102,480

87,216

 

Het Nieuwsblad/De Gentenaar

319,281

267,982

 

De Persgroep

 

 

40.0

Het Laatste Nieuws/De Nieuwe Gazet

340,049

280,798

 

De Morgen

72,355

53,944

 

De Tijd (Mediafin)

45,893

37,457

 

Concentra

 

 

21.8

Gazet van Antwerpen

125,671

104,315

 

Belang van Limburg

111,899

98,568

 

Total NL

1,117,628

930,280

 

Metro NL

133,112

132,652

 

TOTAL NL + Metro

1,250,740

1,062,932

 

Wallonia

 

 

 

Rossel

 

 

 

Le Soir

112,352

91,869

51.1

Sud Presse

148,283

119,779

 

L'Echo (Mediafin)

23,961

17,749

 

IPM

 

 

 

La Libre Belgique/La Gazette de Liège

55,843

45,191

28.1

La Dernière Heure/Les Sports

109,659

80,867

 

Mediabel

 

 

 

Vers l'Avenir

108,170

93,235

20.8

Total FR

558,268

448,690

 

Metro FR

122,412

121,842

 

Total FR + Metro

680,680

570,532

 

Magazines
Three groups dominate the magazine market in Belgium. The largest is VNU/Sanoma.  A dominant player in both Flanders and the French-speaking part of Belgium, it is owned by the Finnish group Sanoma. Until 2001 it was a daughter corporation of VNU, called Mediaxis. It has long had a monopoly on women’s magazines and also controls the majority of the television magazines.

Roularta, a Flemish publisher with aspirations across Belgium, is the second biggest player in the magazine market. Roularta has a monopoly on informative weeklies.  Knack is the most-read quality weekly. Trends and Trends/Tendances, for the French-speaking part of Belgium, are the only financial-economic magazines on the Belgian market. In Wallonia, Roularta publishes the only remaining news magazine, Le Vif/L’Express, after acquiring and abolishing two of its competitors in earlier decades. Roularta publishes a wide array of hobby and special interest magazines as well as a free Sunday paper, De Zondag. It also participates in several regional television stations. Roularta has expanded its activities into the French market of freesheets and magazines.

The third group that publishes magazines is De Persgroep. Besides a large market share in the newspaper market, the group also publishes television weeklies and lifestyle magazines

The Belgian magazine market also has two more recent competitors. Cascade, a small Flemish subsidiary of the Dutch Audax group, comprises several weeklies previously owned by the now-defunct newspaper group Het Volk.

Think Media was founded in 2000 and is active in Flanders, where it publishes three men’s magazines: P-Magazine, Ché and Maxim.

The Belgian book market comprises mainly scientific and non-fiction publications. Educational publications constitute a fifth of the market. Children’s books are also popular. The historically important comic book market has been declining in recent years, primarily because of foreign import. There are about 90 book publishers in Belgium. Because of the small market, most books in Belgium do not earn turn profits. As such, many authors and publishers are dependent on government subsidies. The biggest distributor of books is Standaard Boekhandel, which controls about 75 percent of the market. In recent years, online bookstores have been on the rise, the biggest of which are Proxis.be and Azur.be.

The first radio stations in Belgium were formed during the 1920s and were private initiatives. This situation changed, however, with a 1930 law that founded the Public Service Broadcasting institution. It was financed by a licence fee from the start. Advertising was not allowed.

During the Second World War and the German occupation, private radio stations were outlawed. The radio landscape was dominated by the PSB. It was only in 1981 that private radio stations were allowed again. In the years that followed, advertising and the formation of networks became widespread, a situation the 1981 law had explicitly forbidden. The regulator accommodated this development in 1985. Local radio stations became popular music stations, although little remained of the idealistic stations that marked the heydays of illegal local radio.

More changes were made in the decade that followed, resulting by 1998 in three different types of radio stations: local radio, city radio and regional radio. In the period that followed, the popular new network Radio Contact began. The year 2001 was big for private radio. Q-Music, owned by the VMMa (a national commercial broadcaster), and 4FM, owned by Think Media, were granted national broadcasting licences. Until that time, the public broadcaster had held sway over 85 percent of the market. In the years that followed, Q-Music acquired the 4FM license and the PSB saw its market share shrink to 61.2% in 2007. 

In Wallonia, private radio stations were legalised in 1982. In the years before, a great many of them had been broadcasting clandestinely. The forming of networks was, as in Flanders, only allowed later, in 1987. The Walloon private radio stations compete with the PSB more than Flanders stations. They are owned by the newspaper publishers Rossel and Vers L’Avenir. Well-known stations include: Radio Contact, Radio Nostalgie, Fun Radio and Bel RTL.

The first Belgian television broadcasts aired in 1953. In 1960, the division between Flemish and Walloon public broadcasters was made possible: Flanders got the Belgische Radio and Televisie (BRT) and Wallonia got to watch and listen to the Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF). The broadcasters continued to share some facilities. Both could be characterised by a rather strong degree of politicisation: the presence of political parties on the board of governors of the PSB was institutionalised from the start.

In the decades that followed, the cultural-linguistic communities received increasing political autonomy, and the PSBs evolved in the same manner. In 1977, the German part of Belgium also got its own public broadcaster, the Belgischer Rundfunk und Fernsehen (BRF).  The year 1994, then, marked the complete regional autonomy of public broadcasters.

Both BRT and RTBF had a monopoly in their respective markets. But the high penetration of cable television, which made possible the broadcast of 25 foreign television stations, ensured competitive pressure on the PSBs. The dilemma of public broadcasters everywhere, whether to go for quality in programming or for quantity in audiences, thus confronted the Belgian PSBs relatively early.

In 1981 a new law allowed for the presence of private pay-TV, regional television and, most importantly, a private national television broadcaster in both the Walloon and Flemish part of the country. It took six years for Wallonia and eight years for Flanders to install a private competitor to the public monopoly.

In 1991, BRT was folded into the BRTN: it was now culturally labelled as Flemish. In 1997, a new name was chosen: VRT: Vlaamse Radio Televisie Omroep, underscoring the Flemish character of the channel.  The Flemish public broadcaster tried to loosen its relationship with the political world. This had always been a point of critique; it was thought that audience would appreciate a more independent PSB and hoped that greater independence would stop the audience attention to VTM at the expense of the PSB. In the years that followed, VRT regained a large part of its market share; it became the market leader in 2002. The goals of the VRT between 2007 and 2011 call for it to become a digital broadcaster. Its core mission remains to be a general-audience station that also supplies programmes for specific target groups, such as children, and programmes on culture, news and sports. In 2007, the donation that the VRT received amounted to 279m euro. Part of its financing comes from advertising, although this is not without criticism from the commercial broadcasters.

The Vlaamse Televisie Maatschappij (VTM), the Flemish commercial broadcaster, was founded in 1989. As a result of international European pressure and domestic pressure from newspaper publishers, the public service monopoly for television was abolished. VTM was guaranteed an 18-year monopoly on television advertising. Another rule required at least 51 percent of the VTM to be owned by newspaper publishers. The European Commission later protested against this requirement, calling it a form of obliged cross-ownership. In reality the newspaper industry bought all the shares. The advertising monopoly did not remain. 

In 1994 the international SBS group, active in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, tried to start a new Flemish commercial station. To avoid the ban on another commercial television station, VT4 tried to broadcast from London. The cable providers carried the channel. The Flemish regulator was not pleased.

The position of VRM was that since VT4 was in practice a Flemish station, it should also apply for a Flemish licence. This was not the viewpoint of the European Commission. According to Europe, VT4 broadcasted from British soil and thus was subject only to British regulation. The Belgian High Court agreed. This didn’t stop VT4 from applying for a Flemish licence in 2002.

Meanwhile, VTM started two other channels to hold off the VT4 competition: Kanaal2, which became 2BE in February, 2008, and JimTV, a music channel. These joined The Music Factory (founded in 1998), KanaalZ (a financial/economy news station, founded in 1999) and Vitaya (lifestyle, founded in 2000).

Flanders also has 11 regional TV stations, although some are struggling to survive. The oldest commercial television station in Flanders, the pay-tv provider Filmnet, has changed ownership several times. Since 2005 it has been part of the telecom provider Telenet, which changed the name to Prime.

To conclude, we can argue that Flanders is characterised by a fragmented television landscape and strongly differentiated advertising. 

The Walloon public broadcaster, the RTBF, had always coped problems similar to those facing its Flemish counterpart. Competition with the French TF1 channel was always of concern. In 1997, however, the political parties came to an agreement that had all the characteristics of the reforms in Flanders. These proved to be tough for the RTBF. The first administrator to implement the reforms, Christian Druitte, was replaced in 2001 by J.P. Philippot, who launched Magellan, an ambitious reform plan. The donation for the Walloon public broadcaster is similar to the Flemish one: 247.7m euro in 2007. It also receives some income from advertising revenue.

The first private television broadcaster in Wallonia was RTL/TVI. It was granted its licence, which was originally to be valid for nine years, in 1987. Its owners are RTL (CLT) with 66 percent ownership, and Audiopresse, a co-operation of the Wallonian written press, with 34 percent. Since 1995, RTL/TVI has broadcasted Club RTL, which is aimed at French-speaking youth. In 2003, RTL started broadcasting PlugTV, which focuses on music and youth programmes.

The statutes of RTL/TVI have changed over the years. RTL/TVI has always broadcasted from Luxemburg, but because one of its main shareholders was the Belgian GBL, it was always considered Belgian. Between 2001 and 2005 this situation changed, however, as Bertelsmann’s stake in the group continued to grow. In 2005 RTL/TVI decided to let go of its Belgian licence. It applied for a licence in Luxemburg, where rules on licences are less stringent.

Just like Flanders, Wallonia has 11 regional TV stations that are allowed to broadcast advertising. Part of their financing comes from state subsidies, however. The French media group Canal Plus started a pay-TV channel in 1989, Canal Plus Belgique. The Walloon PSB bought 26 percent of its original shares, which it managed to sell in 2000 to the French mother group for 20.6m euro. Later, the pay-TV provider became independent and changed its name to BeTV.

Although movies were playing in 1895, it took until 1904 before Belgium got its first cinema. The cinema landscape evolved rapidly; a decade later there were 650 cinemas. The entrepreneurs who started them didn’t have it easy; legislation and taxes were detrimental to their profit margins. Pillarisation, the denominational segregation of Belgian society, was also a feature of the cinema landscape; commercial and ideological interests competed for market share.

The 1930s and 40s were a difficult period for Belgian cinema. In the 1930s, owners had to show expensive sound movies to keep their customers.

In the 1940s the Nazi occupation allowed only for the screening of German movies. The return of the American movie proved to be a boon for Belgian cinemas, which numbered in the thousands during the 1950s, attracting great crowds.

In 1957, this situation started to change. It was partly because of the rise of television, but there were additional reasons. Dwindling revenues prompted a process of concentration that continued for decades, especially after the advent of video rental in the ’80s. Moviegoers in Flanders decreased from 9.53m in 1980 to 7.62m in 1990. During this period, the number of cinemas also dwindled — but the number of screens rose. This is because of the advent of multiplexes, cinemas with more than eight screens. Belgium was one of the first European countries to adopt this US design.

This development is accredited with stemming the decline in moviegoers, which reached a turning point in 1990 after which the numbers started to rise again. In 2006, 23.8m tickets were sold in Belgium. Belgium now has a cinema landscape of multi- and mega-plexe. It is dominated by the originally Belgian but internationally active Kinepolis-group (which accounted for almost half of the box office in 2005), and some smaller cinemas that have stood the test of time. Belgium now has 121 cinemas. Combined, Flanders and Brussels have 307 screens, 195 in multiplexes.

Belgium hosts several film festivals. Filmfestival Ghent is the most renowned. Its first edition was in 1974, when it hosted but 18 films. In the decades that followed, the Filmfestival Ghent grew to be Belgium’s biggest festival, covering most genres and styles. It has always underscored the role of music in film. In 2008, the Filmfestival invited John Williams for a concert. The 2009 edition was set to play 140 full-length movies and attract around 110,000 visitors.

Public funding for the Belgian cinema sector exists and is mainly organised by institutions on the language-community level, although a tax shelter exists at the federal level.

In Flanders, the Vlaams Audiovisueel Funds (VAF) has three general objectives: to be an active partner in the professionalisation of the Flemish audiovisual creative sector, to foster talent and to provide for more exposure for the own cultural produce. It provides financing, support and guidance for Flemish audiovisual products. The total budget for the VAF is 13m euro. The biggest portion is for financing objectives (10.2m euro) and working costs (1.4m euro).

The two main fixed telephone line operators are Belgacom and Telenet. The former is also active on the mobile phone services market under the name Proximus. Its two main competitors in this space are Base and Mobistar.

According to the European Commission, Belgian phone use differs from the European average. Only half of all Belgians have both fixed telephone and mobile phone access. There are, however, more Belgians with mobile telephone access but no fixed telephone access. There has been a strong increase in this development in 2006. However, mobile penetration (at 102 percent in October 2008) is still lower than the European average, despite falling consumer prices.

Mobile services are expanding, with the second and third operators gaining a bigger share of the market in 2008. Competition is improving with new developments in the market. Operators are using competitors’ networks to provide their own services and an additional licence was granted in 2009. Despite this, prices for mobile services are still well above the European average. Number portability, when a consumer changes operators but keeps his phone number, is an option in the Belgian market: more than fifth of the total mobile numbers have been ported since the introduction of the service.

The cable TV network is the most common way of receiving television in Belgian households: 87 percent of households use it, which is an anomaly compared to the European average of 34 percent. Digital terrestrial television still lags far behind, with a 10 percent adoption in 2007.

In 2008, 64 percent percent of the Belgian population lived in households with Internet access. Flemish Internet access was higher, at least in 2007: 65 percent for Internet in general and 61 percent for access to broadband Internet. When it comes to broadband access, Belgium used to be one of the top countries worldwide. Broadband had a fast penetration rate.

By 2006, Belgium had lost that top position to Denmark, the Netherlands and Iceland. This relative decline has only accelerated in recent years. The fixed penetration rate increased by less than 2 percent in 2008.

Belgian broadband Internet is fast, however: 64 percent of all lines offer connections of 2 to 10 mbps, almost 28 percent of lines offer even higher speeds. Partly because of this, mobile broadband penetration is the lowest in the EU, with only 3.5% of the population connected. 

Bundles, combined packages offering more than one communication service from the same provider at a single price, have been on the rise in recent years: capturing 18 percent of the market in 2006 and 29 percent in 2008. Total turnover of the Belgian telecommunications sector stood at 9.53bn euro on 31 December, 2007.

Slightly fewer than 70 percent of the Flemish population between 16 and 74 years used the Internet in 2007. Of course, Internet use differs among age groups: 95 percent of the 16- to 24-year-olds used the Internet, while only 21 percent of the 65- to 74-year-olds did the same. Numbers are higher for the 55- to 64-year-olds: in this group, 49 percent said they use the Internet in 2007.

A digital divide exists in terms of education: 92 percent of people with higher education use the Internet, versus only 45 percent without higher education.
Belgians used the Internet in 2008 mainly for e-mail (91 percent), finding information on goods and services (84 percent), online banking (57 percent) and travel purposes (52 percent). 

Only 24 percent of the population uses the Internet for instant messaging. Leisurely use of online audiovisual material is perhaps not as widely spread as assumed: 55 percent of the population reported that they do not use the Internet for this purpose. Online music or movie use is at 34 percent; 11 percent of the population play online video games. These numbers vary greatly within age groups.

Internet use of digital news was far from widespread in 2008. About 69 percent said they not to use online news as a substitute for newspapers or magazines. Another 22 percent said they substitute online news for print news products to some extent. Only 9 percent said to do this to a great degree.
A 2006 study, on the other hand, calculated that reading newspapers was the 7th most common online activity.

The prospect of getting Belgians to pay for online content seems grim. In 2008, 66 percent had never ordered a good or service of any kind online as of 2008.

All over the world, Google offers the service Google News. This has elicited protests from newspaper publishers who argue that Google is a parasite living off the efforts made by journalists. When Google launched a Belgian website in January 2006, Flemish publishers opted out of the arrangement en masse: their work would not show up on search results anymore.

The online content of Flemish newspapers was eventually restored to the Google News database. The Walloon publishers, on the other hand, took Google to court. Google’s defence (that it generates no advertising revenue from its news site and that it in effect directs attention to the newspaper sites) was rejected. Google was convicted for breaching Belgian copyright and database law.

Belgian publishers provide a digital archive of newspapers and magazines. The first initiative like this, in 1995, Central Station, elicited protests from journalists who felt that their copyrights were not being respected. As a result, the project came to a half. In later years, provisions were made in contracts between publishers and journalists that allowed for a second issue of their work. With the support of the Flemish government, a second digital archive was born: Mediargus. It is accessible online by subscription or paying a fee. It offers articles by every Flemish newspaper and a few news magazines. The Walloon counterpart of this digital archive is Pressbanking.

Every Belgian newspaper has a website, although it took until 2003 before the papers of De Persgroep went online with a complete edition. The first Flemish newspapers to go online include De Tijd, which offers financial/economic news, some of it by payment only. De Standaard, which only unlocks its online archive for a fee or to its subscribers, also went online early. The site of De Standaard has strongly evolved since 1997. It used to be little more than a copy of the print edition coupled with an archive and a discussion forum; it now offers constant updates, cell phone and PDA services, web TV and several blogs. Its competitors try not to stay far behind.

When it comes to visitors, HLN.be is the most popular news website in Flanders. Although it is a part of the same media group and uses the brand name of the popular paper Het Laatste Nieuws, an autonomous editorial staff produces the website. The same editorial staff also provides content for the French-language counterpart of HLN.be, called 7sur7.be. Like HLN.be in Flanders, 7sur7.be tops the list of most popular news websites in the French-speaking part of Belgium.
A 2005 study shows that popular newspapers supply similar content online to as they do in print versions, although slight nuances exist. These differences include more frequent updates online, the content of which is often supplied by press agencies. Although newspaper sites have their own editorial staff, it is often limited due to limited profitability: most of the Flemish online newspapers are running a loss.

A noteworthy competitor among the Flemish newspaper websites is Deredactie.be, which is run by the Flemish public broadcaster VRT. Its goal is to be a digital, multimedia extension of the audiovisual activities of the public broadcaster. With viewer ratings comparable to those of the bigger newspaper sites, it succeeds rather well at this. Commercial news suppliers have always been critical of Deredactie.be. They claim that their non-existent website profits stems from the online presence of the public broadcaster. In the beginning of 2009, critics proposed that the web content of the public broadcaster be made freely available to any competitors, a suggestion that was positively received by the political world and the VRT itself, which saw in this arrangement a way out of its budgetary problems.

The Walloon public broadcaster also has an online news site, rtbf.be. Because of budget constraints, it provides far less multimedia content.

Belgium has always had one major national news agency, Belga. It was founded in 1920. In 1925, it started covering domestic news. From 1944 on, editorial work was done in both Dutch and French, with a division into two separate desks in 1970. The Belgian newspapers became majority shareholders in 1948.

Digitisation at Belga started in 1981 and continued with the adoption of new technologies that allowed for the real-time delivery of material: fax, an ISDN-network (for the sending of colour photos) and e-mail. In 2001 services for mobile phone SMS were also started. In 2006, Belga also started to supply video material for websites. With this, Belga started to compete with Zoom.inZoom.in is a European supplier of online news video material that had until 2006 a quasi-monopoly on the Belgian market.

The Belgian journalists’ union is called the AVBB. It came into being in 1978 after a fusion of the Beroepsunie van de Belgische Pers and the Algemene Belgische Persbond, the latter of which existed since 1889.

Since its inception, the AVBB has defended both the interests of journalists and their professional standards. It includes recognised professional journalists and interns, both employed and those working on a freelance basis. The criterion for applying is that a journalist earning her main source of income from journalistic activities. Press photographers and cameramen are also part of the AVBB and enjoy the status of professional journalists. AVBB also publishes a bi-monthly magazine, De Journalist, in both a French and Dutch. It also publishes an official annual on the Belgian press, containing a lot of practical information.

In 1998, the AVBB formed Flemish and Walloon divisions. The Walloon division is called the Association des Journalistes Professionnels (AJP). The Flemish division is called the Vlaamse Vereniging van Beroepsjournalisten (VVJ). The AVBB continues to exist on a federal level, however.

Membership in the AVBB confers certain advantages: a free press pass, a free official licence plate, a press pass of the International Federation of Journalists, a collective health insurance, a subscription to De Journalist, etc.

Since 1974, the Belgian newspaper publishers have organised themselves in the BVDU, the Belgische Vereniging van Dagbladuitgevers. It defends the interests of publishers, both nationally and internationally, and signs collective trade agreements with the journalists’ union.

Belgium has no strong tradition of editorial charters that specify the powers, rights and responsibilities of journalists and publishers at a specific newspaper or magazine. Historically, there have been a few attempts. When De Persgroep acquired the left-wing paper De Morgen in 1989, a foundation was established to guard the independence of the editorial staff. It took the property right over the title and has a say in the appointment or the firing of the editor-in-chief. The editorial charter provides few guarantees, however:  it is in no way binding for De Persgroep. It is but an arrangement between the editorial staff and the management of De Nieuwe Morgen, which ceased to exist. De facto, the editorial staff of De Morgen remains relatively autonomous.

As in most Western countries, investigative journalism in Belgium is on the decline. The Fonds Pascal Decroos, named after a well-known Belgian journalist, has formed to try and do something about this. It provides working scholarships for journalists eager to work on special projects. It gets its financing from different parties: the Flemish government provides a 250,000 euro yearly subsidy. Particular individuals and companies can become members (income from this source amounts to 9,000 euro per year) or leave a legacy to the fund. Flemish newspapers and magazines provide free advertising space. Two of its online initiatives are mediakritiek.be, a forum for a critical review of trends in journalism and the media, and wobbing.eu, which fights for more freedom of information.

The state of Belgian, especially Flemish, journalism is well documented. This is because of the University of Ghent (see below), which undertakes extensive surveys of the journalistic population. It has done this every 10 years since 1973. The surveys provide a wealth of information about the demographic properties of Belgian journalists: their education, their motivations, their external and internal mobility, the satisfaction they derive from their work, their political-ideological leanings. Most of these studies were in co-operation with the AVBB, providing for a broad coverage of the population. Because the surveys have been mostly conducted in a similar manner over the years, longitudinal analyses are possible.

Most Flemish journalists continue to work in the print media. The occupation is primarily one of men, although in the last decades the share of women has improved, especially in radios and magazines. Today there is a 70-30 split, although few women rise to top positions in the journalistic world. Most journalists are highly educated, despite coming from middle class backgrounds. External mobility exists: half of the journalists previously had a different occupation. A relatively high percentage come from the academic world. Internal mobility is limited, although rising. A lot of this mobility goes from print media to audiovisual media, especially toward television. Flemish journalists are satisfied with their financial status and the social prestige they receive. Sources of unhappiness about working conditions are low job security, irregular hours, limited promotion opportunities and, especially, workpressure. Ideologically speaking, Belgian journalists are more progressive and left-leaning than the populace – a global trend.

The Belgian constitution of 1831 guarantees freedom of expression and press freedom as inalienable rights in articles 19 and 25. Preventive censorship is prohibited.
Certain practices are punishable, however. These are explained in Article 150 of the constitution; transgressions are to be brought before a people’s jury (het Hof van Assisen). Repressive sanctioning is only allowed ex post, though, and only in cases where the specific circumstances which the law describes are applicable. Belgium also has a system of levelled (gertrapte) responsibility, in which the author is first responsible — then the publisher, then the printer and, finally, the journalist. Belgian law also provides additional guarantees for journalists in the case of criminal and civil persecution.

The degree to which the constitutional guarantees against preventive censorship have been eroded has been a subject of debate in recent years.  In the context of criminal investigations, the circulation of entire media outlets has been confiscated. Commercial law and authors’ law provide for this possibility of confiscation. In recent years, a priori confiscations have become more common as injunction procedures. Some judges and commentators argue that these are a violation of Article 25 of the constitution. In 2000, the Court of Cassation decided that, in certain circumstances, this does not have to be the case. Legal discussion and vagueness remains, however.

Since 1963, Belgian law has recognised the status of a professional journalist, which attributes certain advantages to the recipient: a press card, a pass granting access to restricted areas and discounts for public transportation and air travel with Brussels Airlines. It is not a full monopoly, however: journalists can work outside the status of professional journalist (beroepsjournalist) as well. The conditions for recognition are quite general: a person must be 21 years old, be in possession of all civil and political rights and be employed at the editorial staff of a medium. A commercial occupation is not allowed. Applicants have to be working as a journalist for at least two years before they can apply. A recognition committee, comprised of representatives of the AVBB and the Belgian newspaper and magazine publishers, handles applications. 

Authority over cultural affairs resides with the language communities. A 1980 law specifies radio and television as cultural affairs. The parliaments specified the basic rules in decrees. Those are then specified by the administration and the Minister of Media.

The language communities decide the conditions by which broadcast organisations and cable operators must abide, which could also be considered an infringement on the constitutional ban on a priori censorship. There are many conditions which must be met: organisational structure, programming, the content of programmes, advertising, financing, technical infrastructure and transparency rules. 

In Flanders, these are primarily formulated and defined in a legislative text called het Mediadecreet. The first part of the media decree concerns the PSB, followed by more general rules applicable to all broadcasters and rules for cable providers. The relationship between the political world and the public broadcaster has been a difficult one, as stated above. In recent decades, the PSB has received more independence. Every five years, the PSB and the government sign a contract that specifies the quantifiable goals of the PSB and its financing. In the meantime, the public broadcaster is free from political interference, at least in principle. Whether it achieves the goals is evaluated on a yearly basis.

The responsibility for the enforcement of the rules rests in Flanders with the VRM.

In Belgium there exists a support system for the press. Indirect government support, aimed not at a specific paper but at the newspaper market as a whole, is organised by the federal government.

The most important of these subsidies is favourable rates with the postal service. These are hard to calculate. Estimates for 1990 were around 54.5m euro for newspapers and 190m for newspapers and magazines combined. There are also other forms of indirect support. Professional journalists can ride the train for free. Newspapers and magazines are also transported at a favourable rate. Journalists also get a significant discount at Brussels Airlines. Another important form of indirect support is the 0 percent VAT. It applies to all newspapers and magazines with informative content for the general public that appear at least 50 times a year.
A point of critique of the Belgian indirect subsidy system is that it disproportionately favours the bigger papers, thereby widening the gap in the print media market.

Previously, Belgium has also had a direct subsidy support system. It was plagued by party, political and linguistic strife, however. In the beginning it was not selective: although it was primarily the left-leaning papers that got into trouble, the Catholic and liberal parties only agreed to supporting them if papers in their respective pillars also received support. The direct subsidy system became more selective later on, but the subsidies that were granted were rather low, limiting their effectiveness. Charges of market distortion remained; the direct subsidy system faded out in 1997.

In Flanders, de Raad voor de Journalistiek (RvdJ) —a joint effort by the ABVV (the Flemish journalists’ association), publishers and media companies — plays an important role in terms of journalistic self-regulation. It bases its view of journalism ethics on the internationally-accepted Declaration of Duties and Rights of Journalists and the Code van journalistieke beginselen, which is specific to Belgium. 

The RvdJ consists of 18 members: six journalists, six delegates from the publishers community and other media companies, and six external members. An important person at the RvdJ is the ombudsman. When a complaint is filed at the RvdJ, the ombudsman acts as an arbitrator between the aggrieved party and the journalist in question. He aims for an equitable solution to which both parties can agree. If this proves to be impossible, the RvdJ handles the complaint.

The Walloon and Flemish communities handle Media regulation. The most important official regulator for the Flemish media system is the Vlaamse Regulator voor de Media. The VRM, formerly known as the Vlaams Commissariaat voor de Media, has a bicameral structure. The first chamber decides general matters while the second chamber rules on issues regarding independence and the protection of minors. Responsibility for the evaluation of the contract between the government and public broadcaster also resides with the VRM.

The Walloon counterpart to the VRM is called the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA). It has similar responsibilities and three counsels: an advertising counsel, a control counsel and a licence counsel.

On the federal level, there is the BIPT: the Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications. Its traditional role has been to supervise naturally scarce resources such as the electromagnetic spectrum. It allocates, regulates and supervises the frequencies. As the telecommunications market became more liberalised, the BIPT received more powers. It now monitors competition in the sector and protects consumer interests.

Until recently, the leadership of the BIPT was highly politicised. In September, 2009, this situation changed with the appointment of three new representatives from the telecommunications sector itself.

Some of the decisions of the BIPT have been controversial. In 2008, it tried to charge Belgacom, one of the Belgian telecom operators, for the renewal of its licence. Belgacom went on to contest this decision at the court of appeals, which ruled in its favour. According to the court, the BIPT had announced its decision too late. This ruling proved to be a significant a financial windfall for the operator.

Journalism education on an academic level is part of the curriculum of the Master’s in Communication Sciences at Ghent University. Other universities also offer master curricula in collaboration with the schools for higher professional education. Aside the academic curriculum closely linked with academic research on journalism, many institutes for higher education offer different curricula for journalism.

At Ghent University academic research on journalism is sorted under the Institute Center for Journalism Studies.

For an overview of journalism education curricula check this link.

Changes in the media industry should prompt journalism education to rethink their curricula to meet the challenges of the profession. Curricula must take into account that “multimediality” and “hyperflexibility” will be the buzzwords of future changes in curricula.

The main supplier of media statistics is the Centrum voor Informatie over de Media. The CIM came into being in 1971 as a fusion of two other media statistics agencies. It is a non-profit organisation. Its members comprise the Belgian communication sector: advertisers, the advertising agencies and the press. Its goal is to provide its members with accurate and reliable numbers, as fast as possible.

There are two main types of media information: circulation figures supplied by media actors themselves (which are validated by the CIM) and studies of the reach of mainstream media collected by the CIM itself. Some of this information is only accessible through subscription, although the more general info can be found online.
An interesting resource for communication scholars and journalists is the journal Tijdschrift voor Communicatiewetenschap, which publishes on a quarterly basis. It focuses on communication science and related areas, such as journalism, applied communications, and the communicative aspects of information and communication technology. The journal has information on Belgian and Dutch developments.

De Journalist is the magazine published on a monthly basis by the VVJ, the Flemish journalism association. It has information on various topics related to journalism and the news media. It strives to offer a forum for different actors and opinions as it closely follows current events.

In short we can conclude that the media market in Belgium is, to a large extent dominated, by cultural (language) differences. The media situation in the northern part of the country is different from the situation in the southern part. Belgium is also a small country. The cultural division makes a small market smaller, a difficulty for media groups.

The decline in readership market is the same in the north and the south, although in the Walloon part of the country the decline is steeper. This is made all the more dramatic since the circulation figures there are already lower than in the northern part of Belgium. Some newspapers in the Walloon have such limited circulation figures that their long-term survival is doubtful.

Negative trends on the reader market are not the only obstacle for media firms. The financial crisis of 2008 resulted in an overall economic crisis that induced severe reduction of the advertising revenues for all media. At the moment (October, 2009) there are preliminary signs of economical recovery although it is obvious that the advertising markets are not yet improved.

The different media actors reacted by slimming down staff; in some cases the reductions were rather severe. In many cases staff was dismissed and new employers were shortly after introduced, bringing in working conditions and remuneration rates that were different.

In March, 2009, the situation was dramatic enough that the minister of media in Flanders, Kris Peeters (Christian Democratic party), gathered for the first time in history a states general assembly (Staten Generaal voor de Media) that invited all actors in the broad media field to discuss their opinions on the dramatic situation of events. The Christian Democrats party won the elections in the early summer of that year, but Peeters passed on the portfolio to his new colleague Ingrid Lieten (Socialist party) who became the new minister of media.

The concentration rate on the print media market is dense, although we  now notice different forms of collaboration among partners from both sides of the country. And there is also a major shift in international investment. Traditional print media markets remained for a very long time defined by a national character. But the large newspaper and magazine group, De Persgroep, a group that also is active in national commercial broadcasting and local broadcasting, saw an opportunity in the crisis situation. They acquired the main quality titles in the Dutch market by buying the majority of shares of the PCM newspapers division.

Although the direct system of press subsidies has long been abolished in Flanders, it still exists in a very reduced form in the Walloon part of the country. In Flanders and in Wallonia there are also other initiatives to sustain the newspaper market. Interesting are the successful newspaper education projects aim to preserve readership in the long run. The results of the research on this type of projects are promising: youngsters who participated show less negative attitudes toward newspapers and newspaper reading.

The economic crisis prompted government (both national and regional) to sustain financially the banking companies that were in trouble. This had some major negative effects on the financial balance of the government. The politicians are struggling with measures for media policy and shrinking budgets. The PSB in particular, a sector that attracts the largest part of financial resources, is urged to minimise its expenses.

Department of Communication Sciences at Ghent University
Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat 25
B - 9000 Ghent, Belgium
Tel. +32 9 264 31 11
Website

Karin Raeymaeckers, Karin.raeymaeckers@ugent.be
Steve Paulussen, Steve.paulussen@ugent.be
Annelore Deprez, Annelore.deprez@ugent.be
Yannis Tenret, yannis.tenret@ugent.be