(December 2014)

The implementation of the MPM2014 for Belgium shows a low/medium risk for media pluralism in the country. The results collected by implementing the MPM in Belgium, show risks in the country as follows: 23% (8) of the indicators assess a high risk; 12% (4) of indicators indicate medium risk, and 65% (22) refer to low risk.

Despite being a small country, Belgium has three linguistic communities: the Flemish, French and German-speaking ones (with powers mainly in the domains of culture (theatre, libraries, audiovisual media, etc., education, health care, social welfare and protection of youth), In parallel three Regions – the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels-Capital Region are competent in economic affairs [agriculture, energy, employment, city and local transport], environmental planning and tourism. During the successive state reforms (which started in 1970) the Community authorities have been given more powers to regulate the (audiovisual) media markets. As a consequence, each Community has its own media law and a separate media regulator (with sometimes varying tasks and competencies). For example, the French Community regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), is authorised to monitor concentration indices and to take regulatory action if they conclude that the media market in the French Community is becoming too concentrated, whereas the Vlaamse Regulator voor de Media (VRM) of the Flemish Community only monitors and publishes reports on media concentration.[1] During the stakeholder workshop, the majority of the stakeholders agreed that media in Belgium had to be assessed along the lines of a market for Dutch speaking and French speaking media.

This linguistic diversity resulted in an economic reality, which has two separate media markets. No separate market for German-speaking media has been assessed. This was agreed upon by the research team and the stakeholders. The Medienrat, the media regulator of the German-speaking Community in Belgium, was contacted to address this issue, and their President, Mr. Yves Derwahl, stated that the German-speaking population mostly watches German television. They have three media providers, solely offering radio services (BRF, Offener Kanal Ostbelgien and Private Sender). Nevertheless, they have access to the Flemish and French Community media outlets. Certain media outlets concentrate on the Flemish speaking Community with their predominantly Flemish speaking population, while other outlets address the predominantly French-speaking population of the French speaking Community. This widely accepted division of the media markets[2] results in media markets that are small if compared to neighbouring countries, like France, Germany or the Netherlands.

Moreover, the increased autonomy of regional authorities explains the need to assess the indicators of the Media Pluralism Monitor for both markets separately in those aspects, which fall under the competences of the regional Communities (e.g., legislation on radio and television broadcasting). Nevertheless, the reader should understand that despite the fact that the Dutch speaking media are aimed at the Flemish Community, and that French speaking media are consumed mostly by the French speaking population of the French Community, we have considered them to be national media, as opposed to regional media, because no one is prevented from accessing all of the available sources provided in both languages, irrespective of location. This approach to the Belgian national market is accepted as a working definition for this pilot testing of the MPM, however, it needs a better justification, specification and possible revision. The media policy of the bilingual region, Brussels-capital, falls within the competencies of both the Flemish and French Community. Their results have been taken into account in assessing both markets.

By contrast, the situation was assessed at national level for those indicators relating to issues regulated by the Federal authorities (such as the availability of broadband).

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Graph 1: Average level of risk for each type of indicator – Belgium


Legal Type of Indicator Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism

In relation to the legal risks to media pluralism, the overall assessment concluded that there is a low risk for most legal indicators. Furthermore, the few medium and high risks can be considered within the context of some specific aspects of the country.

Indicator 4 Regulatory safeguards for journalistic profession has a medium risk score, which is due to one variable. There is indeed no mechanism in Belgium granting social protection to journalists in the case of changes in ownership and consequently the medium risk is justified, as this is a real lacuna in our federal legislation.

Indicator 8 Regulatory safeguards for minority and community media shows a high risk in both the Flemish and French speaking Communities. The existing arrangement for the two distinct media markets for both big linguistic groups leads to the fact that there are relatively few linguistic minorities and communities that are not yet represented in national or regional media. There are therefore few stipulations in the media legislation concerning minority and community media. However, community media, amongst other things, are expected to provide for other minorities, e.g., religious minorities. In the French speaking Community, community radio stations (radios associatives et d’expression à vocation culturelle ou d’éducation permanente) have been recognised for several years. According to Valcke and Lievens “[t]hese are independent radios mainly staffed by volunteers with programmes focused either on information, education, cultural development and citizen’s participation, or on musical genres that do not belong to the most popular ones[3] Recently, in 2014, the Flemish Act on Radio and Television Broadcasting changed, explicitly recognising non-profit “(local) community radio” as a separate category, besides commercial (local) radio stations. The results of this regulatory change can only be assessed in the coming years. This recent legislative initiative further shows that, during our assessment of the indicators, the scores for the Flemish and French speaking Community may differ. However, the changes did not amount to a different overall score.

Similarly, indicator 6 Policies and support measures for media literacy (or digital literacy in particular) among different groups of population showed differing results between the Flemish and French Community. The Flemish Community definitely has seen more media literacy initiatives than the French Community. The Flemish government explicitly brought media literacy forward as a crucial aspect of policy goals in their policy note, 2009-2013. However, the French Community has increasingly integrated media education into their educational system in the last decade. The risk for this indicator for both Communities is therefore low, but separate assessment showed that both Communities have a different approach when it comes to media literacy.

The division of media markets also explains a high risk for indicator 10 Regulatory safeguards for locally oriented and locally produced content on PSM channels and services. Both the Flemish and French speaking PSM send their reporters to local events, without any difficulties or transport related issues. In this regard, certain questions seemed irrelevant in Belgium, as we don’t have regional languages within the boundaries of each community. However, if media outlets for each linguistic Community are perceived as being national media, there needs to be attention also given to the safeguards for each outlet presenting content that comes from the other Community. No specific rules exist in this regard.

Indicator 11 Regulatory safeguards for universal coverage of the media shows a high risk. This indicator aimed to assess the existence and effective implementation of regulatory safeguards for universal coverage of the media (which is regulated at a federal level). Today, Belgium does not have rural areas without access to broadband networks. The Communications Committee of the European Commission acknowledged this in their Working Document stating that “[in] Belgium (…) all the homes are already covered by fixed broadband technology.” The same applies to the distribution of newspapers in Belgium. Every area can receive both Flemish and French newspapers, without exceptions. Certain questions thus had to be answered negatively, especially those concerning the State’s active measures to promote access to broadband networks. The State takes no active measures, since there are no homes that lack fixed broadband technology.

Indicator 20 Policy measures for the impartial circulation of internet data, without regard to content, destination or source results in a medium risk for Belgium. Belgium is aware of the issue of net neutrality and started discussing measures to address this, but thus far no firm obligations have been adopted. The Federal Parliamentary Commission for Infrastructure continued working on this topic and developed extensive guidelines that will eventually result in more stringent legal requirements concerning net neutrality. Furthermore, the Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications already has certain powers to intervene if necessary. In conclusion, Belgium has not yet introduced strict legal obligations for operators requiring them to respect net neutrality as, e.g., the Netherlands has (which justifies the medium risk). However, policy makers are aware of the issue and have kept net neutrality on their agenda.


Economic Type of Indicator Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism

The scores for the economic indicators in Belgium show a more problematic situation if compared to the legal indicators, and this demands further explanation. Most economic indicators need assessment at the regional level (only the low risk indicator 24 Availability and quality of broadband concerned federal legislation, which could lead to the demonstration of a higher risk for media concentration. Due to the relatively small market, only a few companies own all of the newspapers and/or television channels in both the Flemish and French Community. For example, Concentra owns all of the Flemish regional newspapers (there are only two) as well as some of the regional TV channels. In the French speaking community, the Sudpresse group has the largest market share.

This means that these indicators are obviously high for the Flemish and French speaking Communities due to the small size of the markets. Furthermore, the media sample used in indicator 26 Centralisation of the national media system seems to be too big for smaller countries, as there are not 10 national daily newspapers in the Flemish, nor in the French speaking community. The same goes for national radio stations.

To conclude, there is a high level of ownership concentration in the Flemish Community in the market for television, radio, newspapers and the internet. For the French speaking Community, the level of concentration is even higher. Recently, there has been intense criticism following a number of mergers in the media sector. The pluralism of media ownership is clearly affected by this high concentration. This may eventually also have a negative impact on the diversity of media content. However, in order to maintain the economic viability of the Community’s media companies, a high level of concentration seems inevitable.


Socio-political Type of Indicator Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism

With regard to the socio-political risks to media pluralism, the general impression is that, in Belgium, risks in these areas are rather low. Comments on some of these indicators have been addressed by the stakeholders. Two indicators scored a medium risk: 33 Level of independence of PSM considering mechanisms of its financing and 34 Independence and ownership of news agencies. With regard to the level of independence of PSM, the stakeholders indicated that license fees in the Flemish Community and the Region of Brussels-Capital were abolished several years ago, although license fee is still applicable in the Walloon Region. Most experts agreed that the risk was rather low. However, one of the experts was opposed to this view and was of the opinion that there is no public discussion and no real democratic control on the budget of the PSM of the French speaking Community.

With regard to the independence and ownership of news agencies, there is also a medium risk. Only one main national news agency provides for both the Flemish and French speaking Community: Belga. The shareholders of Belga are the publishers of print and audiovisual media. Since Belga is the only news agency, it has a market share above 50%, resulting in a high risk on that particular question. On political affiliation and dependence, the risk is indicated as low. Both experts and stakeholders agreed that the overall risk for this indicator is medium.

Concerning indicator 30 Political control over media and distribution networks ownership, the experts agreed that the overall risk is low. However, some indicated that there is a subtle link between politics and media ownership, albeit not a dangerous one. They also indicated that these links are very difficult to prove.


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Graph 2: Level of risk for each risk domain – Belgium

[1] Valcke, P., Groebel, J. and Bittner, M., “Media Ownership and Concentration in Belgium”, in Noam, E., Media Concentration around the World – Country Studies (in print).

[2] Valcke, P., Groebel, J. and Bittner, M., “Media Ownership and Concentration in Belgium”, in Noam, E., Media Concentration around the World – Country Studies (in print).

[3] Valcke, Peggy and Lievens, Eva, Media Law in Belgium, Kluwer, Alphen aan de Rhijn, 2010, p. 86.