Interview with Pieter Knapen, General Secretary and an Ombudsman of the Flemish Press Council, Belgium
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How do you assess the general situation with freedom of the media in your country?
There are no problems with freedom of the media in Belgium. Belgium is ninth on the Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders. Last year, our country fell two places, but the information on which Reporters without Borders relied is not entirely correct, so the fall by two places is in my opinion not really explainable.
At the beginning of this year, a risk was imminent, but that has so far been successfully countered by associations of journalists and publishers and by various judicial authorities. There was a draft-bill from the resigning federal government that would make the publication of secret documents relating to state security punishable for journalists, but after protest of associations from journalists and publishers and from judicial authorities the government promised to review the draft so that the freedom of the press will be preserved.
In the recent policy text of the new Flemish government it is being said that there should be more control over the neutrality of the public broadcaster, but control already exists by the audio-visual media regulator and it is not yet clear what exactly the new Flemish government means. This requires vigilance, but in general there are no problems with freedom of the media.
Do you think that the appearance of Internet and the economic crises throughout the world had a negative influence on the quality of journalism?
Internet has advantages and disadvantages. Due to the speed and increasing competition, there is a danger that journalists will publish articles quickly before they have thoroughly checked the information. The Internet should not cause journalists to publish information that has not been sufficiently checked. We have explicitly included in our code that a journalist must check his information, even if that causes a delay. And we also have a new directive on online rectification that reads as follows: "If serious mistakes have been made in online reporting, it is not enough to remove the article or to update it, but the journalist needs to acknowledge the mistake and publish a rectification.”
But the Internet also has many advantages. Information sources are easier to reach and easier to consult and cooperation between journalists, also internationally, is much easier. International investigative journalism projects have repeatedly proven this. It is also much easier to start a news site than a newspaper or magazine, which can help prevent media concentration.
The internet naturally also contains a lot of fake news, but that should not paralyze journalism. Journalism must just prove that it distinguishes itself from unchecked information and fake news on the Internet, by complying with a journalistic code of ethics and by participating in a system of self-regulation.
The economic crisis has led to heavy savings in journalism and that clearly means a risk. But it is not only the economic crisis that is causing problems, but also and especially the advertising revenues that no longer go to the regular publishers and broadcasters, but to Facebook, Google, etc. Publishers and broadcasters will have to develop new revenue models to cope with that evolution. And the public must understand that it must pay for journalism. Free journalism does not exist.
The economic crisis and falling advertising revenues are also leading to an increasing concentration of media. This requires vigilance because it can pose a risk to media pluralism.
Does your Press Council work on appliance of professional standards only in the print media or it also include broadcast and online media?
We cover all media:
- radio, television, newspapers, magazines and online media;
- national, regional and local media;
- public and commercial or private media.
What’s the general attitude of the media in your country towards the journalistic ethics and the self-regulatory bodies such as yours?
About 97 percent of large and medium-sized media participate in our press council and pay an annual contribution for its operation. Of course we do not know all small one-man websites, but we also deal with complaints against them. Most of them cooperate loyally with the procedure if there is a complaint against them.
The newspapers and magazines are members through their umbrella organizations. The umbrella organization of newspapers unites the eight national newspapers, including their websites, from different publishers. The same with the magazines, where the umbrella organization has around 600 members. Through membership of the umbrella organizations, all newspapers and magazines are also members of our press council. The same for a new umbrella organization of digital-only media, which unites the 9 largest digital-only news websites, and for the umbrella organization of regional television stations, with unites 10 regional television stations. Other media, such as news agencies and national radio and TV stations, are directly members of the press council.
Does your system of media self-regulation help to have more professional and free media?
When the government or parliament takes initiatives or makes legislative proposals that could jeopardize freedom of the press, we lobby to prevent this and to make it clear that a system of self-regulation is sufficient and is preferable to government regulation. Last year, for example, we successfully negotiated the journalistic exception in Belgian law implementing the EU-General Data Protection Regulation.
With regard to professionalization of the media, we offer workshops on professional journalistic ethics. Media can register for this, but most media companies organize such workshops and training internally themselves, and that is of course perfect for us.
How does the Press Council treat the media that do not observe its adjudications?
We only work on the basis of complaints and do not monitor the media. That is a fundamental choice because we do not want to be a media police. We do want to give journalists guidance on how to act ethically and we want to restore public confidence if it is damaged or broken, but we are not a media police. Moreover, it would be practically impossible to monitor all media, but that is not why we do not do it. It is a fundamental choice.
Is there any increase in fake news and hate speech in the media your country?
A recent study has shown that the problem with fake news in Flanders is smaller than elsewhere, but that does not mean that we can deny the problem of course. But our press council does not see it as its mission to combat fake news on social media. There are other initiatives for this and a press council should not regulate the social media as a whole. The council must make it clear that a journalist does not spread fake news and that there is a difference between a journalistic error and fake news. Fake news means the deliberate, intentional distribution of false information with the intention of achieving political, financial or other gain. I assume that journalists do not intentionally distribute false information, but they can of course make mistakes. It is the role of press councils to prevent or correct these errors and thus maintain confidence in journalism.
Hate speech is primarily a problem on social media. In Flanders, most news websites have closed the option to comment on articles. The largest popular newspaper where the possibility still exists, monitors the comments. The editor-in-chief published the guidelines again at the beginning of this year. But on the social media pages of newspapers and magazines everyone can of course publish comments and this is much harder to monitor, but our code does say that media should do that.
Our code determines the following about monitoring comments on websites or on social media pages of the media: “Editors are free to add a postscript to letters and other reactions sent in, or not to publish them at all. Changes and/or truncation are permitted provided the message and the tone are kept. Editors must moderate their web forums and social media with complete independence and are responsible for said moderation. It is their responsibility to avoid and to remove unsuitable content as soon as possible.” This is about monitoring comments on news websites and on the pages of newspapers, magazines, TV stations etc. on social media.
But the journalist also has a responsibility in his journalistic reporting. That is why our code provides the following: “The journalist does not encourage discrimination or racism. He/she ensures that the wording of the reporting does not stigmatize when mentioning ethnicity, nationality, religion, philosophy, sexual orientation or gender.” So in the first sentence of this article we say that a journalist must not incite discrimination or racism. He may not misuse his position or status as a journalist for this. The intentional aspect is important here. But the journalist can write about everything he wants to write about. He may deal with all subjects and may not be inhibited or censor himself. That is why in the second sentence we are talking about the wording of the reporting. A journalist must be able to handle every subject, but he must be careful with the wording of his reporting and ensure that this wording is not stigmatizing.
Finally, it is also important to say in this regard that our press council also deals with complaints against journalistic posts on social media, on the condition that it concerns journalistic content and that the journalist has published the post in his capacity as a journalist.
What do you think about the tendencies for introduction of legal regulations for the contents of online media? What is the experience in your country?
Online media contents may and must not be regulated more than print, radio or TV. There must be as little regulation as possible and maximum freedom of the press. The government should not - never - interfere with journalistic content, regardless of the medium involved.
Journalism must distinguish itself from other information on internet through truthfulness and independence. These are the basic principles of journalistic ethics. Journalism will only survive if it is truthful and independent. I notice that media and journalists now have more attention and interest in journalistic professional ethics than thirty years ago, because they realize that they will only survive if they comply with journalistic ethics. Only in this way they can distinguish themselves from half-truths and whole lies on the Internet and only in this way they can maintain their credibility with the public and convince the public to pay for journalism.