Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Freedom of the press is safeguarded under Articles 19 and 25 of the Belgian constitution, and the rights of the media are generally respected in practice. The law prohibits hate speech, including Holocaust denial, which carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison. Defamation is a criminal offense under Articles 443 to 453 of the penal code and is punishable by imprisonment. However, defamatory remarks that are published in the press are seldom brought before a criminal court due to the difficulties and costs of a trial by jury, which is mandated for most press offenses by Article 150 of the constitution. Such violations are thus traditionally adjudicated in civil courts. In two judicial decisions issued in 2012, the Belgian Court of Cassation ruled that communications on the internet fall within the scope of press offenses outlined in Article 150, thus extending the de facto civil treatment to offenses committed online. Journalistic sources are protected under a 2005 law, which also protects reporters from search and seizure. A new law penalizing sexist remarks and conduct, including in mass media and public places, entered into force in August 2014. Legal experts and free speech advocates are concerned that the language of the law is too vague and may be used to limit freedom of expression.
A 1994 law allows individuals to obtain access to official documents held by executive and judicial authorities, and stipulates that public authorities must offer an explanation of the document if requested. The print media are self-regulated by the Federation of Editors, an industry body in which all major newspapers are represented.
Censorship of media content does not generally occur, although authorities continue to block The Pirate Bay and other file-sharing websites on the grounds that they promote copyright violations. Cases of harassment or violence against journalists are rare. However, in November 2014, a photojournalist for the newsgroup Sudpresse was assaulted by a police officer during a demonstration in Brussels. Two photographers with Photo News were also attacked by police during the same demonstration.
Media ownership is highly concentrated, and a small number of media groups own the country’s main newspapers. Ownership and distribution are distinct in Belgium’s two linguistic regions, Flanders and Wallonia. Three major companies dominate newspaper distribution in Flanders, and two in Wallonia. The two regions have completely autonomous public broadcasters—the Radio Télévision Belge de la Communauté Française (RTBF) and the Vlaamse Radio- en Televisieomroeporganisatie (VRT)—that produce content in French and Flemish, respectively, for both radio and television channels. Each region also has its own private broadcasting networks. The privately owned media company RTL Group has reported a slight decline in the audience share of its RTL-TVI channel, but its family of television channels maintains a lead over other outlets with French-speaking Belgian audiences in share, ratings, and amount of top programming. Access to cable-based and foreign television channels is widespread. In 2014, 85 percent of the population had access to the internet, and there are no government restrictions on its use.
The Belgian media industry has suffered from the economic downturn that began in 2008, as outlets are largely dependent on advertising revenues. Most media companies have sought to reduce staff, by up to a third in some cases.