The safety of journalists is increasingly an issue in Belgium, according to a new rule of law report from the European Commission.
Ever more journalists have experienced cyber harassment and intimidations when covering demonstrations and events. Further to this, the report said that journalists in general receive threats online and are subject to physical assault. Journalists have been targeted by defamation lawsuits asking for disproportionate damages.
According to data gathered by the Reporting Centre of the Flemish Journalists’ Union, some 15 media freedom alerts were reported each year, with an increase of incidents against journalists in 2021 and early 20221.
Further to this, Reporters without Borders found that the disinformation spread during the pandemic had a negative impact on public perception of the media in Flanders. Many accused Flemish media of having a 'pro-government perspective' in its coverage of the pandemic.
Journalists covering demonstrations against public-health measures were subject to intimidation and threats by demonstrators. Police violence, as well as online threats of a racist or sexist nature, have led to a feeling of an unsafe environment for Belgian journalists.
Complaints have been filed against police offers for seizing and erasing journalist material and arresting journalists reporting on demonstrations and police interventions.
A global trend
The concerns for Belgium mirror how physical violence and online harassment against journalists are rising globally, a trend that was accelerated during the pandemic.
Media freedom alerts to the Council of Europe's Journalists Platform rose by almost 40% between 2019 and 2020, with a record number of those alerts involving physical attacks, harassment or intimidation. Women and minority groups are disproportionality targeted, according to UNESCO.
Moreover, UNESCO found that 61% of all journalists killed worldwide in 2019 lost their lives in countries with no armed conflict, up from 50% in 2016.
Threats to journalists erode media freedom, which has a democratic impact on society. The Belgian Federal Government is currently examining legislation to enforce the possibility for journalists to film police interventions.