Belgium is a country with a highly complex political structure and is divided into three different language communities. The largest region, in the northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, is Flanders, with approximately 6.5 million inhabitants. Some 4.5 million French-speaking Belgians live in Wallonia. The German-speaking community is by far the smallest region, with about 76,000 inhabitants. It only counts the small newspaper Grenz-Echo and public service broadcaster BRF, and it is excluded from further analysis in this overview. The cultural and linguistic diversity in Belgium has resulted in a segmented landscape along the lines of the different language communities; it is therefore difficult to speak of a unified Belgian media market.
The federal state structure is thus reflected in the Belgian media landscape. Thanks to constitutional reform from the 1970s onwards, competences for media and cultural affairs, among others, were transferred to the regions. As a result, there is essentially no ‘Belgian’ approach to media regulation and media accountability, but rather, two distinct, and sometimes significantly different, regulation systems. Simultaneously, markets in both parts of the country have evolved differently according to their respective competitive dynamics and industry life cycles: Whereas French-language dailies have been facing a steep decline in readership, the circulation of Flemish newspapers has stabilised in the last decade.
The historical development of the media is rooted in a tradition of high political parallelism. Belgium was one of the early-consolidated liberal countries with strong liberal institutions and freedom of the press anchored in the constitution of 1831. The media reflected the cultural and societal cleavage of the time and this explains why the French language, which was the cultural language of the elite, even in the Flemish-speaking North, initially dominated the historical development of the print media. From 1880/1900, newspapers blossomed, with broad ideological diversity, already segmented into distinct brands for the elite readership and for mass readership.
The media landscape gradually became depoliticised starting in the 1960s. At present, none of the major media outlets are clearly associated with a political or ideological position (except for the openly progressive daily De Morgen in Flanders). Historically, some newspapers were in the hands of political parties, labour organisations and so on. The concentration process that accelerated after World War Two faded out these political affiliations as all newspaper brands came into the hands of commercial owners. However, a recent consolidation in Wallonia brought back the question of political parallelism when Tecteo (an industrial group active in energy and telecommunications, with strong ties with the socialist party – now rebranded Publifin) took over regional newspaper group L’Avenir.
The professionalism of journalism is difficult to define without taking into account the language differences or different media types. At a community level there is a press council and there are codes of ethics. Editorial statutes in print media are rare: If they exist, they were often created in a process of consolidation, to safeguard newsroom identity of ideological branding. In the case of Het Laatste Nieuws, a Council was established to safeguard the liberal roots of the newspaper. As of today journalists entering the organisation have to subscribe to the ideological code; each appointment of an editor-in-chief needs to be approved by the Council.
In broadcast media, however, editorial statutes have become commonplace, encouraged by various laws. Whereas the editorial statute of commercial broadcaster VTM is still in preparation, public service broadcaster VRT developed its newsroom statute in 1998. The statute guarantees newsroom autonomy and even judicial support in case external actors try to steer the newsroom policy. The autonomy of the newsroom management and of the editor-in-chief are also ensured by the statute. In spite of carefully described procedures, statutes are not always enforced. In recent years, there is an increasing tendency of politicians to exert pressure on the autonomy of the public service broadcaster (Raeymaeckers & Heynderickx, 2017).
The role of the state has been important in the shaping of the Belgian media landscape. The enactment of one of the most liberal press regimes of the time resulted in a flourishing newspaper sector, characterised by a larger number of titles reflecting a wide array of ideological diversity. Since the appearance of radio and television, regulation became inevitable, if only for the organisation of the structural regulation of technical infrastructure and spectrum allocation. Media regulation also protects the general interest by safeguarding plurality, cultural diversity, access to information, protection of minors, and editorial independence from political and commercial pressures.
Moreover, public service broadcasting institutions VRT and RTBF have a strong legitimacy: Public subsidies from the communities are substantial and financing is arranged via multi-annual (4 to 5 years) protocols signed with the government and Flanders and Federation Wallonia-Brussels respectively. There are almost no media-specific cross-ownership rules; this lack of rules has resulted in high levels of media concentration in both parts of the country. Print media also benefit from public subsidies, both direct and indirect. Media companies also benefit from a range of complementary measures such as reduced rates for distribution and innovation incentives. The Flemish Government also supports platforms that sustain different forms of journalism and journalism education.