The Belgian journalists’ union is called the AVBB. It came into being in 1978 after a fusion of the Beroepsunie van de Belgische Pers and the Algemene Belgische Persbond, the latter of which existed since 1889.
Since its inception, the AVBB has defended both the interests of journalists and their professional standards. It includes recognised professional journalists and interns, both employed and those working on a freelance basis. The criterion for applying is that a journalist earning her main source of income from journalistic activities. Press photographers and cameramen are also part of the AVBB and enjoy the status of professional journalists. AVBB also publishes a bi-monthly magazine, De Journalist, in both a French and Dutch. It also publishes an official annual on the Belgian press, containing a lot of practical information.
In 1998, the AVBB formed Flemish and Walloon divisions. The Walloon division is called the Association des Journalistes Professionnels (AJP). The Flemish division is called the Vlaamse Vereniging van Beroepsjournalisten (VVJ). The AVBB continues to exist on a federal level, however.
Membership in the AVBB confers certain advantages: a free press pass, a free official licence plate, a press pass of the International Federation of Journalists, a collective health insurance, a subscription to De Journalist, etc.
Since 1974, the Belgian newspaper publishers have organised themselves in the BVDU, the Belgische Vereniging van Dagbladuitgevers. It defends the interests of publishers, both nationally and internationally, and signs collective trade agreements with the journalists’ union.
Belgium has no strong tradition of editorial charters that specify the powers, rights and responsibilities of journalists and publishers at a specific newspaper or magazine. Historically, there have been a few attempts. When De Persgroep acquired the left-wing paper De Morgen in 1989, a foundation was established to guard the independence of the editorial staff. It took the property right over the title and has a say in the appointment or the firing of the editor-in-chief. The editorial charter provides few guarantees, however: it is in no way binding for De Persgroep. It is but an arrangement between the editorial staff and the management of De Nieuwe Morgen, which ceased to exist. De facto, the editorial staff of De Morgen remains relatively autonomous.
As in most Western countries, investigative journalism in Belgium is on the decline. The Fonds Pascal Decroos, named after a well-known Belgian journalist, has formed to try and do something about this. It provides working scholarships for journalists eager to work on special projects. It gets its financing from different parties: the Flemish government provides a 250,000 euro yearly subsidy. Particular individuals and companies can become members (income from this source amounts to 9,000 euro per year) or leave a legacy to the fund. Flemish newspapers and magazines provide free advertising space. Two of its online initiatives are Mediakritiek.be, a forum for a critical review of trends in journalism and the media, and Wobbing.eu, which fights for more freedom of information.
The state of Belgian, especially Flemish, journalism is well documented. This is because of the University of Ghent (see below), which undertakes extensive surveys of the journalistic population. It has done this every 10 years since 1973. The surveys provide a wealth of information about the demographic properties of Belgian journalists: their education, their motivations, their external and internal mobility, the satisfaction they derive from their work, their political-ideological leanings. Most of these studies were in co-operation with the AVBB, providing for a broad coverage of the population. Because the surveys have been mostly conducted in a similar manner over the years, longitudinal analyses are possible. Most Flemish journalists continue to work in the print media. The occupation is primarily one of men, although in the last decades the share of women has improved, especially in radios and magazines. Today there is a 70-30 split, although few women rise to top positions in the journalistic world. Most journalists are highly educated, despite coming from middle class backgrounds. External mobility exists: half of the journalists previously had a different occupation. A relatively high percentage come from the academic world. Internal mobility is limited, although rising. A lot of this mobility goes from print media to audiovisual media, especially toward television. Flemish journalists are satisfied with their financial status and the social prestige they receive. Sources of unhappiness about working conditions are low job security, irregular hours, limited promotion opportunities and, especially, workpressure. Ideologically speaking, Belgian journalists are more progressive and left-leaning than the populace – a global trend.