7 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index
Area: 30,528 sq. km.
Languages: French, Flemish and German
Head of state: Herman Van Rompuy
With the best European legislation on protection of sources, Belgium, the capital of the European Union, is well placed on the issue of press freedom. However 2008 was marked by abusive and unjustified use of fines, summonses, or legal action against journalists. Censorship of the weekly Humo and proceedings opened against the publisher of a cartoon provided a reminder that press freedom is never a vested right.
Article 25 of the Belgian constitution provides that the press is free and that censorship can never be established. However, in November 2008, Flemish-language weekly Humo was sentenced to withdraw the magazine from sale or pay 250 euros for each copy remaining on newsstands after it published satirical photo montages relating to supposed privileged treatment for Sylvie Ricour in her controversial appointment as secretary to the federal police chief Fernand Koekelberg.
It was also publication of a cartoon, of Belgian industrialist Georges Forrest wearing the leopard skin hat of former president of Zaire (now DR Congo) Mobutu Sese-Seko, that led to Flemish monthly Mo Magazine being ordered to pay a symbolic euro in damages.
Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF) had a busy legal year after mayor of the city of Huy, Anne-Marie Lizin, summoned one of its journalists Patrick Remacle in January and demanded 100,000 euros in damages after the journalist made two reports condemned her running of the city. She was forced to quit her job following a long dispute, in February 2009.
Investigative magazine “Front Page Questions” was also the target of legal proceedings, the biggest of which related to a programme that questioned the presence in Belgium of four people sought by the Rwandan courts for taking part in the genocide. The magazine was also sentenced in November 2008 by a court in Brussels to pay one euro in damages to veterinary surgeon Jean Bastien, close to the entourage of Prince Laurent of the Belgian royal family, over a report accusing him of taking advantage of his position for personal enrichment. The case is now under appeal.
Although it was a private case, unconnected with her work at the Belgian TV and radio RTBF, the arrest and 21-day imprisonment of journalist Wahoub Fayoumi, for belonging to a terrorist group, provoked a debate within the profession. The tapping of her phone and putting her work computer under seal renewed suspicions of police investigation methods. The case also restarted a debate on the compatibility between freely entered political commitment in private life and the profession of journalism.