European Investigative Journalism Conference 2008
Keynote speech PM Kris Peeters, Flanders
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to welcome you to this first edition of the European Investigative Journalism Conference. It is a great pleasure for me, as Flemish Minister-President and Flemish Minister for Media, to be your host here in Flanders. For our region has, for some time now, invested substantial efforts in the improvement and consolidation of the quality of investigative journalism. I therefore sincerely hope that this conference will contribute to bringing about a new European dynamism.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Undoubtedly, the media are evolving ever more rapidly and more and more people are finding a place in this sector. Today, we are showered by enormous quantities of information, coming from an increasing number of providers.
And then I think about the proliferation of weblogs, for example, which are increasingly cropping up, especially when other information is scarce.
Free gathering of news, freedom of the press, freedom of speech: these values as it were represent the nervous system of our democratic legal society.
The idea is based on the premise that information is a prerequisite for the participation of people in society. But as you all know: freedom of information is submitted to certain conditions.
Information provided under the heading ‘journalism’ is expected to be correct and verified. A journalist ought to be critical. Good journalism is not supposed to be populistic. Neither should it be a reproduction of the political system.
The division between the third and fourth powers illustrates the very essence of the freedom of the press, meaning that no authorisations are required in advance and that there is no interference from the government.
But the reverse is just as true: journalists are not elected by the people and should not have to legitimise themselves in elections; they do not form part of the regulatory powers of our state system. They do form part of society and thank their existence to precisely that fundamental freedom of speech, entitling them to question the policy and the policy makers.
One could ask if all this does not conflict with the fact that the Flemish Government is sponsoring this investigative journalism congress. The answer is no.
The government does not seek to regulate the media, but to promote self regulation. Because we recognise the importance of good journalism, our task is to promote it.
For this reason, the Flemish Association of Professional Journalists and the Council for Journalism were established. This is an independent self-regulatory body for handling questions and complaints about the journalistic profession, consisting of journalists, publishers, representatives of media houses, and external members.
The Flemish Government supports the Flemish Association of Professional Journalists and the Council for Journalism.
These are important bodies that help to preserve the quality of the media and the ethics of journalism. Good quality journalism must distinguish itself from plain, everyday journalism and counterbalance the strong commercial pressures.
The government also gives financial support to the Pascal Decroos Fund that is founded in 1999. This independent non-profit organisation has as its purpose to promote quality journalism and research in Flanders and beyond.
Next to that, it is committed to create opportunities for young people to develop their journalistic talents in practice and to bring people from different angles and all layers of society, together.
Among the main tasks of this Fund is the allocation of work grants allowing journalists to set up journalistic projects of a special nature and quality, which are virtually impossible to realise within the regular system of the editors. This gives both young and experienced journalists the opportunity to put their ideas into action.
Thus for example, the Flemish government, through the Fund, supported the wobbing.eu initiative. Freely translated, the abbreviation WOB stands for Freedom of Information Legislation, also anchored in the Flemish Parliament Act on open government.
The idea of open government is to consolidate both the rule of law and democracy and it offers the citizen (i.e. also the journalist) the possibility to retrieve administrative documents.
This access also opens up possibilities for increased democracy and citizen participation.
In the information society, a number of constitutionally embedded fundamental rights, such as the right to vote, freedom of speech or freedom of the press, can only be fully achieved if citizens have sufficient access to information.
A transparent government makes journalists less indebted to the government. And vice versa. This larger autonomy contributes greatly to the professionalisation of journalism.
Indeed, our policy of tolerance enjoys broad international recognition, among others from the European Journalism Centre. Flanders clearly takes the lead in this area.
The Flemish Parliament Act on open government is currently being subjected to an assessment in view of refining or adapting the existing regulation on the basis of a number of key points.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Belgium ranks 7th in the world on the annual Press Freedom Index, which was published end of October last. This high ranking is without a doubt partly due to the legal framework on the protection of journalists.
Thanks to the legislation, foreign correspondents, for example EU and NATO correspondents, who are based in Brussels, can do their job. Belgium has one of the world’s best laws on ‘protecting sources’. For investigative journalists, this is a fundamental condition to do their work, and without being scared to uncovering their sources.
However, this good result does not mean we should relent in the fight for good quality journalism and particularly investigative journalism. On the contrary.
It stimulates us to keep up the good work. For some time now, we have made efforts to break down the barriers between citizens and government.
An efficient public administration also constitutes an important part of our common plan for the future ‘Flanders in Action’, the aim of which is to place Flanders in the top 5 European regions by 2020. In this, digitisation, more efficient data exchange and simplified legislation, among other things, are key elements that contribute to greater openness.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Safeguarding freedom is part of the government’s mission. As you can see, we are taking this key task very seriously. We ask the media that they too take their responsibility towards society and stay true to their core mission, i.e. giving information and placing it in a certain context and a social framework.
Many people base their views about the world on your journalistic work.
Attempting to strike the right balance is precisely what makes your work so exceptionally fascinating and valuable.
I would like to conclude in the words of a French writer: “A state of balance is only attractive when one is on a tight rope; seated on the ground, there is nothing wonderful about it”.
Kris Peeters is the Flemish prime minister and minister of institutional reform, foreign policy, media, tourism, sports, agriculture, sea fisheries and rural policy. This speech was delivered on Friday November 21 in at the European Investigative Journalism Conference in Brussels, organized by the VVOJ.