Brussels press corps ‘shrinking’, journalists say


The number of journalists covering European Union affairs from Brussels is shrinking, according to International Press Association, which yesterday (18 March) called for the introduction of a "special statute" for media correspondents accredited to the EU institutions.  

"Media organisations are increasingly downsizing, cost-cutting and closing their operations in the capital of Europe," said the International Press Association (API/IPA; Association de la Presse Internationale), which represents foreign journalists working in Belgium.

In 2005, there were around 1,300 journalists accredited to the EU, but this number has been steadily falling since then and in 2010 there are only 800 or so, according to Lorenzo Consoli, API/IPA president.

Conceding that accurate figures are difficult to come by, Consoli said he had heard from Pier Soldati – who deals with accreditation at the European Commission – that many journalists had not renewed their press badges for 2010 and others who had requested them were yet to pick them up.  

Brussels needs 'stable, permanent press corps'

"We want to better defend our position here and make sure that there is a stable, permanent press corps in Brussels to tell people what is going on in the EU institutions and criticise them when necessary," the Italian told journalists gathered for an extraordinary general meeting.

"There is no added value of being in Brussels. When I come out of a press conference and work on my article, I know I will already be several hours later than my colleagues in news agencies. If you are late you don't exist," Consoli warned.

The API/IPA president said that although the communication flow from the EU institutions is increasing, the material made available to journalists is generally "uncontroversial propaganda" and as such is uninteresting.

"The EU institutions are confusing transparency with a flood of communications that tries to bypass independent, critical journalists and speak directly to the public," Consoli said.

The European institutions produce a huge amount of readily-available video and audio content and provide journalists with photos and press releases from most Brussels events.

But this "doesn't reveal what the problems are and tells you nothing about process or decision-making. We need to know the controversies between different member states, or between member states and the EU institutions. Citizens cannot understand these increasingly technical EU communications," Consoli declared.

"This flow of institutional information is mistakenly considered in member states as a cheap alternative to independent information from Brussels-based journalists. The reality is that as a result, there is less informed reporting about policies, decision-making and the background to decisions," journalists said in a resolution adopted at the meeting.

"The EU is a complex and often technical subject that needs professional reporting from Brussels-based correspondents, who are more familiar with both the detail and the wider picture," the resolution stated, asserting that "the increasing lack of genuine information hampers the work of Brussels journalists and is ultimately an obstacle to transparency and understanding the EU".

The draft resolution had called for EU-accredited journalists working in the Belgian capital to be given exclusive access to certain documents "if Brussels journalism is to continue to exist". 

'Privileged access' fears

But some Brussels-based journalist spoke out against the idea, warning that asking for "privileged access" carries a risk of being journalists being "captured" by the EU institutions.

"We already enjoy discounted food in their canteens, and we're demanding access to their schools. If we ask for press releases early, we create the impression that we rely on the institutions to find the news for us too," he said.

Another warned that earlier access to press releases would not necessarily help Brussels-based journalists to compete with news agencies, which transmit the information to national capitals as soon as it is made available. "The answer is more networking with officials and more face-to-face meetings, like lunches and parties," he said.

Moreover, others were concerned that giving all Brussels-based journalists privileged access to important information would be detrimental to those who do their job well. "Privileged access should be a right that is earned, not given to every accredited journalist," one said.

The adopted resolution instead called for the EU institutions to make greater use of the embargo system by offering journalists early access to information before it is made available to the public. 

Declaring that "the written press is in crisis," Lorenzo Consoli, president of the International Press Association (API/IPA; Association de la Presse Internationale), said "satellite TV and the Internet are hurting traditional media".

"Brussels needs to take [the crisis of the written media] into account, because it's changing the relationship between the press and the EU institutions. The institutions believe transparency means putting everything on EBS and RAPID in real-time, but this makes it more difficult for journalists to justify why they are in Brussels," Consoli said.

"The economic crisis means less advertising revenue, and press offices are downsizing," he added.

Jean Quatremer, a prominent French blogger on EU affairs, said "more and more journalists in Brussels are reproducing the European Commission's own communication, and you can find the same story in 20 different newspapers. We are killing our work ourselves by doing this. We need to bring an expertise that you can't get in the capitals".

"If the Commission press briefings are becoming boring, then it is our own fault for not asking the right questions," he added.  

"The EU institutions are recognising that they have the ability to publish propaganda. There is a danger of us becoming trapped by the institutions," warned one Brussels-based EU affairs journalist.

An Irish journalist present at the debate said that in the rush to put out stories quickly, "quality is not always appreciated by news-desks, but generally well-researched pieces that are a bit late will run instead of institutional propaganda".

"Berlin journalists have access to off-the-record information in advance. We want Brussels-accredited journalists to have this kind of access," said an API/IPA member.  

Another journalist and former IPA/API member said "the EU institutions are using new technologies to make sure that journalists don't have to move from their desks in the capitals. But we live in a democracy and with new technologies you can't ask questions".

An employee of German broadcaster ARD called on the EU institutions to give the cameras of TV stations unrestricted access to events. "They have an unfair competitive advantage in this regard."   

The International Press Association, registered officially under its French title 'Association de la Presse Internationale', was established in 1975.

Around half of the Brussels-based foreign journalists accredited to the EU institutions are members, according to the association's president, Lorenzo Consoli.

It represents foreign journalists of all categories and specialisations based in Belgium and working for foreign media or as freelancers. 

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