Sunday, November 25, 2007

Journalists take a dig at Belgium scenario

Belgium, a linguistically-divided country, seems to come alive after each national election with politicians dragging their feet over the formation of incoming governments and this year is no different. While day-to-day governmental duties are still handled by the outgoing administration of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, the need for the new rulers is increasingly felt to chalk out fresh policy initiatives such as drafting the 2008 budget.

Last week, months since the June 10 elections, surpassing a previous record from 1998, the election winner and would-be prime minister Yves Leterme was still trying to broker a coalition alliance between four main political parties.

With the deadlock grinding on, the media, especially the foreign press corps based in Brussels to cover European and international institutions, came under fire for speculating on the ongoing political tug-ofwar leading to a Belgium split as political divisions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish, who make up 60 percent of the population, and the French-speaking Walloons kept widening.

In a lively press debate titled, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do - Media’s Role in a Divided Belgium,” on November 22, moderated by Aidan White, EFJ General Secretary, the journalists presented pros and cons of the ongoing coverage.

Agreeing on the fact that the balance of power in the country has shifted in last six decades in favour of the Flemish camp while Wallonia lost the competitive edge with the fading of the industrial age’s coal mines, there were different opinions on the hoax News Flash “Bye Bye Belgium” from the public broadcasting company RTBF, announcing the country’s separation as the Flemish region supposedly declared its independence.

Beatrice Delvaux, Editor-in-Chief of Le Soir, called “Bye Bye Belgium” a taboo subject in the ongoing history of the country, pointing out that international press played a major role in bringing out the subject. She stressed that there are social factors in play with a glaring need for reforms evident in the socio-economic fabric of Belgium.

Labelling it as a “gross example of intoxication,” Filip Rogiers, political reporter for De Morgen, wondered if it was not a “quite strange way of starting a debate.” Going down memory lane, Rogiers, who started his journalistic career in the 1990s defined the Belgian state as a compromise historically and lamented missed opportunities of the 1930s to introduce bilingualism.

Nawab Khan, a foreign journalist from India and member of API-IPA (International Press Association) countered that India with different states with completely different languages makes it mandatory for the students to learn three languages: Hindi, the national language; the concerned state language and English, thus bringing “Unity in Diversity” in pragmatic terms.

Michael Stabenow, a Brussels-based correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and a member of API-IPA, highlighted the importance of Brussels, the capital of Europe for the international press corps calling it the “second most important place,” after Washington globally.

Stabenow lamented the fact that the international journalists get their quota of local Belgian news from second-hand sources while in the case of the European Union and other international institutions there is availability of first hand news coming out.

On the same subject, I pointed out a lack of press releases from the Belgian government to foreign journalists accredited to Belgian government and it’s a missed opportunity, as in all other countries, the governments make full use of such contacts, updating journalists on ongoing developments with the views of the governments.

The speakers agreed that independence comes from controlling the purse strings of financial coffers and autonomy demands originate in regions with bulging tax revenues, letting political parties play the mathematics of permutations and combinations, but, at the end of the day, the political parties have an obligation to take stands and be the true representatives of what the Belgian population wants.

Belgium’s parliament, including a majority of Flemish representatives, last week rejected an initiative by the radical Flemish Vlaams Belang party to divide the country between its Dutch- and French- speakers.

Earlier calling for an end of the governmental crisis, thousands in Brussels demonstrated for the unity of Belgium’s constitutional democracy.

Last, but not least, it must be reiterated that instead of blaming the foreign media as the root cause of the fallingapart scenario of Belgium, the incoming government will do well to provide first-hand news to the thousand foreign correspondents in Belgium instead of closing the existing channels like “Focus on Flanders”, as it “provided the Foreign press with a timely access to simple translations - in French, English and German - of articles and commentaries from the main Flemish newspapers. It was a useful tool enabling foreign journalist to have a more balanced view of the reality of the country and the relations between its two main communities,” according to API/IPA.

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