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29th Mar 2020

Belgium's EU commissioner hopeful in free press row

Belgium's European Commissioner hopeful Didier Reynders has proposed a bill in his country described as an assault on the free press by Reporters without Borders (RSF).

"In its current form, this bill could criminalise investigative journalism and threaten the Belgian public's right to information," said Pauline Ades-Mevel from RSF, a European free-press body, in a statement on Tuesday (20 August).

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Reynders is currently Belgium's foreign and defence minister and is reportedly seeking to become a European Commissioner under its new mandate.

The controversial bill, which dealt with broader security issues, was approved by the council of ministers in a first reading in early May, but its article 22 could also sentence whistle-blowers to five years in prison and fine journalists up to €5,000.

Julie Majerczak, who is the head of RSF in Brussels, told this website the authors of the law may have not realised the full implications of their text.

"They don't make any exceptions for journalists or whistle-blowers. Maybe they didn't realise that that was an issue, so we hope that they will have another look at it and maybe make some modifications," she said.

The Belgian government said it would revisit the proposal following a wider backlash against it, according to RSF.

A month after it was introduced, Belgium's council of state said the bill risked violating the jurisprudence on the right to information stemming from the European Convention of Human Rights.

The human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, issued an alert earlier this month.

The Belgian press union has also complained, telling Reynders in a letter on 14 August to make an exemption for the interest of the general public.

The issue was first made public by the Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir, which said Reynder's office aims to re-examine and find solutions to the offending paragraphs in the bill.

Whether it was just sloppy law making or not, Belgium has had previous run-ins with reporters over another law last year that sought to charge the press €50 security fees to cover EU summits when heads of state and government gather in Brussels.

The fee was later dropped given the uproar.

Press liberty in Belgium ranks among the world's best, scoring ninth out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 world press freedom index.

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