Brussels press corps shaken by declining numbers
Shaken by a sharp drop in the size of the Brussels press corps in the last few months after years of steady attrition, the European capital's foreign press association is anxious that action be taken to stem the decline.
From a high point of 1,031 journalists in 2005, making it the biggest foreign press corps in the world, the number of reporters has steadily dropped down to between 860 and 935 today.
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While the ongoing malaise within the media sector and the wider economic crisis are held up as the principle causes, the European institutions themselves were on Thursday (18 March) attacked for a communications strategy that the president of the International Press Association (API, from its French acronym) accused of sidelining journalists in favour of uncritical "propaganda."
The "flood" of freely available video and audio content, press releases and photographs from the institutions makes having correspondents appear to cash-strapped editors in their home countries as an unnecessary luxury, Lorenzo Consoli, the president of the association warned at a packed special meeting of API dedicated to the question.
"The EU institutions are confusing transparency with a flood of communications that tries to bypass independent, critical journalists and speak directly to the public. But lots of communication does not equal information," he said.
Reporters repeatedly used the terms "propaganda" and "anti-competitive" to describe the institution's activities.
In response, the meeting passed a resolution calling for video content from the EU institutions to always be labelled that it was produced by them, and demanded access to all events for independent cameramen and photographers, not just those in the employ of the institutions.
More controversially, the reporters considered calling on the institutions to make press releases available only to accredited Brussels journalists. Some in the room objected to the restrictions on access to information this would entail and the association ultimately voted to just request a wider use of the 'embargo' system, in which information is delivered to a journalist with enough time to prepare a story ahead of a document's full public release.
The resolution 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."
"It's cut-and-paste journalism, with someone sitting at a desk in a national capital rather than Brussels," API's Mr Consoli said.
"This is a totalitarian dream," he told EUobserver. "Every dictator who has ever lived has dreamed of communicating directly with the public without questions from a troublesome press."
"They are funding complete professionally produced television programmes, and now even looking into hiring journalists to basically 'pre-write' a story that can then just be taken up by a newspaper," he told EUobserver.
"EuroparlTV [which is funded by the European Parliament] would be a fine thing, it is true that there can be public financing of news, but API demanded that it have an independent editorial charter, and they won't do this."
As of March 2010, a total of 935 journalists are accredited with the European Commission, whose instantly recognisable yellow-and-red press card also gives access to the EU Council and European Parliament, according to figures from the accreditation department of the commission's communications wing.
Of these, 333 are women and 602 men, with the largest number of reporters coming from Germany.
The EU blogosphere has been buzzing about the downward trend since Jean Quatremer, the correspondent for France's left-wing Liberation newspaper fretted on Saturday (13 March) that according to the same department, there has been an utter rout since the 2005 zenith, just after the accession of 10 new member states to the bloc, dropping from 1,300 reporters to just 752, with 200 leaving in the last year alone.
"Those figures were wrong and have been cleaned up from an early database, making it look as though there had been a very large drop. But this database included duplicated entries, where, say a freelance journalist was working for five different publications. That's been consolidated," the EU official in charge of press accreditation, Pier Soldati, said.
"It could also be that some of the earlier numbers included technical staff - cameramen, photographers and so on."
His office has printed 935 of the plastic press cards, but this also does not represent the true number, as a total of 160 reporters have not picked up their cards yet.
Mr Soldati said that based on his experience, this is normal. "They are late, but I think about a hundred of those will likely turn up. The others will have returned home," bringing the likely true figure to around 870 journalists, still a sharp drop on last year, but not as steep as some had initially feared.
"So it's still a cause for concern, but not just yet for panic," he said.
The picture is mixed, with Baltic outlets pulling out many of their reporters, "almost certainly because of the economic crisis," Mr Soldati noted. "But then there has been a significant increase in the number of reporters from Poland. Not everybody is leaving. [German tabloid] Bild has just this week opened an office here for the first time, as has the Georgian national press agency."
"But the crisis is definitely having an effect. There has been an increase in the number of interns, probably also because they are cheaper," he added.
"One eastern European TV outlet now rents an apartment in Brussels and rotates its journalists through there in order to avoid having a full-time correspondent."
One Polish journalist told this website that while the numbers for the country have gone up by one, this is deceptive as the journalist in question used to cover Paris and now spreads her time between the two capitals: "Statistically, it looks like there has been an increase. But in reality nothing has changed for better - perhaps even for the worse because two Polish weeklies have disappeared from Brussels."