Belgium Has a New Fee for Journalists. The Media Is Not Amused.BRUSSELS — Journalists who cover the regular gatherings of the leaders of European Union countries got a rude surprise this week from the Belgian government: Most of them will have to pay for the right to do their jobs.
Before they are allowed to cover European Council summit meetings in Brussels, journalists have to undergo background checks conducted by the countries where they live. Naturally, the largest number of them, about 1,000, live in Belgium, where the European Union is headquartered, and a new law there requires the journalists to reimburse the government for the cost of the checks — 50 euros, or about $58, for a credential that lasts for six months.
The press corps here is not amused.
“This is unprecedented and completely unacceptable,” said Tom Weingaertner, president of the International Press Association in Brussels. “The state is in charge of ensuring security and press freedom and we are not prepared to pay twice for this,” referring to reporters who already pay Belgian taxes as residents.
“There is no other democratic country, as far as we are aware of, that is asking for a similar fee,” he said. “This is a restriction of press freedom and it sets a very big precedent.”
NATO, which is also based in Brussels, said it is not sure whether the fee will also apply to credentialing for its summit meetings.
The fee feeds into the image of government in Belgium — a nation divided along linguistic lines, with seven overlapping governments, six parliaments, and the highest average tax burden on wages of any highly developed country — as an overpriced, inefficient jumble.
“The taxation rage in Belgium is incredible,” said Jean Quatremer, a French journalist who has covered the European Union in Brussels for over two decades. He described the country as “a dysfunctional state” where citizens do not feel any ownership of the notoriously clogged public administration.
“All the expatriates living in Belgium can speak of how the Belgian government complicates their work in general,” he added.
“Of course the government will retreat and say ‘Oh, we’re sorry, we hadn’t foreseen this,’ but it shows to what extent this country, which has done everything to have all the common institutions of the E.U. here in Brussels, has still not understood that it is the capital of Europe.”
The fee imposes a particular burden on freelancers, who represent a large part of the international press corps in Brussels, and small media companies. They may have to reassess whether they can afford to keep covering the institutions.
It does not apply to journalists who live outside Belgium but go there to cover European Union or NATO meetings; their countries do not charge for their background checks. (Similarly, journalists covering the White House must undergo background checks, but do not pay for them.)
The new law was enacted this year and went into effect on June 1 without an announcement, let alone consultation with the media. Journalists only learned of it on Monday, when they started to seek accreditation for the next European Council summit in October and were confronted with the fee.
The government passed the law in response to increased demand for background checks, following a series of terrorist attacks and warnings of further security threats. It imposed fees for checks on Belgian residents working in critical fields like energy, shipping, finance, transport and health care, and in major international institutions.
Several journalists’ associations said they wrote a letter of complaint to the Belgian government on Tuesday, objecting to being included in the fee system.
A press officer for the European Council, Romain Sadet, said that Belgian authorities had only notified council officials of the law after it passed Parliament in February. Despite several expressions of concern by the council about press freedom and discrimination against small news organizations, he said, “we are not aware of any changes in the position of the Belgian authorities or its legislation.”