: [in English] [Lowlands Soul] [Freedom]
In a recent decision (#2005/113
(PDF), December 16) of the VCM
(Vlaams Commissariaat voor de Media) (Flemish Media Commission
) a fine of €12,000 (14,836$) was imposed on member of the Flemish parliament and podcaster
, (internet radio on demand) Mr. Jurgen Verstrepen
The decision is apparently politically inspired and motivated by content, although formal reasons like non-compliancy with Flanders’ media regulation
have been put forward in the motivation of the decision to fine.
The issue has raised some serious concerns about free speech on the Internet in Flanders, about the definition of "broadcasting", and about territoriality.
Mr. Verstrepen became quite popular with a Howard Stern-like weekly Sunday morning Talk Show ZwartofWit (in Dutch, Black or White) simultaneously both on Radio and on TV. In the show, he covered a wide range of controversial subject with uncensored audience telephone input.
What bothered leading officials and government parties most is that he didn’t back off raising sensitive issues like Muslim immigration, and inviting leaders of the right-wing Flemish independence and anti-immigration party VB (Vlaams Blok, Flemish Block) as studio guests.
About the VBAll other Belgian political parties consider the VB to be "racist" and have put a cordon sanitaire (sanitary quarantine circle) around it. They refuse any cooperation or coalition with the VB, blocking it from the state-controlled media (like the government-owned Radio and TV-channels VRT), and heavily and successfully pressuring private media to do so too.
As the situation became embarrassing because the VB kept winning every election and even ended up as the largest party in the last 2004 general elections, both on the Belgian and the Flemish level, - they had to resort to other measures. [The VB can only be elected in Flanders, but Flanders is by far the largest member state of the Belgian federation.]
Near the end of 2004, the VB was convicted in court for being a "racist" party, a trial that has raised some eyebrows here and there, as it was perceived by many as a political trial and technically flawed.
Whatever, since the VB was now a criminal organization, it quickly dissolved itself, and as a Phoenix it formed a "new" party with a different name (Vlaams Belang, Flemish Interests), and with some minor changes in its political program, but with still the same leaders and the same elected parliamentarians.
The vaudeville goes on, by the way, since the new VB faces a trial once more, simply because one its leaders said in an interview with an American-Jewish magazine to be "afraid of the Islam in Europe". The Belgian crown prince Philippe also added to the turmoil earlier this year, by declaring that he would fight the VB because they "want to split my country [Belgium]", - thereby violating the neutral political position of the king as required by the Belgian constitution.
About Jurgen VerstrepenMr. Verstrepen apparently didn’t want to give in to pressures from the government (and especially from the Socialist parties in the coalition) to observe some auto-censorship in his ZwartofWit show. But his commercial hosts Radio Contact and LibertyTV discontinued the show for "commercial reasons", while no other channel wanted to host the show either.
It was the second time that Verstrepen had to cancel his show. The first time it was hosted on TOPradio and Kanaal 2 but Belgian’s prime minister, Mr. Verhofstadt was not amused. Verstrepen had to stop it in 2001.
In an interview with the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on November 16, 2002, Verstrepen told that he was under intense pressure from circles around Verhofstadt who should have said (in Dutch, translated):
If Verstrepen doesn’t stop with that fucking garbage in his columns, I will make sure no official will be his studio guest ever again.(with thanks to lvb.net for the quote).
In the mean time, the popular and flamboyant media figure and rebel Verstrepen was elected as Flemish parliamentarian in the June 2004 general elections as an "independent" candidate for the VB, on the theme of Free Speech. He subsequently tried to revive his Radio Show as VB6015 on the short waves either analog or in DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale), and broadcasting from outside the Belgian territory. But his providers in the UK and in Germany were allegedly pressured not to do so. In his weblog, Verstrepen stated on May 31, 2005:
We've noticed that international and Belgian press described our project VB6015 as an extreme-right political propaganda broadcast. This is absolutely not the case; this information is false. The talk radio show ZwartofWit (Black or White) can be described as "more stimulating talk radio" and best of all compared with the US talk shows like Rush Limbaugh and others.
The name of the network was inspired by the nickname Jurgen Verstrepen had been using for years in the Flemish media: "Vlaams Bakkes" which means "Flemish Bigmouth".
Apart from political pressures, the initiative also faced some technical difficulties, as it went from 6.015 MHz over 13.680 MHz to 15.660 MHz. Moreover, not everybody can listen to DRM yet. The program was also broadcasted on the Internet, as a podcast, both streaming and as a MP3 file. Currently, this is the most popular way to listen to the program, as the ether broadcast seems to be discontinued. But it’s unclear, on the VB-site "ether" is still mentioned, but their MP3 archive doesn’t work either.
About the decisionFlanders’s media regulation stipulates that (political) broadcasts are subject to a license when transmitted through the ether. If through the Internet, the VCM must be notified by registered mail. Some excerpts (translated into English):
Art. 34. § 2. Private radio broadcasts have to offer a variety of programs. [...] Either as to content as in broadcasting schedule, there should be no discrimination whatsoever.
[They mean you shouldn’t be Islamophobic; you can tackle the Church, but not Islam; your can tackle locals but not immigrants.]
§ 3. It is strictly forbidden for private radio stations to broadcast programs that jeopardize the public order, public decency, state security or that are insulting to people’s beliefs or to a foreign state.
[They mean you shouldn’t be Islamophobic; you can tackle the Church, but not Islam; your can tackle locals but not immigrants; how can you show porn on radio? Does it involve moaning?].
A private radio station cannot broadcast electoral propaganda.
[Why not? Elections are essential to democracy. And why is it their business?]
Art. 35. Private radio stations must be independent from any political party.
[Why? Parties are essential to democracy. And why is it their business?]
Art. 36. Content broadcasted has to obey current rules of journalism deontology and the impartiality and journalists’ independency has to be guaranteed.
[Why are all the state-controlled media then manned by lefties?]
Art. 37. Broadcasting equipment of private radios should be located in Flanders or Brussels.
[How can they ever enforce that? It’s clearly incompatible with the freedom to establish a business anywhere in the EU].
Verstrepen apparently didn’t either ask for a license nor register his podcasts with the VCM.
Let’s not focus on the ether-broadcasts, since it is perfectly reasonable that the limited ether bandwidth should be regulated and assigned by the authorities. Let’s focus on the Internet podcast instead.
In a preliminary inquiry by the VCM about his station VB6015, Verstrepen objected that the servers he is "transmitting" from are located abroad, and that the content of his program is targeted to Flemish worldwide. The VCM discarded these arguments in its decision, claiming that the content of the VB6015 program apparently is targeted mostly to Flemish in Flanders itself, and that the programs were actually recorded on Flemish territory by a Media Company called "BCC&V" with its seat on Flanders' territory.
They considered the actual location of the transmitting servers as a mere technicality. Furthermore, Radio Stations owned by political parties are outlawed by the Flemish Media regulation.
OpinionVerstrepen claims that his station offers a broad coverage of subjects like political gossip, politics, media events, music and trivia about all flavors in society, - is indeed slightly creative. Most of the politicians interviewed belong to the VB or at least appear to be very sympathetic towards it. Political issues selected mostly represent VB issues. VB1602 is mirrored on the VB-site and apparently the VB supports it.
On the other hand, Verstrepen claims his Station is independent and personal. He has a point, Radio Vatican is likely to be in tune with Christian-Democrat parties too.
And anyways, the friendly link between VB6502 and the VB is really irrelevant as the state-owned and state-sponsored media like the VRT are mostly populated by left-wing journalists and have an official policy of ignoring the VB. VB1602 just fills a gap in the political media spectrum.
Strictly spoken, the VCM might have a point, but one can wonder if the ban on political Radio Stations is fundamentally not against Free Speech, and if so, one can easily claim a station is voicing concerns of a Think Tank, not of a Party as such.
That’s how all the other parties do it by the way, quite hypocritically.
Verstrepen has been negligent and reckless not registering his Station. If the VCM had denied his request, he would have had a much more valid Free Speech case. He also could have registered his Media Company BCC&V abroad. That’s what the Isle of Man postboxes are for. Concerning the Internet podcasts, his reasoning could have been that a mandatory preliminary registration is unconstitutional, since the Belgian constitution guarantees Free Press and forbids preemptive censorship or state control of the Press.
It’s quite clear that the Establishment and the Flemish media Commissars are playing games with technicalities and use a very wide definition of the concept "broadcast". What they actually want to do, of course, is to stifle Verstrepen’s "free radio" and the voice of the "Vlaams Belang", just because its content is against the convictions of the politically correct ruling Socialists and Social(ist)-"Liberals". [Liberals in the Flemish sense are equivalent with Conservatives in the American sense; in fact the Flemish Liberals gradually evolved into a weak species of Collectivists over the years.]
For Flemish bloggers, the decision (which is not a ruling yet), has alarming consequences to be worried about. If a podcast on the Internet is considered to be a broadcast, what about a weblog then? Especially when the weblog carries some sound too? Since blogged podcasts are sprouting all over, they might be considered to be just a sound-version of a weblog.
None of these podcasts/weblogs has been under scrutiny by the VCM yet. Verstrepen was singled out, just because of his popularity and because of his connection with an "outlaw" party.
But where is the guarantee that problematic, incorrect or "Islamophobic" weblogs won’t take the heath soon too, if the Internet is not a form of Press but a form of Broadcast?
Do the Flemish commissars realize they can only succeed then by imposing a Chinese way of controlling the Internet?
Luckily, this very weblog is hosted on an American server, its content is posted from Asia, and the audience targeted are apparently the inhabitants of the outer moons of Uranus. Prove me wrong, commissars of the VCM.
PostscriptVerstrepen announced 2 days ago on his weblog that he will object the VCM decision, that he will file a complaint against Prime Minister’s Verhofstadt’s personal podcast on his site, the Flemish and Belgian Federal Parliament’s podcasts, - and that he will not pay the fine and will continue podcasting.
As every citizen can report a podcast to the VCM, of which he suspects it might not have been registered,- Verstrepen urges on his weblog today to file complaints against all podcasts of politicians and government institutions to flood the VCM.
This post has been picked up by Slashdot
and by Smetty.