Dr. Francois Heinderyckx is the President-elect of International Communication Association and Professor at Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.
In a special tete-a-tete with Shafaque Alam, an alumnus of CCMG & a journalist with the English daily The Statesman, Prof. Heinderyckx talks about media environment in Belgium and the effect of global media in the country. Excerpts:
SHAFAQ ALAM: How do you see media environment in Belgium?
FRANCOIS HEINDERYCKX: Europe is a big continent in the world but Belgium is a very small country. The whole population can be divided into two parts, one the Dutch speaking people, which constitute 60 % of the population while the French speaking people, constitute 40 %. Now the mainstream media are in these two languages and same is the digital media.
A screen shot of a map of Belgium
SHAFAQ: So how big is the media market?
FRANCOIS: Media market is relatively small in our country. In Belgium it is very difficult to run a highly profitable media house due to certain limitations, like small population, contrary to what we see in the United States or even in India. However, there are several media houses doing well.
SHAFAQ: What newspapers rule the market?
FRANCOIS: The market leaders in terms of readership are Le Soir, Metro (a free daily) and Sud Presse on the French-speaking side and Het Laatste Nieuws and Het Nieuwsblad on the Dutch-speaking side. Newspaper circulations have been declining steadily for many years, yet readership figures show, overall, a certain stability with about one in two Belgians reading at least one newspaper on an average day.
A page of Sud Presse, a French newspaper of Belgium
SHAFAQ: What could be the reason of decline in circulation?
FRANCOIS: It is very difficult to identify the causes. The price of newspapers is often seen as an obstacle, but also the decrease in the number of sales points (newsstands and press shops). In recent years, the fact that so much news is available for free on the internet has been identified as an aggravating factor and most newspaper publishers have failed so far to compensate the loss due to declining circulations with internet revenues.
SHAFAQ: How do you see media in India and Belgium?
FRANCOIS: It is difficult to compare. Indian media operate on a gigantic market which is divided in many regions all of which are still so much bigger than the Belgian market. Yet, it would appear that media have, to some extent, a set of characteristics that transcend cultural differences. If, for example, you watch the news on television in almost any country in the world, the form is remarkably similar. The same is true of newspapers. And yet, beyond this formal similarities, media are extremely sensitive to the characteristics, expectations, backgrounds of the local populations, and these differences are very difficult to identify and deal with.
SHAFAQ: Any social movement in the past, which you feel was strengthened by the active media participation?
FRANCOIS: It is hard to say the exact role media played in social movement. But yes, media does play an important role in manufacturing consent.
A page of Het Nieuwsblad, a Dutch newspaper of Belgium
SHAFAQ: Any example?
FRANCOIS: By speculating about the future of Belgium and the possible consequences of the rise of a nationalistic party in Flanders and the possibility of splitting Belgium in different regions, the media could influence social movements either in favour or against this possible outcome. But again, it will have one effect on some people, and the opposite effect on others, so it is difficult to assess the influence. The important thing is to preserve media diversity so that if some media will voice one view of a particular situation, there will always be the possibility that other media will provide a different perspective.
SHAFAQ: How do you see the role of global media in your country?
FRANCOIS: Because Belgium is such a small market, we rely heavily on media content produced elsewhere, including by global media firms. Yet, there is a real demand among the public for content with a local flavour, and research shows that, not only in Belgium, on average, locally produced content on television for example are often among the most successful programs. Belgium media rely particularly on foreign operators for international news.
SHAFAQ: Do you find encroachment of media space in your country by foreign players?
FRANCOIS: Yes, in the global world, a number of global news channels are broadcast in our country. It is noticeable, for example, that 1/3 of the market share in television is captured by French channels available on the cable in French-speaking Belgium. By comparison, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium is much less interested in television from the neighboring Netherlands and are very loyal to programs of their own television channels.
A page of Le Figaro, a French newspaper that is consumed in Belgium too.
SHAFAQ: Do you find foreign newspapers in Belgium?
FRANCOIS: Yes, we get newspapers published in France like Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, and all French news magazines. Because Brussels is such an international city, you will find a lot of newspapers from various European countries and beyond.
SHAFAQ: Do you see any challenge to the media environment in your country?
FRANCOIS: I am optimistic about future of media in Belgium, but the media outlets are made very vulnerable by the small size of the market and the speed of changes in the behavior of the public.
Prof. Francois Heinderyckx was in New Delhi to deliver a public lecture on 25 February 2013 on “Publics & Policy: Challenges to Interdisciplinary Communication Studies”” in an international conference on “Contours of Media Governance: Teaching, Disciplinarity, Methodology” (25-27 Feb 2013), organised by Centre for Culture Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi on February 25. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Image 1 : CCMG