What state subsidies are available for Belgian media
Indirect subsidies for Belgian media
Indirect state aid for Belgian media comes mostly from the federal Belgian government. Examples are a zero VAT tariff for newspapers; reduced postal tariffs for newspapers; amounts spent on government advertisements (though these are not only federal); free train and bus tickets for journalists; etc. Direct financial state support through public advertisements is an important source of revenue for some media outlets. The figures for indirect state aid are larger than those for direct state aid, but there is a lack of transparency with regard to these figures. Indirect state aid is believed to amount to a total of 353 million Euros per year in Belgium.
Direct subsidies for Belgian media
Direct state grants to Belgian written press publishers
Direct state aid to Belgian media is mostly directed to the traditional media (the printed daily press). On the Flemish side, it targets to a limited degree also online media. In Flanders, direct subsidies are relatively small amounts (approximately 1 million Euros per year). These are granted on the basis of project-based agreements between the Flemish government and the publishers. On the French-language side, the amounts of direct aid to the written press are more substantial (an annual minimum of 7 million Euros). Direct aid to the written press provides a substantive source of income for the French-language newspapers.
Directs subsidies are mostly granted for specific projects (for both Communities), such as support for newspapers in schools, financing of foundations for investigative journalistic research, subsidies for professional organizations for journalists, financial aid for specific investments such as the purchase of new printing presses and funds for archiving of news programs).
Direct state grants to Belgian broadcasters
Direct state aid from the Flemish Community for broadcasting is organised around specific projects such as training programs for journalists, technological innovation projects and subtitling of news programs. Direct state aid from the Flemish Community for print media is based on agreements between the Flemish government and representatives of the newspaper and magazine publishers (generally, for a duration of three years). The Flemish government tries to use direct subsidies as leverage (e.g. they intend to link aid to safeguards for the independence of the editorial staff), but since the amounts are relatively small, it is not sure whether this policy is effective.
For the French-language media, Article 7 §1 of the Act of the French Community of 31 March 2004 stipulates that media organisations can only benefit from financial state aid if they comply with the Belgian Ethical Code for Journalists. However, the Act does not clarify how such compliance is to be monitored. These subsidies are more concerned with the promotion of particular media outlets (to a large degree the survival of existing outlets such as newspapers) rather than the diversification of media content.
Another form of direct state intervention is the public funding of public service broadcasters and of private regional television broadcasters and private non-commercial local radios. Based on Article 161 FRBA, the French Community’s authorities force their radiobroadcasters to contribute part of their revenues to a fund supporting radio broadcasting.
Direct subsidies to the Flemish public service broadcaster VRT
Public subsidies to the Flemish public service broadcaster VRT amount to approximately 300 million Euros per year for 2013 (the amount granted by the Flemish Community Government is expected to grow to 317 million Euros in 2016). VRT also receives a number of specific subsidies, such as a subsidy for research and innovation of 2,55 million Euros (this is for 2013; the grant will grow to 2,7 million in 2016) and for the sponsoring of the 'Brussels Philharmonic' orchestra (1,6 million EUR for 2013; the amount will shrink to 1,2 million in 2016).
A limited turnover of 68,4 million EUR per year may be generated by VRT from radio advertising, radio sponsoring, television sponsoring, internet advertising, financial product placement and so called 'general interest messages' of the Flemish Government. Television sponsoring should remain limited to 16,5 million EUR per year. There is an annual indexation mechanism for these amounts. In contrast to its French-language counterpart RTBF, VRT is not entitled to income received from television advertising. Note also that the amounts mentioned above also contain a minimum guarantee: if turnover by VRT falls short of 85% of the maximum amounts mentioned above, the Flemish government will compensate VRT up to the amount of 85% of the amounts mentioned. On top of advertisement income, VRT gets some of its commercial income from the exploitation of programs and contracts with distributors and foreign broadcasters (distribution income is approximately 17 million Euros per year). A third source of commercial income for VRT comes from derived products (for instance, merchandising via sale of books, cd's, dvd's, etc.) and video-on-demand income. In total, this amounts to approximately 7 million Euros per year.
Direct subsidies to the French-language public service broadcaster RTBF
Public subsidies to the French-language public service broadcaster RTBF are basically the following. RTBF receives a basic amount of approximately 210 million Euros (subject to indexation for subsequent years) from the French Community Government (the funds come at least partly from license fees paid by local households – this is not the case in Flanders). On top of this, RTBF is granted a special subsidy for its participation in 'TV5 monde' and 'Arte Belgique'.
The commercial income of RTBF is currently approximately 25% of its total income. Under the new management contract, this may grow to a maximum 30%. RTBF's commercial income comes mostly from advertisements (including television, radio and internet ads), product placement, sponsoring and games on radio, television and internet (if advertisement income from internet sites is more than 600K Euros, the surplus should be paid to a special fund (support for the newspapers)). A second source of commercial income for RTBF is the exploitation of programs and other revenues (for instance, via contracts with distributors). A third stream of commercial income for RTBF are derived products (for instance, merchandising via sale of books, cd's, dvd's, etc.) and video-on-demand.
For more information on public subsidies to Belgian media, please contact me via the contact information on this website. If you intend to apply for direct or indirect state subsidies for your media company or media outlet, we will be happy to assist you with the application process. If you have questions about fair competition (or unfair competition) consequences of public grants to Belgian media outlets, do not hesitate to ask for our advice.
Author: Bart Van Besien
 Callewaert, C. (2010) ‘Dossier perssteun’ [Dossier aid to the press], De Wereld Morgen, available at: http://www.dewereldmorgen.be/tags/dossier-perssteun.
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