Head to head: The line between public and confidential

Pictured: Jean-Lou Siweck, president of the Luxembourg press council, and Melody Hansen, secretary of the Luxembourg journalists' association, the ALJP Mike Zenari/Delano montage

Pictured: Jean-Lou Siweck, president of the Luxembourg press council, and Melody Hansen, secretary of the Luxembourg journalists' association, the ALJP Mike Zenari/Delano montage

Over the last seven years, Luxembourg sank from fourth to twelfth place in the World Press Freedom Index. Is the state the biggest threat to media freedom today?

Recently, a spokesman for housing minister Henri Kox (Green party) demanded that Reporter.lu take down an article. To what extent do you think this was an isolated case?

Melody Hansen: A minister asking a media to take down an article is an extreme case, I haven’t experienced anything that bad. On a less extreme level, things like this happen more frequently, for example, people taking back things they said in an interview. Sometimes they ask to rewrite the whole interview. Some politicians try to intimidate journalists. Working as a local journalist covering municipal councils, it happened to me that a member discredited my work publicly into a microphone because he didn’t like what I wrote. This is a good example of using power and taking advantage of the fact a journalist cannot reply.

Jean-Lou Siweck: Apart from the utter disrespect of the principle of press freedom, it’s also just a show of the amateurism of people who are not up to these jobs. A minister is in a public court, being paid by public money and that’s the life he’s chosen. That being said, it’s normal you have interests colliding. You have politicians and other actors in public life who obviously don’t speak to you because they like you. They speak to you because it’s in their interests to speak with you and it has advantages and disadvantages for them. They want to speak to you without the disadvantages. The same goes for journalists, we do depend on sources. We groom sources and there are things in the media where you do know that this is the result of basically one hand washing the other. This is in part a game between professionals.

Some might argue that in a democracy, we should be able to challenge institutions, and that includes the media. What would you say to those people?

J-LS: In history, media used to have close to a monopoly on public discourse in the sense you needed first to invest several million euros to buy a printing press in order to be able to publish. You saw some letters to the editor that arrived to defend and take another position or attack you. But you largely had control of that. That has changed. This goes from journalists not feeling very comfortable and having to live with it, to being abusive towards individual journalists or media titles on social media and other formats. Nowadays I don’t think we can say we’re in this ivory tower we used to be in as a profession. The reduction of cost in producing media means we’re being challenged. Sometimes this is bad for the quality of journalism, but it also has positive aspects because we can’t get away with being lazy and superficial.

MH: I think journalists should be able to take criticism. Listening to other people should be part of everyone’s life, especially a journalist. All good media has an error culture, a right of reply, and corrections. And then there are instances like the press council where you can file a complaint if you feel wrongly treated by a media. This cannot be confused with people using their power to get their way. It’s a question of how you challenge institutions. It should be on an equal footing.

To what extent are there barriers for journalists seeking specific information and why do you think that is the case?

MH: Press officers can make the work of journalists easier... I feel they play the role of gatekeeper. Since Xavier Bettel asked all civil servants to talk to press only after having contacted a press officer, sometimes it’s hard to get information. I’m not talking about secret information, or anything that would cause a minister to fear for their reputation. Just simple questions. You have to call the press officer and sometimes you get a different person to interview than you asked for. That’s not OK. For the press officer, I see a problem for day-to-day journalists who have to get answers quickly, sometimes they aren’t that quick… Sometimes you can’t wait. You have a deadline.

J-LS: The increase of PR people relative to the reduction of the number of journalists speaks volumes about how people nowadays try to control the public image and what’s being said about them. A big difference between public and private is that in the public sector the information they have isn’t theirs. You need a reason not to publish because it’s all being paid for by the public. One of the core elements we’re debating in the sector nowadays is that there are no clear rules as to where this line--between things that ought to be public and things where you might accept they’re confidential--where this line is being drawn and who draws it.

Nowadays you’ve a barrier in the sense that there are civil servants willing to talk to you, who have the knowledge, and they’re not allowed to. They face formal or informal disciplinary action if they talk to the press. We’ve seen cases where there were not only witch hunts but legal hunts with resources invested in finding out who spoke to the press. We’re now in the situation where for everything related to police and justice it’s impossible to get any kind of information outside the official police spokespeople.

The ALJP is campaigning for a freedom of information act in Luxembourg. How realistic is it for Luxembourg and what could it look like?

J-LS: Nowadays it [regulation] allows you to ask [for] access to certain documents and there starts the problem, you first need to know this document exists. It’s not really a law that’s aimed specifically at journalists, nor is it a law that’s handy for journalists because the procedures are so long. A politician will say ‘We do everything we can’, but in the end they decide whether or not to answer your questions and there is no known legal rule a journalist can call upon…. Everyone was underwater at the beginning of the pandemic. They couldn’t give information out because they didn’t have it themselves. It showed what would happen the day they decide because of their political will not to give information out. There is no legal recourse to change that. And that’s not very healthy in a democracy.

MH: I think we still have to talk about how exactly it could be put into place. Hamburg has one of the most progressive freedom of press acts out there. They go as far as saying even private institutions working with public money are also bound to the act. So, as soon as there is public money involved, there has to be accountability.

This article was originally published in the July 2021 edition of Delano Magazine.