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On May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day, media professionals in the Grand Duchy gather in front of the Parliament building to demonstrate for better access to information. We talked to five journalists about why access to information is not only necessary for good journalism, but also a requirement for a healthy democracy.
“We have the feeling that with the press offices, a barrier has been built between the ministries and the press to prevent certain things from being brought to our attention.” Claude Zeimetz (RTL) sums up the impression that many journalists in Luxembourg have in one sentence. The struggle for information has a long tradition in the Grand Duchy, and media professionals in the country are fed up with how things are handled. The demonstration organised by the ALJP (Association luxembourgeoise des journalistes professionnels) on May 3rd in front of Parliament is intended to make it clear that the game of hide-and-seek, as it is perceived by many journalists, has to come to an end.
Time and again in the history of the access to information debate, promises of greater transparency can be heard, but in practice they are not implemented. As early as 2006, the media were promised by the incumbent Juncker government in the debate on the reform of the Press Act that the right of access to information would be incorporated into it. But nothing happened. In 2010, the press law was passed without mentioning access to information. After three years of debate, the government said it would draft a separate law on the subject. Until now, this has not happened. Roger Infalt, then president of the Press Council, told Xavier Bettel that the press had been “ripped off”. Instead, the hunt for information has remained a constant cat-and-mouse game, as Véronique Poujol (Reporter) calls it: “Making our lives incredibly difficult.” The documents that media professionals receive from courts are of no use, says Poujol. They contain no names, no numbers, nothing. Even with experienced eyes, she could hardly decipher them, let alone use them as a base for a serious article. This means months of additional work. “It’s time people in the media were finally treated like adults and given the gross information we need to do our jobs.”
The draft law deposited in 2015 on the limited “Access to Information for Citizens Act” – with no mention of special regulations for media – also does not allow the press to do its job adequately, the Press Council wrote in an “avis” regarding the text. So the Press Council and the journalists’ associations should submit a draft law themselves after all, it was said after a conversation in 2017 between the former and the Chamber of Deputies’ Media Commission. This happened. The text, which the ALJP said Parliament could have adopted “one-to-one”, was presented to Xavier Bettel … and ignored. Pierre Sorlut (Lëtzebuerger Land) cannot explain this resistance: “They must stop being afraid of their own shadow. I don’t understand why they don’t want to communicate. It would be so much easier for ministries if they were more transparent: 'Based on this information, we made these decisions. Here.' But that’s not happening. There seems to be a permanent fear.”
Fear of their own shadow
The legislative restraint of previous years was simultaneously supplemented by inward-looking barriers. In 2012, Jean Asselborn (LSAP) drafted a letter instructing officials in his ministry to disclose information to the press only after consultation with and explicit authorization from the minister. Anything else was a breach of official secrecy. It would not be long before the current prime minister, Xavier Bettel (DP), used this letter in 2016 as a blueprint for the memo known among journalists as the “Circulaire Bettel”. The circular was addressed to all civil servants: In the future, they were to immediately contact the press spokesperson in case of press inquiries. They were advised not to respond themselves, except by explicit agreement with the head of the department.
While, according to all the interviewees, the willingness to answer questions varies from ministry to ministry – as does the tone of the conversation – there is generally a reticence among civil servants, says Michèle Gantenbein (Wort). It’s not just an institutional problem, but often felt to be a problem of individual arbitrariness. “Of course, you can’t lump everyone together, but there are definitely some senior officials who believe it’s beneath their dignity to give information to the press. That’s already strongly ingrained in various minds. Being a civil servant is not an end in itself, they have to be aware that they are accountable to the public.” The “direct way”, i.e. getting information more smoothly or at all via personal contacts, or having “too” good relations with press spokespersons, is highly problematic. The chance of becoming an unwitting propagandist is too great. “We are not toy soldiers”, confirms Poujol. Either it goes through the official channels or not at all.
However, Claude Zeimetz says that in the meantime, people have almost given up asking for information from various administrations. This is especially the case with the police, but also among teaching staff, where – if at all – at most the unions are willing to stick their heads out of the window. An example of the (non-)respect that many ministries have for the work of the media is the cutting out of journalists’ questions in the YouTube uploads of Corona press conferences. This is done under the pretext that it is “a lot of extra work” to upload them and add subtitles. An ironically transparent excuse.
In addition to systematic and individual hurdles, there is, as Christian Muller (Tageblatt) describes, a great lack of data collection. Sometimes one has to wonder as to how some institutions can function at without keeping track of the most basic information concerning their areas of duty. “I simply asked the Companies Registry how many companies there are, how those numbers are evolving and what sectors they are active in. The Companies Registry told me: 'We don’t keep track of such numbers’.”
Reporter without Borders has ranked Luxembourg 20th in the 2021 Press Freedom Index. This represents a drop of three places, confirming an existing trend of recent years. In 2013, the Grand Duchy was still in fourth place. Problematic today is “the reluctance of the courts and ministries to release information, as well as the fact that the interests of the media and the economy and politics in the small country often clash”, the very tendencies that are being demonstrated against today on International Press Freedom Day under the banner “Informatiounszougang elo!”
We talked to Pierre Sorlut of Lëtzebuerger Land, Michèle Gantenbein of Luxemburger Wort, Véronique Poujol of Reporter, Claude Zeimetz of RTL and Christian Muller of Tageblatt about their everyday experiences of asking uncomfortable questions – or even just asking for basic information.