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[10/04/2006] EU bribes journalists?


By Dan Bilefsky,  International Herald Tribune

Wednesday 5 April 2006

BRUSSELS:  The European Parliament is subsidizing journalists to cover its
parliamentary sessions in Strasbourg, a move that legislators say aims to
ensure that the EU's only democratically elected body is not ignored.

As part of a program dating to the 1980s, journalists from across the EU
member states are receiving travel and entertainment subsidies from the
Parliament to help defray the cost of covering the legislature when it
shuttles once a month to Strasbourg, in Eastern France, from Brussels,
journalists and legislators say.

The program is being criticized by some members of Parliament who have
themselves recently come under pressure to give up generous perks.

The funding for journalists can include payment of a first-class round-trip
train ticket or an economy-class plane ticket to Strasbourg from any of the
25 EU countries and a daily stipend of E100 to cover hotel, food and
entertainment over two days.

About 60 journalists from across the bloc are invited to Strasbourg each
month under the program, which is administered by parliamentary offices in
EU member states. Media organs that have benefited from the subsidies in
the past include RTBF of Belgium, RTE of Ireland, ERT of Greece and ORF of
Austria, among dozens of others, EU sources said.

Attempts to contact these organizations for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The Parliament also provides television journalists with unlimited use of
free state-of-the-art television studios, free sound and camera equipment,
and free two-person camera crews that can be borrowed for the day.

"The parliamentary sessions are stultifyingly dull, so the Parliament does
whatever it can to make it easier for us to work here, including paying for
our journeys and providing plush facilities," said a broadcaster who has
benefited from the program and who requested anonymity. "I would never get
my Parliament reports on the air if the Parliament wasn't paying for it."

Hans Peter Martin, an independent member of Parliament from Austria and a
former journalist for the German magazine Der Spiegel, said the
Parliament's funding of journalists showed that representatives of EU
institutions had not understood the principles of free press and democracy.
Martin, who has been campaigning to rein in parliamentary perks, came to
prominence in 2004 for surreptitiously filming fellow Parliament members
leaving Brussels and Strasbourg after signing in for daily stipends.

"The funding of journalists creates the impression that the Parliament is
paying for propaganda, and by doing so it harms the ideals of the EU more
than any positive headlines they might get out of it," he said. He added
that journalists could not hold the Parliament accountable if they
themselves were benefiting from its funds.

Although it is generally viewed as unethical for journalists to accept
funding from institutions they cover, analysts said that in countries that
rely on public broadcasters, the notion of using available public money to
fund journalists may be viewed as acceptable.

Jaime Duch, spokesman for the Parliament, said the funding was intended to
encourage EU journalists who would not otherwise cover the Parliament to
make the monthly pilgrimage to Strasbourg. He said the Parliament under no
circumstances interfered with what was reported. "If we didn't help them,
they wouldn't come because they have other priorities," Duch said. "And if
we stopped the funding, the journalists would protest."

One television journalist who regularly travels to Strasbourg using funding
from the program said the daily stipend was sufficient to pay for a quality
hotel and lunch at an upmarket brasserie, including a glass of Bordeaux
wine and a dish of Strasbourg's celebrated sausages. The neo-classical
Hotel Hannong in Strasbourg - popular with journalists - costs about E60 a
night if booked on the Internet.

Another broadcaster, who like others interviewed for this article requested
anonymity, said perks such as these had prompted journalists to refuse
requests by editors to write stories on members' privileges and travel
expenses at the Parliament, a topic of growing interest in Europe. "How can
I expose such perks when I myself am benefiting from them?" the journalist

Harald Jungreuthmayer, a correspondent for ORF, the Austrian broadcaster,
defended the funding as necessary to generate coverage of an institution
that is often maligned and even more often ignored. "It's part of the PR of
the European Parliament," he said. "The Parliament's aim is not to put a
spin on coverage, but to get any coverage at all."

He added that he had never observed any attempt by the Parliament to
influence coverage.

Other institutions have drawn strong crtiticism for efforts to influence
media coverage. The Bush administration came under fire in November when it
came to light that the Pentagon had contracted with the Lincoln Group, an
American public relations firm, to pay Iraqi news outlets to print positive
articles while hiding their source.

The Strasbourg payments are likely to fuel controversy at a time when
European Parliment perks are under scrutiny. The Parliament, which spends
E200 million a year shuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg, agreed last
June to reform part of its generous system of members' allowances,
including perks that allow members to be reimbursed for the most expensive
economy-class air tickets even if they fly a budget airline.

But perks for journalists have so far remained intact. In fact, legislators
confided, some members of Parliament from smaller countries like Portugal
and Greece have been lobbying to have the subsidies for journalists
expanded in order to ensure that the members receive coverage back home.

The Parliament's efforts to raise its profile come as the EU is suffering
an existential crisis caused by the rejection of an EU constitution by
France and the Netherlands. The Parliament shapes legislation on everything
from environmental regulations to warnings on cigarette pacts. However, it
still remains better known for its generous members' perks than for its
public policy. In the last European elections in 2004, voter turnout fell
to 45 percent from 50 percent.

Brussels's 1,550 journalists, one of the world's largest press corps
outside Washington, benefit from a host of perks and privileges from EU
institutions, including free meals and unlimited free phone calls during EU
summit meetings and free television studios at the European Commission. At
the beginning of every six-month EU presidency, the presiding country
invites journalists to a free junket in the capital. In February, Austria,
the current holder of the EU's presidency, invited 62 Brussels-based
journalists to Vienna, paying for their lodgings in a lavish Hilton hotel
and hosting a complimentary dinner in an 18th-century baroque castle where
a soprano sang Strauss operettas - all on the tab of the Austrian
government. Media organs had the option of paying for the trip. Only eight
opted to do so, according the Austrian representation to Brussels.

"It was a worthwhile investment," said Nicola Donig, spokesman for the
Austrian presidency.

Copyright © 2006 the International Herald Tribune All rights reserve


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