Rugby World Cup moves to restrict coverage

The World Association of Newspapers and a coalition of the world’s leading news agencies yesterday protested against severe restrictions placed on press coverage of this year’s Rugby World Cup in France, saying that the restrictions imposed by the International Rugby Board “are a serious breach of freedom of the press.”

WAN, representing the world’s newspapers, and the coalition of news agencies including Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images, told the IRB that they would explore their legal options and inform event sponsors of “the very clear loss of exposure from which they will suffer owing to these restrictions”.

“Your position reflects, frankly, a lack of understanding of the meaning of freedom of the press and the nature of the modern news enterprise,” WAN and the news agencies said in a letter to Mike Miller, the chief executive of the IRB.

The IRB has severely limited publication of World Cup photos through the internet, including on thousands of newspaper websites, to a maximum of five still photos per half and two photos of extra time. It has also introduced editorial restrictions on how photographs can be used in print publications – banning the common practice of superimposing headlines and captions on photos if they obscure advertising within the images, for example – and has put severe limits on audio- visual content on websites and mobile devices.

The restrictions are imposed as a condition of access to the World Cup and news media are obliged to accept them before gaining accreditation to the event. News media face expulsion and legal action if the rules are broken.

The IRB says it needs the restrictions on photos to protect its commercial contracts with licensees who pay for the rights to show the World Cup live.

Fifa, football’s world body, imposed similar restrictions on coverage of its 2006 World Cup, but dropped all of them after negotiations with WAN. Fifa president Sepp Blatter acknowledged that “almost all print media of relevance have their own web edition” and that “publication of images and text must be treated with the same approach for the sake of maintaining a transparent information management policy that respects the freedom of the press”.

However, rugby’s move echoes similar restrictions announced by the cricket authorities ahead of their World Cup.

In its letter to Miller, WAN said that IRB attempts to place restrictions on journalistic coverage of the World Cup is a clear violation of the right to the free flow of, and access to, information.

“Restrictions imposed by the IRB on the manner in which photographs can be used, whether in print or electronically, as a condition of accreditation, constitute an unacceptable interference in the freedom and independence of the press,” it said.

Threat to charge media to cover events
The Paris-based WAN also said that photography is an integral part of journalism and should not be subject to special rules, and that digital publishing plays a fundamental part in the news business and cannot be disassociated from the other activities of news companies.

“Newspapers and news agencies have played an historic role in the promotion of rugby and are present 365 days a year to cover its more obscure features. Apart from anything else, it is immensely unfair that IRB should now seek to deprive them from continuing to serve their readers and clients by covering the World Cup finals in the full fashion that they would like to.”

WAN also protested against an IRB statement which implied it might charge newspapers for the right to attend and cover its events in the future. “We are astonished by the barely veiled threat in your letter to start charging newspapers for just attending major tournaments,” the letter said. “This once again reflects a profound lack of knowledge of what constitutes media freedom and the free access to information.”

A delegation from WAN met with Miller and other IRB officials in December and subsequently wrote to him to ask that its concerns be considered in the terms for media accreditation.

Miller, a former London-based sports journalist, rejected all of WAN’s requests, saying that “the IRB unashamedly protects its revenues and believes that these funds should be retained within the gGame and not potentially lost or diminished by what in essence may amount to further forms of third party commercial exploitation whether under the guise of so-called ‘news reporting’ or otherwise”.

He continued:

“It is not really our concern if newspapers decide to expand into non-traditional news delivery mechanisms and businesses to bolster their reach and market share, and nor should we change our terms and conditions and jeopardise our sport’s valuable commercial revenues in order to facilitate their new business enterprises.”

The exchange between WAN and the IRB can be found here.