Press freedom overseas


The largest newswire in the Netherlands knew something suspicious was going on when a government official lodged a complaint about an interview that hadn't been published yet.

According to reports in the Dutch news media, members of the government's Social Affairs Ministry were recently caught accessing the computers of the newswire GPD and obtaining stories before they went to press. Marcel van Lingen, GPD's director and editor-in-chief, told Dutch state radio the break-ins were conducted with an eye toward "influencing our reporting." The unauthorized access was discovered when GPD employees noted the frequent use of computers with Social Affairs Ministry IP addresses to access internal data and, according to a report in Der Spiegel, when a government official inquired about that yet-to-be-published interview.

The Social Affairs Ministry isn't the only branch of government spying on journalists. According to the Dutch daily de Volkskrant, the General Intelligence and Security Service put journalist Frénk van der Linden under surveillance in the late 1990s, with agents noting that, after a trip to the Middle East in the 1980s, he had returned with newly "radicalized views." Other journalists are uncovering more government scrutiny, conducted under the aegis of the state security service. Noting that much of this spying predated the 9/11 attacks, Dutch blogger Michael van der Galiën has cautioned against employing the "national defense" defense, noting that spying on the Fourth Estate is "not fighting terrorism; that's Big Brother."

In 2003 the Netherlands ranked first—along with Finland, Iceland, and Norway—in the Reporters Without Borders annual report on press freedom. By 2007 the country had tumbled to 12th place. Reporters Without Borders cited a court's decision to keep two journalists from the daily newspaper De Telegraaf "in custody for two days for refusing to reveal their sources to the judicial authorities." It also pointed to the death of journalist and filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had been murdered by a radical Muslim offended by van Gogh's feminist, anti-Islamist film Submission.

Expect the Netherlands to drop a few spots again this year.