Media and Development Conference III:Defending the profession

Thomas Burning: " Freedom is measured by its last incident."


By Thomas Bruning


The main goal of our union is to keep the professional journalists working in the best possible conditions: independent, with free access to information and with the freedom to publish, well-paid, in a safe position and aware of their rights and responsibilities. I will focus on a classical threat to free media: state interference.


In the fifties the Dutch government wanted to introduce a special law concerning decent media work. The media community prevented this law by setting up a self-regulating journalistic council. Citizens who feel mistreated by media coverage can ask this council to pass an independent judgement, thus avoiding an expensive legal procedure. Besides the council we started the Media Debate Foundation, where public and journalists debate on the Danish cartoons, coverage of suicide cases and privacy issues for example.


In accepting our responsibility towards the public by creating accessible ways to complain and discuss the media, we have managed to avoid state interference in the media profession up till this moment.


However, it is possible to sue media for damages and rectification because of incorrect or offending articles. Luckily enough, Dutch courts are cautious when it comes to media, realising their special role. Media should get enough freedom, otherwise democratic society itself is at stake. Critical stories are a necessity for open debate.


 I am glad to say there have been no heavy censorship cases. But the extent of freedom is measured by its last incident. And incidents do occur in the Netherlands. In its fight against crime and terrorism, the government extended possibilities to tap phones and monitor computers and exchange of data.


Serious investigation and coverage of the government and its agencies is impossible, if those same agencies secretly monitor journalists and their anonymous sources. Investigated misbehaviour can be adjusted before exposure and what’s even worse, confidential sources can be uncovered. I will describe two important incidents. Two journalists from the biggest Dutch daily De Telegraaf discovered top secret material from the secret service circulating among criminal networks. After publication the reporters were being tapped and followed. The Dutch court condemned this particular case, we hope the European court will condemn these practices in general.


The other case occurred 8 years ago, when Spits reporter Koen Voskuil was imprisoned for 12 days to force him to reveal his sources within the police, who told him about an unlawful set-up of evidence in the house of an arms dealer. Voskuil had promised secrecy and refused to cooperate. Court approval of his imprisonment caused a big stir in Dutch media circles. We took the case to European court, which ruled serious mistakes had been made. Those mistakes sent a very negative signal to potential sources at vulnerable places, such as police, government and intelligence organisations.


 In fact the only way to have public control over these kind of organisations is the use of anonymous sources, who must have absolute certainty they won’t be exposed. I am happy to say the court rulings led to the announcement of a law protecting the sources of journalists. Our association is being consulted for the first draft. In the Netherlands free press is highly valued and common practice, but we have to monitor it everyday. Only then we can permit ourselves to say anything at all about press freedom abroad.


Thomas Bruning is executive secretary of NVJ, the Dutch Association of Journalists.