Disproportionate legal pressure on Dutch journalism

Press release
Rechtbank Amsterdam, Nederland.
Court Amsterdam, Netherlands. Image Shutterstock
Increasing legal pressure on media and individual journalists in the Netherlands leads to self-censorship and psychological and financial pressure on freelance journalists and smaller media outlets. The legal pressure was in some cases severe: penalty payments of tens of thousands of euros and threats to seize a journalist's house.

This impact of legal pressure on Dutch media mostly remains invisible to the public and is underestimated. That is the conclusion of extensive research by international press freedom organisation Free Press Unlimited (FPU).

For the survey An underestimated problem: disproportionate legal pressure on Dutch journalism, FPU spoke to more than 50 journalists, editors-in-chief, lawyers and other parties. The research builds on a survey by the journalists' union NVJ and PersVeilig (Dutch initiative for safety of journalists) in 2023, in which almost half of Dutch journalists and 90 percent of chief editors indicated that they face legal pressure. In some cases this legal pressure was severe: penalty payments of tens of thousands of euros and threats to seize a journalist's house. 

Free Press Unlimited's executive director Ruth Kronenburg has long been concerned about press freedom in the Netherlands. ,,With these findings, Free Press Unlimited shows that in addition to online intimidation and aggression, Dutch independent journalism is increasingly under pressure from (threats of) legal action. If journalists start to exercise self-censorship because of legal pressure, this is not only worrying for the media, but especially for our democracy. We welcome the anti-SLAPP legislation in Europe, but also make recommendations to legislators and employers to make the foundation of press freedom in the Netherlands solid and future-proof."

The study shows that the impact of legal pressure is strongest among freelancers, local media and small titles. This group is the most vulnerable to the possible effects, and is therefore also more likely to resort to self-censorship. However, large journalism organisations also report experiencing increasing legal pressure. 

Besides the financial implications and the time investment, the study shows that the psychological impact on the individual journalist is underestimated. Whereas some chief editors estimate that legal pressure has had no effect on their journalists or that they 'do not allow themselves to be intimidated', their journalists indicate that they are afraid to talk about this or feel that there is no space to talk about the consequences. Especially in the most serious cases and SLAPP proceedings, many of them indicate that this causes serious stress, anxiety and psychological strain. Journalists also indicate that they often feel alone and experience little solidarity from colleagues.

The heaviest and most worrying form of legal pressure are the so-called SLAPPs: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. These lawsuits are often initiated by wealthy and powerful actors against journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organisations, with the main aim of intimidating, pressuring and silencing them. This week, the European Council signed the long-awaited European directive to protect journalists and human rights defenders from SLAPPs, which should be transposed into Dutch law within two years.

Bergmans and de Zeeuw note that current Dutch legislation provides insufficient protection against SLAPP cases. The Civil Code provides for abuse of process laws, but in practice this does not provide a safeguard against SLAPPs. The researchers therefore recommend making a special addition against abuse of SLAPPs.

Thomas Bruning, general secretary at the Netherlands Union of Journalists (NVJ), says: "This research makes it clear that also in the Netherlands, legal pressure can seriously affect the work of journalists. We therefore wholeheartedly endorse the recommendations to make journalism more resilient to parry these pressures."

Read the summary here:

About Free Press Unlimited

Access to reliable information is a human right. That is why we, Free Press Unlimited, protect press freedom and the safety of journalists together with over 300 local media partners in more than 50 countries. Together with them, we work on our mission to make independent news and information available to all. Because people deserve to know.

Interviews will be possible with researchers Emma Bergmans and Jasmijn de Zeeuw.Read

Contact: press@freepressunlimited.org // +31 (0)682091209


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