In what has caused quite a stir in this tiny country, reports have surfaced in the last couple of weeks that the Dutch intelligence service (the AIVD – the Dutch equivalent to the CIA) has, for years, spied on newspapers and news networks.
One of the ‘victims’ of the AIVD’s enthusiasm is Fr√©nk van der Linden, a journalist for the Nieuwe Revu. At the time when the AIVD kept an eye on him, he was writing for De Tijd. When he found out about it Van der Linden was – unsurprisingly – “quite pissed off.”
Why, people wondered, would the AIVD spy on journalists? Not just spying on them, though, they even infiltrated newspaper and news networks. Why? What’s the reason behind it?
The activities of the government in this regard first came to light when the Dutch news agency GPD accused theDutch Ministry of Social Affairs of spying on them . Shortly after the accusations were shared with the public, the Ministry confirmed that it had done so.
The reason? “The department wanted to know whether, and if so when, newspapers would publish negative articles about the department itself and about the government in general.”
All in all, government officials logged into the database of the GPD some 300 times.
Back to Van der Linden: the AIVD’s spies kept an eye on him because he sometimes expressed views not deemed correct. In this case, he seemed to – in the eyes of the spies – to sympathize a bit too much with those living in the Mideast.
Now, although this is certainly a problem in the Dutch media (as it is in the American media), that’s obviously not reason enough to stalk someone and to spy on him. What’s more, as far as I remember, the freedom of the press is one of the most important freedoms one has in a democracy.
Later word came out that Van der Linden is far from the only victim. It seems that the spying on journalists has been going on for years. Aside from Van der Linden, two journalists for the Dutch newspaper de Telegraaf were spied on as well.
In fact, the Dutch Secretary of State (or Minister of Domestic Affairs as we call it) Guusje ter Horst, refused to distance herself from the practice when the Union for Journalists called on her to condemn it.
The Union for Journalists is, of course, the main critic of the government in this regard. Journalists are often a bit too sensitive when it comes to their own freedom, but they are, in this case, exactly right.
Before commenters start arguing that everything has changed after 9/11 and that, as a result, the government should be able to infiltrate, not terrorist networks but newspapers, magazines and networks, let me say this:
The AIVD started spying on Van der Linden in 1999. That’s two years before 9/11. We can be quite short about the ‘they need to do it because of terrorism’-defense (which is also the defense of the Minister): they don’t.
There are many ways for the government to keep an eye on extremists. The journalists they spied on, however, aren’t extremists. What’s more, when the government decides to infiltrate newspapers, etc., it has to have a great defense (excuse?). If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t do it. The freedom of the press is more important than ‘perhaps something useful will surface.’
It’s also important to point out that the Social Department didn’t spy on the GPD in order to keep an eye on terrorists / Islamic extremists. Their reason to spy on the news agency was to find out whether and if so, when, the news agency would report negative things about the government.
That’s not fighting terrorism, that’s Big Brother.
So, will the government stop spying on journalists? The sad answer is no, probably not. The current Minister continues to defend it and the coalition partners don’t seem to care all that much either. The only ones getting angry are journalists themselves and members of the opposition.