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A petition urging advertisers to withdraw their ads from provocative right-wing blog GeenStijl, shook up The Netherlands last month. About 150 women journalists and celebrities signed an open letter after a post that lead to a storm of sexual harassment and rape threats towards a female journalist. A few large companies and government institutions have so far pulled out their adverts.
The first time Loes Reijmer’s picture appeared on the front page of GeenStijl, in March 2017, she had just written a piece for her newspaper De Volkskrant about the reasons behind and the consequences of online sexual harassment of women.
In the article, she explained how blogs and social media groups are increasingly harassing women, for example by posting nude photos without their consent. She mentioned GeenStijl as the one Dutch example of a website thriving on sexist, racist and humiliating content.
GeenStijl, a popular and controversial website owned by Telegraaf Media Group, was quick to answer to Reijmer’s critical article. The next day her headshot appeared on the front page, accompanied by the text: ‘This is Loes Reijmer. Would you do her?’ A storm of sexist comments followed, including rape threats.
In April, daily NRC-columnist Rosanne Herzberger added fuel to the fire by writing a column questioning GeenStijl’s credibility. She went one step further and urged GeenStijl’s advertisers, some of the biggest companies in the country, to rethink spending their money on the site.
“The question is, which companies are making content like this possible?” Herzberger wrote. She mentioned companies like TUI travels, McDonald’s, Renault, Rabobank, Dutch theme park De Efteling and even the Dutch tax service and the Ministry of Defense.
GeenStijl has a reach of 1.2 million unique viewers per month, which makes it one of the biggest online media outlets in the country. Its videoblog Dumpert.nl has an even wider reach, 2.2 million views per month.
“Humiliating women is big business,” Herzberger stated firmly. Her column was widely spread and shared on social media, and lead to many companies to actually reconsider their advertising choices.
A couple of days later GeenStijl reposted the picture of Loes Reijmer with now the text: “Would you do her? Tell us how!”, followed by even more threatening comments by GeenStijl readers.
This is when dailies Volkskrant and NRC joined forces and published an open letter addressed to the advertisers. “Dear advertisers,” it read. “You are paying for a website where sexism and racism is the norm, not the exception.” About 150 women, from celebrities to journalists, signed the letter.
The campaign was inspired by the American organisation Sleeping Giant that keeps track of companies whose adverts appear on the alt-right website Bartbreit.
Journalists in The Netherlands are increasingly experiencing harassment and threats, a recently published investigation by the Dutch Union for Journalists (NVJ) showed. More than half (61 percent) of all (638) questioned Dutch journalists have been threatened physically or via social media at some point in their career, 22 percent even on a monthly basis. Amnesty International called the Dutch numbers “worrying”.
Volkskrant’s own ombudswoman, Annieke Kranenberg, believes it is a worrying trend. In an op-ed in De Volkskrant she stated that being a target of sexual intimidation and threats online could lead to self-censorship.
She asked several Volkskrant journalists about their experiences and many admitted they are suffering from self-censorship. “I always expect to receive negative comments, but the comments on GeenStijl are the worst, the most hateful you can get,” one journalist, who remained anonymous, told her. “The reality is that I do think twice before I write about something sensitive.”
Even the journalists that don’t have experience with self-censorship find themselves obstructed in doing their jobs. When they have been smeared by GeenStijl, they notice the articles in which they have been portrait negatively, keep coming up in the search engines. “I’m bothered by that,” one journalist said. “People Google your name before they say yes to an interview request.”
Online harassment against female journalists and women, in general, is not just a problem in The Netherlands, ombudswoman Annieke Kranenberg argued. “Worldwide it has an effect on press freedom,” she wrote. She referred to an essay by the American journalist Amanda Hess in 2014: Why women aren’t welcome on the internet. The amounts of sexist and threatening messages women receive online “are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, and their freedom to live online,” Hess stated.
OSCE’s media freedom spokesperson Dunja Mijatovic published a report on the topic in 2015. She concluded that female journalists are disproportionately affected by online hate speech. Mijatovic recommended that media companies themselves could play a role in changing this discourse by working on better on equality on the work floor. Media companies should also publicly stand up more against online hate speech, and they must ensure psychological and legal support for their journalists, Mijatovic argued.
GeenStijl has fired back to the open letter. They argue that dailies De Volkskrant and NRC have crossed a line by publishing such a threat and that by doing so they are themselves restricting freedom of expression.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content_no_spaces” content_placement=”middle”][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”91122″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2017/05/stand-up-for-satire/”][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Volkskrant columnist Harriet Duurvoort had received threats before. She often questioned the racist elements of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) in her columns. Black Pete, a black-faced children’s character, is part of the annual Dutch feast of Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas) celebrated every 5 December.
The threats usually came through social media. But this time it was different.
It was early December 2015. Her phone rang. There was a male voice on the other end of the line. Before she could ask who he was and how he got her number, the man started shouting at her. He called her a “bitch” and told her to keep her hands off of “our Black Pete”. His rant lasted less than a minute, Duurvoort recalled. “It was terrifying,” she said. “This wasn’t just Facebook or Twitter. This man got hold of my personal phone number, and made an effort to phone me up.”
Duurvoort’s weekly column runs in one of the biggest Dutch dailies, De Volkskrant. That week she had published a commentary for the New York Times – titled Why I changed my mind about Black Pete – in which she described how she experienced Black Pete as a child of Suriname descent. Duurvoort knew her article would stir tension and it was shared widely on social media. “It defines the climate surrounding the Black Pete debate in which we find ourselves,” she said.
For years the character of Black Pete has been causing heated debates in The Netherlands. An activist group collectively using the slogan “Black Pete is racist” began campaigning in 2011. The group aims to change the Dutch perspective on the black-faced character with which Dutch kids had been growing up for decades. But the pledge to change the Black Pete tradition has met with much resistance. Many Dutch citizens consider Black Pete an essential part of their culture and childhood memories and they don’t want to see it changed.
The United Nations committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged The Netherlands in 2015 to get rid Black Pete because it has racist elements. “Black Pete is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery,” their report stated. The UN urged the Dutch authorities to work on the elimination of racial stereotyping.
A few Dutch cities, schools and TV broadcasters have already reinvented Black Pete by changing the character’s colour and removing it’s big red lips and golden earrings, calling it Pete instead of Black Pete. But the public debate remains fierce. Protest groups in favour of and against Black Pete have clashed on several occasions. People who speak out in the media about the racist elements of the character are increasingly facing threats from Black Pete supporters, mostly through social media.
The well known TV presenter and now politician Sylvana Simons has been subject to a storm of threats ever since she became publicly vocal about Black Pete and racism. A photo-montage of her face in a video showing lynched bodies was shared on social media earlier this year. A popular radio DJ played monkey sounds on his national radio show, saying that Simons should “be quiet,” which created a huge row in Dutch media.
In November this year, the Dutch special Children’s Ombudsman, Margrite Kalverboer, received dozens of death threats by email after she’d published a report on the matter, stating that the Dutch must change the Black Pete tradition because it contributes to bullying and discrimination of black children.
Journalists experience similar threats when writing or tweeting their opinions about Black Pete. Seada Nourhussen, a Dutch-Ethiopian journalist for daily Trouw, saw her Twitter timeline fill up with roughly a hundred hate tweets after she’d posted a photo of little black-faced marzipan pastries being sold at an Amsterdam bakery on 13 November 2016. “Adults who bake these, what kind of a life do they have?” she wrote below a picture she had received from a friend.
“I’m a columnist in a free country without censorship where tensions do sometimes rise high. It’s not easy sometimes”
“It was a nasty, violent, sexsist, racist and Islamophobic mayhem,” she told Mapping Media Freedom. “My whole timeline was filled with mostly angry white men who wished me dead and called me names.” Nourhussen spent hours on blocking and reporting accounts from people who’d threatened her to Twitter. “It lasted for about a week, every day, and then it stopped”, she said. She said she also reached out to Twitter and the police, but neither responded to her.
The hate storm against her started after right-wing politician Martin Bosma (PVV) had reposted a screenshot of her tweet to his thousands of followers. Nourhussen had by then already deleted the tweet. She didn’t want to derail the racism debate towards Dutch bakeries, she said. The popular right-wing weblog GeenStijl republished Bosman’s screenshot in a tendentious article about another bakery in Amsterdam which removed black-faced cakes after someone had sprayed ‘You are racist’ on it’s window, indirectly blaming Nourhussen for it.
Nourhussen is an Africa-editor at Trouw’s foreign news desk. She does not write about the Black Pete controversy for the newspaper and her tweets represent her personal opinion. But she does think being a journalist might make her an easier target for people who are intended to send out hate tweets. “When you have my profession, and also belong to a minority group in a western country, and on top of that being a woman and having an Arabic sounding name, you’re aware that you’re not entitled to express your opinion without consequences”, she said.
It didn’t change the way she writes or tweets, she added. “I’m not afraid,” she said. “Angry is a better description of how I feel”. Nourhussen is disappointed in her colleague journalists at other newspapers and broadcasters who ran the story about her tweet only from the perspective of victimising bakeries that are selling Black Pete pastries, like daily Telegraaf and regional Amsterdam broadcaster AT5. “I’m ashamed to call those reporters my colleagues because they did a terrible job”.
Nourhussen and Duurvoort are not the only ones. The African-American documentary filmmaker Roger Williams who produced the documentary Blackface: Dutch holiday tradition or racism? for CNN in November 2015, also received death threats from Dutch citizens. “I clearly touched a nerve here,” he said in the Dutch TV talkshow RTL Late Night. Among other things he was called “black ape” in emails he’d received. He said that he was astonished by the reactions to his documentary about Black Pete and racism in The Netherlands. “The Dutch are clearly not aware that the black community in The Netherlands is not happy with Black Pete,” he said.
Several incidents with journalists have taken place during Black Pete street protests this year. On 12 November 2016 a reporter for the broadcaster PowNed, Dennis Schouten, was assaulted during a demonstration against organised by activist group Kick Out Zwarte Piet (Kick out Black Pete). Schouten was interviewing protesters when one of them, an anti-Black Pete protester, pushed him onto a moving car. He wasn’t injured and the perpetrator was arrested.
On 26 November Dutch-American journalist Kevin P Roberson was assaulted while reporting on another demonstration against Black Pete in the city of Utrecht. Roberson, owner of the online news portal The Roberson Report, was hit on the head by a Black Pete supporter while he was filming the protest. Roberson had been threatened before, and he’s told Mapping Media Freedom that he fears for his safety. He said that his home address and car license plate number is circulating on right-wing social media groups. “I don’t feel safe anymore,” he added. “I don’t know if I’d risk covering another Black Pete protest to be honest.”
The Dutch Union for Journalists condemned both attacks.
The day that Volkskrant columnist Duurvoort received that threatening phone call, she felt unsafe in her own house. At the time, she contacted the police, but they had told her there was not enough information to start an investigation. A year later she’d rather not think about it too much anymore. And it did not stop her from writing about the controversy surrounding Black Pete.
“I’m a columnist in a free country without censorship where tensions do sometimes rise high. It’s not easy sometimes,” she said. “But it is also part of my job.”
Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at https://mappingmediafreedom.org/
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Following last month’s failed coup, journalists in Turkey are facing the largest clampdown in its modern history. Journalists covering the events from abroad have not escaped unscathed, including a number in the Netherlands who have faced threats and attacks.
Unusually, the journalists of the Rotterdam-based Turkish newspaper Zaman Today welcomed the increased police presence. Long before the military coup that failed to remove Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan from power, the government had been targeting journalists. But today a Dutch police officer drops by frequently to check if Zaman’s journalists are alright. It makes journalist Huseyin Atasever, who has been working for the Dutch Zaman since 2014, feel safe. Or at least safer than he has felt in a while.
On the morning of Tuesday 19 July Atasever was on his way to Amsterdam when he received a phone call. A Turkish-Dutch individual had been abused by Erdogan supporters at a mosque in the city of Haarlem. Atasever decided to go there immediately.
“I found a man sitting in a corner on the floor talking to the police,” he told Index on Censorship. “He was injured and his clothes were torn.”
After Atesaver had interviewed the victim, who had been targeted for being critical of Erdogan, he approached a group of Erdogan supporters nearby to hear their side of the story.
“When these men realised that I work for Zaman Today, things got grim,” Atasever said. “A few of them surrounded me and started shouting death threats at me. They told me ‘we will kill you, you are dead’.”
“Thanks to immediate police intervention I managed to get away unhurt,” he added.
More than ever before, Turks all over the world have seen their diaspora communities divided between supporters and critics of Erdogan.
At around half a million people, the Netherlands has one of the largest Turkish communities in Europe. In the days after the coup, thousands of Dutch Turks took to the streets in several cities to show their support for the Turkish president. Turks critical of the Erdogan government had told media that they’re afraid to express their opinions due to rising tensions.
People suspected of being supporters of the opposition Gulen movement, led by Erdogan’s US-based opponent and preacher Fethullah Gulen, which has been accused of being behind the coup attempt, have been threatened and physically assaulted in the streets. The mayor of Rotterdam, a city with a large Turkish community, urged Dutch-Turks to remain calm and ordered increased police protection of Gulen-aligned Turkish institutions.
The men who had threatened Atasever were arrested, but released shortly afterwards. Atasever said he has pressed charges against them. He still receives threats on social media every day: he has been called a traitor, a terrorist and a coup supporter on Twitter. His photo and contact details have been shared on several social network sites accompanied by messages like “he should be hanged” and “let’s go find him”.
On 1 August Zaman Today’s Dutch website was hit by a DDoS attack and knocked offline for about an hour. An Erdogan supporter reportedly had announced an attack on the website earlier via Facebook, and Zaman Today announced it will be pressing charges.
It hasn’t just been journalists of Turkish descent who have been attacked. During a pro-Erdogan demonstration at the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam, a TV crew for the Dutch national broadcaster NOS was verbally harassed by a group of youth. NOS reporter Robert Bas told the network that his cameraman had been assaulted and their car was also damaged. “There’s a very strong anti-western media atmosphere here,” Bas said in a live TV interview at the scene.
The Dutch Union for Journalists (NVJ) is worried about growing intimidation of journalists in the Netherlands, NVJ chairman Rene Roodheuvel said in Dutch daily Trouw. “The political tensions at the moment in Turkey and the attitude towards journalists there may in no circumstance be imported into the Netherlands,” he said. “We are second in the world when it comes to press freedom. Media freedom is a great good in the Dutch democracy and it must always be respected.”
“AKP supporters believe that media, especially in the west, are part of an international conspiracy to overthrow Erdogan,” Atasever said. Being a journalist for Zaman Today, he is not new to receiving threats. Many Turks feel the Western media is “the enemy”, he explained. “But we are even worse because we are of Turkish descent. They see us as traitors of our country.”
The government took control of the Turkish edition of Zaman in March 2016. Zaman was a widely distributed opposition newspaper, and very critical of the Erdogan government. The paper had ties with Gulen, who has denied any involvement in the coup attempt, but the Turkish government accuses him a running a parallel government. Zaman and its English-language edition, Today’s Zaman, have since been turned into a pro-government mouthpiece.
Most of Zaman’s foreign editions, however, have so far avoided government control. Zaman has editions in different languages around the world. The Dutch edition, Zaman Vandaag, with a circulation of 5,000, has managed to keep its editorial independence.
While independent journalists in Turkey are being arrested one by one, journalists of Turkish descent in the Netherlands are starting to worry too. “I know for a fact that our names have been given to the Turkish government by Dutch AKP supporters, labelling us as traitors and enemies of the state,” said Atasever, who has no plans to travel to Turkey.
“If our names are on a wanted list, which I expect they are, we will be arrested as soon as we set foot in Turkey.”
Mapping Media Freedom
Dutch journalists have been ringing alarm bells about violations of media freedom at public asylum debates throughout the country. Several journalists and broadcasters claim they have been banned from debate evenings in small towns across the country by local authorities. In one instance, a village municipality placed a five-kilometer-wide exclusion zone around the area where the debate took place.
On 28 January 2016, Allard Berends, editor-in-chief of regional broadcaster Omroep Flevoland, received a call from one of his reporters. A citizens’ debate about the possible housing of refugees in the village of Luttelgeest, in the centre of the country, was about to start.
But there was a problem.
“We already knew that journalists were not welcome inside,” Berends told Index on Censorship. “So my reporter was standing outside, on the public ground.” But while conducting street interviews, his reporter and cameraman were approached by two police officers. They told to leave the village because an emergency decree recalled Berends, who’s in charge of the leading radio and TV broadcaster in the province of Flevoland.
“I have a long career in journalism,” he said. “But I’ve never experienced something like this before. It was just ridiculous. It was Kafkaesque.”
According to documentation brought to the journalists by the police officers, the emergency decree was declared by Luttelgeest’s mayor and stated that only people who were invited were allowed inside. Nobody else — including journalists — was allowed to get closer than five kilometres around the area where the citizens debate was held.
The municipality of Luttelgeest had told Omroep Flevoland that an emergency decree was in place to prevent possible turmoil and to give citizens the privacy to say what they want. “This is an unacceptable explanation,” Berends explained. “It crosses the borders of press freedom and should not be possible in this country.”
While Europe is coping with the largest migration crisis since the Second World War, the arrival of thousands of refugees has caused tension in the Netherlands, as it has in other European countries.
The Netherlands made international headlines with a series of incidents. In October 2015, hooligans attacked an asylum centre near the city of Utrecht, where the majority of refugees housed there were Syrian. In December, a meeting of the council in the town of Geldermalsen to decide on the building of a centre to house 1,500 asylum seekers descended into riots. The police fired warning shots, with live ammunition, to disperse a crowd of opponents, chanting anti-migrant slogans. In several other towns and villages, violent protests broke out against plans to build housing for asylum seekers.
Local governments across The Netherlands have had difficulties trying to sell the moral case for housing asylum seekers to a sceptical and often angry electorate. In a bid to include local people in the debate, citizen debate evenings have become a regular fixture in recent months. But on several occasions they have been marred by confrontation and violence, often in front of watching TV cameras.
The incident in Luttelgeest is not an isolated case. In Geldermalsen, journalists were restricted from covering the citizen debates, too. A radio reporter for the national broadcaster NOS tweeted that he was denied entrance to the public debate at the Geldermalsen town hall. According to the report, a security guard had been instructed to “keep the NOS away from the area.” And a municipality spokesperson had reportedly told the journalist the “press doesn’t interest us at all” and “if you want to follow the debate, that is your problem, not mine”.
In the city of Harderwijk journalists were not allowed to record audio or video at a public meeting concerning housing for 800 asylum seekers in the town. Those who refused to comply with the order, it was reported, were told that they would be removed from the venue.
At a similar meeting in the southern town of Heesch, most journalists were simply denied entry. The municipality’s media department had made a strict selection, only allowing a few journalists in.
Similar cases have been reported in the cities of Kaatsheuvel and Utrecht.
The Dutch Association of Editor In Chiefs (Het Nederlands Genootschap van Hoofdredacteuren) have published a statement expressing their concern about the restrictive media policies now being adopted by local governments.
“In an open and democratic society, it is up to the media to decide what to report on, how to report and what methods to use,” they wrote in a statement. “We acknowledge tensions surrounding the refugee debate in the Netherlands. But these tensions exist within the debate itself and in all the interests and emotions involved, not in the reporting of it. Restricting the media should never be the answer.”
The letter was initially addressed to the mayor of the municipality of Bernheze, of which the village of Heesch is part of. But it soon turned into a public statement towards all local governments. The letter also condemns that “local governments more and more seem to want to decide which journalist is allowed access and which journalist is not”.
The Dutch Union of Journalists (NVJ) agrees. “It is just wrong to differentiate between visual, audiovisual and written media at meetings in which the public is being informed by local governments,” NVJ spokesman Thomas Bruning told Index on Censorship.
The incident in Luttelgeest, in which journalists were not only banned from a public debate but also denied access to an entire village, is considered particularly alarming by the NVJ.
“The press was not even allowed to talk to citizens and politicians before and after the debate,” Bruning said. “Using an emergency decree is really not worthy of a democratic constitutional state.”
The NVJ has sent letters of complaint to all the municipalities involved.
The Omroep Flevoland editor-in-chief Berends announced that he will go to court and press charges against the mayor of Luttelgeest, who was responsible for issuing the emergency decree.
“I want to ask a judge what he thinks of a mayor who declares an entire village a no-go area for journalists,” said Berends. The NVJ is supporting Omroep Flevoland in court.
On that January evening, Omroep Flevoland was not able to report from the debate about a possible centre for asylum seekers in Luttelgeest.
“We were able to speak to some citizens and council members the day after,” Berends said.
The debate passed off calmly. “But really, we should have been there,” added Berends. “It is the essence of our profession, we observe and report what we have heard and seen.”
This article was originally published at Index on Censorship.
Mapping Media Freedom