Chilling intimidation campaign against journalist outside Chinese borders

One day last October, journalist and former China correspondent with the Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant Marije Vlaskamp received an odd email. It contained confirmation of a hotel reservation at the Holiday Inn Express in The Hague made on in her name.

Two things struck her as extremely strange. One is that the reservation had been made on the Chinese language version of the website; the second is that she had never made the booking.

After calling the hotel to cancel the reservation, things became even more unsettling.

She received a message from the Chinese dissident Wang Jingyu, whom she had interviewed before. Wang had recently found refuge in the Netherlands and she had been in touch with him for a story about the ‘long arm of China’. He told Vlaskamp that a room had been booked in his name in the same hotel. Wang had also received an anonymous threat in Chinese: “‘One tip-off from me and the police will come and arrest you and your journalist friend.”

This was the moment Vlaskamp thought it was about time to inform her superiors at the paper – but not before she made herself a pot of jasmine tea. After having worked in China as a correspondent between 2001 and 2019, she knew the intimidation tactics of the Chinese state very well. She just never expected to be confronted with them after her return to the Netherlands.

Vlaskamp told the story in a long-form article in de Volkskrant in early April.

In it she revealed that the hotel reservation was just the first step in a campaign of intimidation targeted at both her and Wang.

Vlaskamp says as part of the campaign that she had received an anonymous warning that her name would be linked with bomb threats. A day later, she saw on the news that the residence of Dutch prime-minister Mark Rutte had been cordoned off and police, fire brigades and the bomb disposal unit were on the scene. Her heart “skipped a beat” when she heard that the threat was a car with a foreign number plate parked in the street where the Chinese embassy is located, just 200 meters away from the PM’s residence. That’s when she knew that the messages were part of a serious threat against her.

What is unclear is who is sending these intimidating messages. Putting pieces of the puzzle together, there is no doubt that they were acting on behalf of the Chinese state. In her article, Vlaskamp writes about researchers and scientists who have been warning for some time that China has been working on a network of influencing, subversion and intimidation abroad, while digital traces lead Dutch police investigators to IP-addresses in China and Hong Kong. But the Chinese state couldn’t be caught red-handed.

Vlaskamp is one of the first journalists to be subject to an intimidation campaign by China outside Chinese borders. In the summer 2023 issue of Index on Censorship magazine, we wrote about the case of Australian journalist Vicky Xiuzhong Xu. She and her family were harassed after contributing to a 2020 report on human rights violations in Xinjiang.

The frightening events Vlaskamp experienced illustrate perfectly just how far China is willing to go to protect its interests and silence dissidents and journalists.

But would it be wise to publish? No one could predict what effect a publication would have, and whether it would bring more risks for Vlaskamp. Both her and Wang had been threatened anonymously and told to stop their interviews and not to re-publish previous articles about Wang. They both refused to comply.

Eventually, the decision to publish was made but only after six months of soul-searching and journalistic research.

The paper explained at the time: “We only wanted to publish this story if our reporter was fully behind it. Which she is. As she writes herself, the journalistic duty to reveal wrongs takes precedence here. Besides, it is by no means certain that the intimidations would stop if she would not write about this. If her assailants believe that these intimidating practices are effective, only more of the same would be in store for her later on. And not just for Marije Vlaskamp. We are worried about a chilling effect: if de Volkskrant allows itself to be muzzled by persons claiming to act on behalf of a foreign power, this essentially affects all journalists who write critically about autocratic regimes.”

In a strongly-worded comment piece two days after the publication, de Volkskrant put the intimidation campaign against Vlaskamp and dissident Wang in a broader perspective. Not just the perspective of press freedom, which was clearly in jeopardy here, but also that of autocrats like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who increase pressure on those who refuse to surrender to the autocrat’s personal version of reality. Within their own borders, their methods are harsh, and abroad they resort to increasingly shameless psychological warfare, the paper wrote.

Thomas Bruning, secretary general of the Dutch Association of Journalists, said that the events underscore the importance of not underestimating the use of spyware and other forms of digital surveillance. He said: “Vlaskamp’s case makes clear that journalists who critically follow regimes like China’s are vulnerable and deserve protection. More generally, journalists should be aware that digital intimidation and threats are an issue against they will have to arm themselves pro-actively.”

A search in the archives of de Volkskrant shows that the piece of early April is the last one Vlaskamp wrote about China. The paper has had a new China correspondent since 2019 but Vlaskamp had continued to write pieces for which her extensive knowledge of the country gave her analysis extra depth. Since April, she has written about Pakistan, India, Japan, North and South Korea, but not about China.

It begs the question of whether this is to protect her. Both Vlaskamp and de Volkskrant have refused to say.

[Both Vlaskamp and de Volkskrant were contacted to contribute to this story but would not comment further.]

Major new global free expression index sees UK ranking stumble across academic, digital and media freedom

A major new global ranking index tracking the state of free expression published today (Wednesday, 25 January) by Index on Censorship sees the UK ranked as only “partially open” in every key area measured.

In the overall rankings, the UK fell below countries including Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, Chile, Jamaica and Japan. European neighbours such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark also all rank higher than the UK.

The Index Index, developed by Index on Censorship and experts in machine learning and journalism at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, giving a country-by-country view of the state of free expression across academic, digital and media/press freedoms.

Key findings include:

  • The countries with the highest ranking (“open”) on the overall Index are clustered around western Europe and Australasia – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.

  • The UK and USA join countries such as Botswana, Czechia, Greece, Moldova, Panama, Romania, South Africa and Tunisia ranked as “partially open”.

  • The poorest performing countries across all metrics, ranked as “closed”, are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Laos, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

  • Countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates performed poorly in the Index Index but are embedded in key international mechanisms including G20 and the UN Security Council.

Ruth Anderson, Index on Censorship CEO, said:

“The launch of the new Index Index is a landmark moment in how we track freedom of expression in key areas across the world. Index on Censorship and the team at Liverpool John Moores University have developed a rankings system that provides a unique insight into the freedom of expression landscape in every country for which data is available.

“The findings of the pilot project are illuminating, surprising and concerning in equal measure. The United Kingdom ranking may well raise some eyebrows, though is not entirely unexpected. Index on Censorship’s recent work on issues as diverse as Chinese Communist Party influence in the art world through to the chilling effect of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill all point to backward steps for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression.

“On a global scale, the Index Index shines a light once again on those countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates with considerable influence on international bodies and mechanisms – but with barely any protections for freedom of expression across the digital, academic and media spheres.”

Nik Williams, Index on Censorship policy and campaigns officer, said:

“With global threats to free expression growing, developing an accurate country-by-country view of threats to academic, digital and media freedom is the first necessary step towards identifying what needs to change. With gaps in current data sets, it is hoped that future ‘Index Index’ rankings will have further country-level data that can be verified and shared with partners and policy-makers.

“As the ‘Index Index’ grows and develops beyond this pilot year, it will not only map threats to free expression but also where we need to focus our efforts to ensure that academics, artists, writers, journalists, campaigners and civil society do not suffer in silence.”

Steve Harrison, LJMU senior lecturer in journalism, said: 

“Journalists need credible and authoritative sources of information to counter the glut of dis-information and downright untruths which we’re being bombarded with these days. The Index Index is one such source, and LJMU is proud to have played our part in developing it.

“We hope it becomes a useful tool for journalists investigating censorship, as well as a learning resource for students. Journalism has been defined as providing information someone, somewhere wants suppressed – the Index Index goes some way to living up to that definition.”

Why journalists need emergency safe havens

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117182″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]

The number of journalists killed while doing their work rose in 2020. It’s no wonder, then, that a team of internationally acclaimed lawyers are advising governments to introduce emergency visas for reporters who have to flee for their lives when work becomes too dangerous.

The High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, a group of lawyers led by Amal Clooney and former president of the UK Supreme Court Lord Neuberger, has called for these visas to be made available quickly. The panel advises a coalition of 47 countries on how to prevent the erosion of media freedom, and how to hold to account those who harm journalists.

At the launch of the panel’s report, Clooney said the current options open to journalists in danger were “almost without exception too lengthy to provide real protection”. She added: “I would describe the bottom line as too few countries offer ‘humanitarian’ visas that could apply to journalists in danger as a result of their work.”

The report that includes these recommendations was written by barrister Can Yeğinsu. It has been formally endorsed by the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur for freedom of expression, and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.

As highlighted by the recent release of an International Federation of Journalists report showing 65 journalists and media workers were killed in 2020 – up 17 from 2019 – and 200 were jailed for their work, the issue is incredibly urgent.

Index has spoken to journalists who know what it is like to work in dangerous situations about why emergency visas are vital, and to the lawyer leading the charge to create them.

Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim, who has worked for the BBC Arabic Service, has reported on her country’s civil war. She believes part of the problem for journalists forced to flee because of their work is that many immigration systems are not set up to be reactive to those kinds of situations, “because the procedures for visas and immigration is so strict, and so slow and bureaucratic”.

Erhaim, who grew up in Idlib in Syria’s north-west, went on to report from rebel-held areas during the civil war, and she also trained citizen journalists.

The journalist, who won an Index award in 2016, has been threatened with death and harassed online. She moved to Turkey for her own safety and has spoken about not feeling safe to report on Syria at times, even from overseas, because of the threats.

She believes that until emergency visas are available quickly to those in urgent need, things will not change. “Until someone is finally able to act, journalists will either be in hiding, scared, assassinated or already imprisoned,” she said.

“Many journalists don’t even need to emigrate when they’re being targeted or feel threatened. Some just need some peace for three or four months to put their mind together, and think what they’ve been through and decide whether they should come back or find another solution.”

Erhaim, who currently lives in the UK, said it was also important to think about journalists’ families.

Eritrean journalist Abraham Zere is living in exile in the USA after fleeing his country. He feels the visa proposal would offer journalists in challenging political situations some sense of hope. “It’s so very important for local journalists to [be able to] flee their country from repressive regimes.”

Eritrea is regularly labelled the worst country in the world for journalists, taking bottom position in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index 2021, below North Korea. The RSF report highlights that 11 journalists are currently imprisoned in Eritrea without access to lawyers.

Zere said: “Until I left the country, for the last three years I was always prepared to be arrested. As a result of that constant fear, I abandoned writing. But if I were able to secure such a visa, I would have some sense of security.”

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is a journalist formerly based in Hong Kong who has recently moved to Taiwan. He has worked as an editor for the Hong Kong Free Press, as well as for the South China Morning Post, Time and The Wall Street Journal.

“I wasn’t facing any immediate threats of violence, harassment, that sort of thing, [but] the environment for the journalists in Hong Kong was becoming a lot darker and a lot more dire, and [it was] a lot more difficult to operate there,” he said.

He added that although his need to move wasn’t because of threats, it had illustrated how difficult a relocation like that could be. “I tried applying from Hong Kong. I couldn’t get a visa there. I then had to go halfway around the world to Canada to apply for a completely different visa there to get to Taiwan.”

He feels the panel’s recommendation is much needed. “Obviously, journalists around the world are facing politically motivated harassment or prosecution, or even violence or death. And [with] the framework as it is now, journalists don’t really fit very neatly in it.”

As far as the current situation for journalists in Hong Kong is concerned, he said: “It became a lot more dangerous reporting on protests in Hong Kong. It’s immediate physical threats and facing tear gas, police and street clashes every day. The introduction of the national security law last year has made reporting a lot more difficult. Virtually overnight, sources are reluctant to speak to you, even previously very vocal people, activists and lawyers.”

In the few months since the panel launched its report and recommendations, no country has announced it will lead the way by offering emergency visas, but there are some promising signs from the likes of Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. [The Dutch House of Representatives passed a vote on facilitating the issuance of emergency visas for journalists at the end of June.]

Report author Yeğinsu, who is part of the international legal team representing Rappler journalist Maria Ressa in the Philippines, is positive about the response, and believes that the new US president Joe Biden is giving global leadership on this issue. He said: “It is always the few that need to lead. It’ll be interesting to see who does that.”

However, he pointed out that journalists have become less safe in the months since the report’s publication, with governments introducing laws during the pandemic that are being used aggressively against journalists.

Yeğinsu said the “recommendations are geared to really respond to instances where there’s a safety issue… so where the journalist is just looking for safe refuge”. This could cover a few options, such as a temporary stay or respite before a journalist returns home.

The report puts into context how these emergency visas could be incorporated into immigration systems such as those in the USA, Canada, the EU and the UK, at low cost and without the need for massive changes.

One encouraging sign came when former Canadian attorney-general Irwin Cotler said that “the Canadian government welcomes this report and is acting upon it”, while the UK foreign minister Lord Ahmad said his government “will take this particular report very seriously”. If they do not, the number of journalists killed and jailed while doing their jobs is likely to rise.

[This week, 20 UK media organisations issued an open letter calling for emergency visas for reporters in Afghanistan who have been targeted by the Taliban. Ruchi Kumar recently wrote for Index about the threats against journalists in Afghanistan from the Taliban.] [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Obituary: Peter R de Vries ‘a tireless and courageous fighter for justice’

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117066″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Nine days after he was shot multiple times, Dutch crime reporter Peter R de Vries has died of the injuries he sustained, his family announced on Thursday afternoon. Peter will be remembered not only for his investigations and stories, but also for the way he stood in solidarity with crime victims, deeply motivated to help them find justice. It is widely believed that his decision to act as the confidant of a crown witness in a big organised crime trial was the reason for his murder.

Reactions to De Vries’s death have started to pour in. RTL, the station that broadcasts the daily news show RTL Boulevard, in which De Vries had appeared on the day he was attacked, said:  “Peter’s influence remains stronger than any act of hate can ever be. We will continue to speak freely about wrongs and injustice in society, like he did his whole life.” The Dutch Association of Editors-in-Chief said: “Peter R de Vries was an icon of Dutch journalism and an incredible support for many people. It is intensly sad that he is no longer among us. With Peter, we lost an tireless and courageous fighter for justice.”

Many victims of crimes he investigated and solved expressed their sadness over De Vries’ death.

The crime beat

De Vries started his career in 1978 as a trainee-journalist at De Telegraaf, the biggest newspaper in the Netherlands. He started using the R of his second name Rudolf to distinguish himself from a colleague with the same name. Crime journalism wasn’t really a beat yet, but he took it up and soon published his first story about a murder.

He became more famous in 1983, when he reported about the kidnapping of beer magnate Freddy Heineken. The book he published about the kidnapping a few years later remained the bestselling true crime book in the Netherlands for years.

He left the paper within a year to become the editor-in-chief of the weekly Aktueel, which he soon turned into a crime magazine. After that, he switched to TV, although he always continued to write as well.

In the early 1990s, he went freelance and started the weekly TV show ‘Peter R de Vries, crime journalist’. An episode in 2008 brought international fame: he used an undercover reporter to trigger Joran van der Sloot, a suspect in the disappearance of US teenager Natalee Holloway on the Caribbean island of Aruba, into confessing. He won an Emmy Award for it.

Another one of De Vries’s investigations revealed one of the biggest errors of judgement in Dutch judicial history: two brothers were convicted of murder, but De Vries’ investigations lead to a re-trial and acquittal, after which the real murderer could be apprehended.

Apart from his investigation into the Heineken kidnapping, De Vries was not known for reporting organised crime. He mostly focused on cold cases, deceit and scams, standing beside the victims and often confronting perpetrators in front of the camera. Him being there carrying out his own investigations with a thorough knowledge of both the criminal world and the justice system became a fact of life for both police and prosecutors, who were relentlessly held to account by De Vries as well.

Looking in the mirror

Soon after the attack on De Vries’s life last week, two suspects were arrested: a 21-year old man from Rotterdam and a 35-year old man from Poland. Although the police investigation into the murder continues, it is assumed that they were hired by suspects in the so-called Marengo case, which revolves around an extensive, exceptionally violent drugs gang, lead by Redouan Taghi, who was arrested in 2019. Peter R de Vries was the confidant of the Crown witness in the case, Nabil B.

In an interview with monthly magazine Vrij Nederland, De Vries explained: “I couldn’t have looked at myself in the mirror anymore if I had refused his request. I hold the police and the prosecutor to account and I couldn’t do that if I recoiled from requests for help myself, even if they involved risks.”

The risk was clear: in 2018, Nabil B’s brother was murdered by Taghi’s men. A year later, Derk Wiersum, Nabil B’s lawyer, was murdered. To be able to get access to his client, he gave up his position in the law office of his son Royce, where he was director and advisor.

In the last couple of years, Peter R de Vries became increasingly vocal about social issues in the Netherlands, speaking up for the rights of refugees and against racism. Even though he was respected and popular in the Netherlands, this stance triggered a flood of hate and threats against him like never before, he said.

In 2016, he won an award for speaking out against racism and inequality with ‘courage and nerve, with arguments and substance and without fear’ – which sums up De Vries quite accurately.

Peter R de Vries was 64 years old. He leaves behind a partner and two children.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]