Perspectives on censorship: The Netherlands

by Guest Author


In an earlier post, Amruta Mehta wondered whether censorship is the new sterilisation. Since then, she has taken her quest to find out whether censorship is indeed the latest global fad a step further by inquiring about this among friends from around the world. Today, written for Make Blog: a perspective from the Netherlands. Read the original post here.

Introduction #

The next country in line for the censorship survey, after Mexico and Canada, is the Netherlands

To recap, my questions were the following:

  • Whether your country has a history of censorship

  • Whether censorship has increased in the past decade

  • My particular concern is web 2.0: blogging and social media – how have governments reacted to this?

  • If you have any direct experiences of or related to censorship that you can and would like to speak about, and would not mind me publishing on my blog, please share.

This response comes from an Italian friend who lives in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands #

As an expat in the Netherlands, I am not very familiar with Dutch culture, but I sought the help of a few friends to help answer your questions. Apart from a friend who is really attentive to such issues, none of my other Dutch friends were particularly concerned. Indeed there is dedicated article in Wikipedia about censorship in the Netherlands, while there is a long one for Italy.

A friend confirmed that there is no censorship in The Netherlands.

I think this has something to do with the political-decision making process that has been adopted in the course of history in the Netherlands. It relates to the Polder Model adopted both in politics and business, which refers to the fact that before taking a decision, all parties involved have to be listened to. A decision is based on the general consensus acquired only after a democratic discussion. I have heard complaints that this is a very long process. At which level this consensus is acquired – I’m not sure.

With regard to freedom of expression of the press, I am not sure that there is a real, critical debate in the Netherlands. My impression as a lay reader is that news here is not really brought to light or explored at a deeper level. An example of this is the recent news – from December 2011 – about the reproduction in a university laboratory in Rotterdam of a mutated form of the H5N1 virus, which caused the avian flu a few years ago. We must keep in mind that this virus can be transmitted to human beings with lethal effects. One of the Dutch researchers who worked on this project was in favour of publishing this, such that it would have given terrorists access to this potential biological weapon. However, the US Government strongly opposed this decision.

What does this mean for freedom of information in the Netherlands?

I was surprised hear that this news, which been echoed vastly at an international level, was first published as breaking news in The Independent, a British newspaper, the day after it was officially released, and only a few days later on the Dutch popular newspaper Volkskrant (link in Dutch). Also the fact that it was not particularly highlighted in print (it was issued on the 2nd or 3rd page) with no particular comments, suggests to me that there was somehow an effort on part of the Dutch press to put it all behind or to pretend normalcy’.

Lessons for free speech activists #

At Make Blog Not War, I mentioned very quickly that censorship isn’t always a matter of not publishing, or banning the release of information, or of asking for it to be taken down. A lot of censorship is covertly carried out by hiding information where you wouldn’t expect it, not giving it importance, or through misinformation, thus dampening the effect it would otherwise have. I didn’t have an example ready with me at the time. While I would stop short of alleging indirect censorship by the Dutch press, taken at face value, the above example would illustrate it well. I’d also appreciate more information on the coverage of this story in the Netherlands.

There have recently been lots of developments to this story, including the report that that US advisory board has reversed its stance on publishing the papers and that the impact of the virus being debated here may have been exaggerated. At the same time, the US Government has moved to declare dual use guidelines for such biological research (links to PDF). Also read this Nature News article on the risks and benefits of publishing mutant flu studies”.