By Rob Kievit
Press freedom is almost sacred in the Netherlands, and direct government
interference is unheard of. No Dutch cabinet, whatever its political
complexion, would risk being accused of muzzling the press. The
Netherlands ranks 12th on the 169-country Worldwide Press Freedom Index,
published annually by Reporters without Borders.
That is why a furore is raging over an apparent case of government
personnel spying on the independent GPD press agency. Since June 2006,
civil servants at the ministry of Social Affairs reportedly logged on
secretly to GPD's internal computer network. Not just once or twice, but
Apparently the civil servants gained access using passwords and codes
belonging to a former GPD employee and a journalist still working at the
agency. For over a year, government staff were snooping around in the
newsroom computers of GPD and its associated newspapers.
GPD discovered the intrusions when the ministry's press office contacted
the agency to ask for changes in an unpublished story - a portrait of
Social Affairs Minister Piet-Hein Donner.
The main journalists' union, NVJ, reacted angrily. "The government is
trampling on the independent role that journalism is supposed to play,"
says NVJ general secretary, Thomas Bruning.
The Lower House of Parliament has summoned Social Affairs Minister
Donner and Media Minister Ronald Plasterk to provide an explanation.
They may have to fire the staff members concerned.
So far, the Ministry of Social Affairs has only issued a terse
"We regret that this has happened. It is not government policy, and
we reject such practices. Our ministry will investigate the matter
and take measures to prevent a repetition." And that is all the
Ministry wants to say, having handed the case to its lawyers.
GPD Editor-in-Chief Marcel van Lingen is considering taking the case to
court. The agency accuses the government of espionage. Meanwhile, the
public prosecutor is investigating whether any criminal offences have
Other press agencies like ANP, and the news departments of national
public and commercial television are investigating whether they, too,
have been the target of government intrusions.
The spying row highlights the risks of keeping sensitive information on
a computer system that is connected to the outside world. Although entry
was only possible for GPD staff and clients, their computer system was
not sufficiently armed against unwanted visitors.
Some blame must go to the agency for not ensuring better protection, but
surely the major blame lies with the Ministry of Social Affairs, which
should have banned its staff from breaking into press agency computers.
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