Printer Frendly Version

Freedom of Expression: Country Studies - Netherlands

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 1 Political Rights, 1 Civil Liberties (Free)

(See Country Study of the Netherlands in "Majority Rule/Minority Rights".)

Summary and History

Freedom of Expression

The Netherlands has a long history of freedom of expression, free political debate, and fair political competition. Reporters Without Borders, a free media advocacy group, ranked the Netherlands, along with three other countries, first in the area of media freedom in its 2006 Press Freedom Index. Freedom House's Freedom of the Press 2007 survey gave the Netherlands a ranking of "free," scoring among the top 10 countries in the world for press freedom. But, like its neighbor Denmark, which also has received similar scores, this tradition of free expression is currently under attack by extremists.

The Netherlands
The Pillars of Free Media

The general political atmosphere in the Netherlands remains free, despite the introduction of violence into political debate (see below). After the most recent parliamentary elections in November 2006, 10 political parties gained seats in parliament; dozens of parties regularly compete fairly for political office, and political debate is unhindered in the public arena. Freedoms of expression and belief are guaranteed by the constitution, which is respected in practice, and the country's numerous news outlets promote wide-ranging debate and political analysis.

The "pillars" of free broadcast media in the Netherlands are unique, dating from the mid-1920s. At that time, four associations representing Catholic, liberal, Protestant, and Socialist parties were granted licenses to share time on a single public radio broadcasting system. This system lasted until after World War II and was even extended to television. Each association produced Dutch shows for the public broadcasting station. The arrival of cable and satellite introduced a broader range of stations, including four Dutch commercial stations, an increase in regional and local broadcasting, and foreign channels. However, despite calls for modernizing the media law, the public broadcasting station continues to operate on its old basis and holds the dominant position in Dutch programming and viewership.

The Netherlands has among the highest distribution of print media in the world, with an average of at least one national newspaper printed for every 100 households in
The Print Media

Print media originally had a similar breakdown in political orientation (left, center, and right) but today are mostly independent of political parties. The Netherlands has among the highest distribution of print media in the world, with an average of at least one national newspaper printed for every 100 households in 2004. There is neither a significant tabloid press, as in the United Kingdom, nor the phenomenon of media tycoons. There are several national daily papers, in addition to smaller regional papers. Internet use is widespread, and as of 2006, there were 14.544 million internet users out of a population of over 16 million.

Extremism: A New Threat

Today, the rise of extremism in the Netherlands has emerged as a serious threat to free expression. Many analysts believe that the 2002 assassination of Pim Fortuyn, an anti-immigrant right-wing politician, strengthened support for the tactic of silencing critics through violence. Fortuyn's assassination might have even encouraged a similar action by an Islamic radical who assassinated the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in October 2004, as a result of his documentary films on the repressive conditions faced by many Muslim women. The dual reaction—anti-Muslim demonstrations and extremist Muslim applause for the assassination—brought the issues of both free expression and immigration into sharp relief. Since this time, the public has questioned the country's decades-long immigration policy of "absorption without assimilation" and advocated encouraging greater assimilation. Attitudes toward illegal immigrants hardened. In 2006, Parliament approved the deportation of 26,000 mostly Muslim unemployed immigrants.

Protests against the Jyllands Posten cartoons of Muhammad
The Case of Hirsi Ali

The case of one immigrant, however, became a key issue in political circles. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born minister of parliament, had worked with Theo van Gogh on his documentaries in order to publicize the severe repression that women faced within fundamentalist communities in the Netherlands. She received death threats for her participation in the films as well as her public comments on Islam (in one instance calling it a "backward religion"). Several attempts were made on her life, despite constant protection. Her status in the Netherlands grew even more difficult when it was revealed that she had lied on an immigration form years earlier, although not in a way that would have changed her immigration status. She resigned from parliament to take a research position in the United States, where she has continued to be outspoken about the situation of women within Islam and about Islam itself.

The Muhammad Cartoons: Solidarity and Backlash

The world reaction to the publication in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad in 2006 poses another challenge to freedom of expression (see above). Several newspapers in the Netherlands republished the cartoons in a sign of solidarity for free expression. Most received threats of violence as a result. Dutch prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende stated that while he understood that some images might be provocative, "I regret the threats from the Muslim world. In our world, when someone crosses a line, we take the matter to court. There is no place here for threats..."