Freedom of Expression: Country Studies - Netherlands

Netherlands Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Free. Freedom Ranking: 1; Political Rights: 1; Civil Liberties: 1.

The Netherlands

Summary and History

For Summary and History, see the Netherlands Country Study in "Majority Rule/Minority Rights."

Freedom of Expression

The Netherlands has a long history of freedom of expression, free political debate, and fair political competition. That tradition continues. In Freedom House’s survey Freedom of the Press: 2016, Netherlands tied with three other countries (Belgium, Finland, and Sweden) as having the freest media ranking in the world (see also its country report). Reporters Without Borders, a free media advocacy group, ranks Netherlands as the fourth freest country in the world in its 2016 Press Freedom Index. Freedoms of expression and belief are guaranteed by the constitution and are respected in practice. The country's numerous public and private news outlets promote wide-ranging debate and political analysis. The general political atmosphere in the Netherlands remains free and its multi-party system reflects the broad representation of political views. (After the most recent 2012 parliamentary elections eleven political parties with different ideologies, platforms, and social backgrounds gained seats in parliament, while dozens of other parties regularly compete fairly for political office at national and local levels.) As in neighboring Denmark, the Netherlands’s tradition of free expression has come under attack by extremists using violence and threats of violence to silence debate about crucial issues (see below and Netherlands Country Study in Majority Rule, Minority Rights).

The Pillars of Free Media

Netherlands has a unique system for public broadcast media dating from the mid-1920s. As part of its general “pillar community” policy adopted at the time, four associations representing Catholic, liberal, Protestant, and Socialist parties were granted licenses to share time and resources on a single public radio broadcasting system. This system was extended to television in 1951 and then also broadened to cover ten social pillars (including political parties, the Muslim community, and youth). Each member association, or “pillar,” produces Dutch-language shows for the public broadcasting station based on ratios of population and use. 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. Despite calls for modernizing the media law and cuts to public broadcasting, the pillar system continues to operate and still holds the strongest position in Dutch programming and viewership at 38 percent. Forty-four percent receive news primarily from public broadcasting stations.[T]he Netherlands has among the highest distribution of newspapers and magazines in the world. . . .[H]alf of households still purchased at least one national newspaper daily.

The Print and Internet Media

Print media by tradition was connected to political parties (left, center, and right) and religious orientation (Catholic, Protestant, and secular). Today, print media are mostly independent of political parties, but some remain tied to a religious orientation. Although distribution of print media is declining, the Netherlands has among the highest distribution of newspapers and magazines in the EU. One study in 2011 showed that half of Dutch households still purchased at least one national newspaper daily and a greater percentage read either a paid or freely circulated newspaper on a daily basis. More recent studies indicate the number remains near those percentages. There is not a significant tabloid press, as in the United Kingdom. Nor is there the phenomenon of media tycoons, despite the fact that the concentration of ownership is high. Three major companies own 80 percent of national and regional daily papers, but they each publish a wide range of opinion and news.

Internet use is widespread. According to New Media Trend Watch, there were 15.5 million subscribers as of early 2014, fifty percent of the population actively uses social media sites, while 93 percent overall regularly use the internet. Fifty percent of the population gets news from internet sites (including internet streaming of broadcast stations) and most print newspapers have web site versions. A new innovation, the “Paydike” web application, has established a one-stop shop where all major Dutch newspapers and magazines have agreed to post their articles for readers to select for purchase as they wish (what the founders call “I-Tunes”). There is no state filtering or censorship on the internet and the Netherlands was the second country after Chile to adopt a net neutrality law that prevents telecommunications companies from discriminating in charges or creating bias in search results based on data usage.

Extremism: A New Threat

The issue of extremism in the Netherlands emerged in the early 2000s as a serious threat to free expression. Pim Fortuyn, an anti-immigrant right-wing politician who came to prominence in 2002, strained the public culture of tolerance with his rhetoric against Islam (for example, calling it a “backward religion”). But his assassination before elections in 2002 by an animal-rights activist introduced an even worse phenomenon: the use of violence as a means of political argument. Fortuyn's assassination encouraged a similar action by an Islamic radical who killed the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in October 2004 after his release of two documentary films on the repressive conditions faced by Muslim women in fundamentalist communities. The dual reaction — anti-Muslim demonstrations and extremist Muslim applause for the assassination — brought the issues of free expression and immigration into sharp relief. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born minister of parliament received death threats and had several attempts made on her life for her participation van Gogh’s documentaries (she resigned her seat in parliament and emigrated to the US). Such intolerance propelled broad public questioning of the country's decades-long immigration policy of "absorption without assimilation" and policies were adopted both to limit immigration and encourage greater assimilation. In addition to deporting 26,000 mostly Muslim unemployed immigrants in 2006, parliament passed a law in 2011 banning face coverings in public and subsidies for jobless immigrants who cannot speak Dutch (see also the Netherlands Country Studyin Majority Rule, Minority Rights).

Protests in Amsterdam against the Jyllands Posten cartoons of Muhammad.

The Cartoon Wars: Solidarity and Backlash

The intolerance shown towards Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali for their expression also manifested in the worldwide reaction to the 2006 publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish regional newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Demonstrations by fundamentalist Muslims protesting such depictions, which are proscribed by the Koran, were organized in Denmark and around Danish embassies not only in predominantly Muslim countries but also in Europe. As a sign of solidarity for free expression, several newspapers in the Netherlands republished the cartoons; they also received threats of violence and threatening protest demonstrations took place. Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende stated that while he understood that some images might be provocative to Muslims, “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. . . .” (See also Essential Principles and History.)

Balancing Rights, Tradition, and Hate Speech

The Netherlands has one of the freest environments for expression and speech in the world and places few limits on free speech in public forums. It also has one of the broadest transparency laws for the release of public documents. In addition, the Netherlands is the source of new innovation in newspaper distribution (like the “Paydike” mentioned above). However, the Netherlands, as all democratic countries, still struggles to balance freedom of expression, majority and minority rights, and respect for traditions. One anomaly to the general free expression culture is a law enacted in 1881 and still on the books that bans insulting the monarchy. (Insult laws are common. France has a law against insulting the president, for example. A link to the World Press Freedom Committee’s documentation of “insult laws” around the world is in Resources.) While in the Netherlands the insult law is not enforced frequently, there were 19 cases brought between 2000 and 2012, with nine convictions. In June 2011, Associated Press, a foreign company, was fined by a Dutch court for publishing pictures of the royal family vacationing on the beach, a transgression of accepted Dutch newspaper custom to maintain the privacy of the royal family.

More significantly, the courts continue to wrestle with defining precisely the enforcement of a law against inciting hatred adopted after World War II. In 2011, the court acquitted Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigrant Party of Freedom, on charges of inciting hatred for harshly worded editorials opposing immigration and describing Islam in crassly negative terms. In this case, the court determined that Wilders was engaged in public debate on issues and not in direct attacks on Muslims as individuals or as a group. A new case was brought when Wilders advocated the deportation of all Moroccan immigrants, since he targeted a specific group. In another prominent case in 2014, prosecutors ultimately dropped a case against a Dutch blog site, GeenStijl, which had published a photo-shopped image with the head of the mayor of The Hague onto a beheading victim of the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

In 2014, the government presented a proposal to parliament called “An Integrated Approach to Jihadism.” It allows the government to monitor online distribution of jihadist material that “encourages violence, radicalization or hatred.” The government seeks agreements with Internet Service Providers to block such content but if material is not removed the government may now take criminal action against an alleged offender or an ISP provider. Intelligence agencies are also known to gather “untargeted” data from users of suspected extremist web forums. Such tensions between freedom of speech and internal security are increasingly common in democratic countries, in response to attacks by violent Islamists.