The shooting that rocked the Netherlands

Tireless campaigner: Peter R de Vries once stood unsuccessfully for parliament. © Getty

Is journalism vital to democracy? Today the Dutch people are in shock following the attempted murder of a top investigative journalist – a reminder of how dangerous a reporter’s job can be.

It was 5.30 on Tuesday afternoon when Peter R de Vries left the TV studio where he had appeared on a chat show. The 64-year-old journalist had no reason to think that anything was amiss as he walked along the leafy Amsterdam street. Then, suddenly, five shots rang out and de Vries fell to the ground. Wounded in the head, he was rushed to hospital, where doctors struggled to save his life.

Within hours, three men had been arrested. Leading figures, including the king and queen and the president of the European Council, expressed their shock that such a thing could happen in a city regarded as a haven of art and civilisation. The country’s justice minister called de Vries an “extraordinary journalist” and an “admirable warrior against injustice for the underdog”. Amsterdam’s mayor described him as a national hero.

De Vries has long been celebrated for his persistent and fearless reporting. His most famous investigation was into the kidnapping of Freddy Heineken, head of the international brewing company, who was abducted with his driver in 1983. De Vries helped track down the culprits, including one whom he located in Paraguay 11 years later. In 2013, the head of the gang was convicted after making threats against de Vries.

In 2008 a programme he made about Natalee Holloway, an American teenager who disappeared on the Caribbean island of Aruba, drew a record audience of seven million. The police had given up on the case, but de Vries’s team secretly taped a confession by one of the suspects, Joran van der Sloot. When de Vries confronted him on television, Van der Sloot threw a glass of wine in his face.

More recently, de Vries had been acting as an adviser to Nabil B, a former gang member who was giving evidence in a murder and drug-trafficking trial. In 2019, the lawyer representing Nabil B was shot dead near his home in Amsterdam.

Just last week, de Vries launched a crowdfunding campaign to solve the disappearance of Tanja Groen, a 20-year-old student, in 1993.

Because of its influence on society, the press is often referred to as “the fourth estate”. In the Middle Ages, society was seen as having three parts, or “estates of the realm”: the clergy, the nobility, and the common people. Edmund Burke is thought to have been the first person to name the press as the fourth when reporting on parliamentary debates was made legal in 1787.

Today, however, some people believe that there is a fifth estate – and a sixth.

While the fourth estate consists of professional, trained journalists working for established media outlets, the fifth is made up of people using their own blogs and social media to report on events they witness.

The sixth is a fusion of the two: encouraging people to report as individuals but holding them to professional standards of reporting by getting experts to examine what they say.

Is journalism vital to democracy?

Fourth force

Some say, no. The media outlets that attract the largest following have little to do with serious news – instead, they are filled with gossip and trivia. The profession has lost its claim to integrity thanks to a series of phone-hacking scandals. And it can hardly claim to be objective thanks to the deep political bias of some newspapers and TV stations.

Others argue that the eagerness of tyrannical regimes to shut down independent media proves that it is. The recent closure of Apple Daily in Hong Kong is a case in point. There are countless examples of journalists exposing government corruption, the most famous example being the Watergate scandal. Courageous reporters like de Vries expose crimes that the police fail to.

You Decide

  1. How can you tell whether a news source is trustworthy?
  2. Given that the church and nobility have lost much of their influence, how would you define the first three estates now?

Activities

  1. Write a story about a kidnapped teenager who is rescued by a journalist.
  2. At the start of the French Revolution in 1789, a meeting of the three estates resulted in the formation of the National Assembly. In pairs, research the event and present a TV report on it.

Some People Say...

“The press is the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man, and improving him as a rational, moral and social being.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), American statesman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that while war reporters have always had to risk their lives, the number of journalists killed in peaceful countries is on the rise. In 2016, 58% of deaths took place in war zones; last year, 68% took place in other countries. Of 50 journalists killed last year, eight were murdered in Mexico, including one who was beheaded; four were murdered in India. In Iran, the editor of a news website accused of organising political protests was hanged by the government.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the fifth estate is a good thing or not. Its supporters argue that it gives everyone a voice, and that “citizen journalists” can cover a wider range of events than professional news organisations. Its detractors argue that proper training is essential for getting to the bottom of an issue, and that amateurs can dangerously misread a situation, as well as bring personal prejudices into their reporting.

Word Watch

King and queen
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima. The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy in which the ruler is officially part of the government but cannot overrule his or her ministers.
Mayor
Femke Halsema, a Green politician who studied criminology at university.
Kidnapping
The two men were released after the payment of a £16m ransom.
Natalee Holloway
Her body was never found, but in 2012 she was declared legally dead at her father’s request.
Aruba
Although the island is nearly 5,000 miles from Holland, it is governed as part of the Netherlands.
Joran van der Sloot
Although he retracted his confession to Natalee Holloway’s killing, he was convicted in 2012 of murdering another young woman in Peru.
Edmund Burke
An MP famous for his oratory and campaigning against the corrupt dealings of the East India Company.
Watergate
One of the largest scandals in modern political history concerning President Nixon. Two journalists were pivotal in breaking the story: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

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