Dutch Court Frees Reporter Jailed for Refusing to Reveal Source

Dutch protesters hold a sign that says “Robert gegijzeld pers gebreideld,” which translates to “Robert taken hostage, press muzzled,” outside the Rotterdam District Court on Friday. (CNS Photo/Molly Quell)

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (CN) – A Dutch journalist was released from jail Friday after being held in contempt of court for refusing to answer questions about a source.

Robert Bas, a TV reporter for the Dutch public broadcaster NOS, was summoned to court on Thursday to testify in the murder trial of Rob Zweekhorst.

Bas refused to testify, citing his right as a journalist to protect sources. He had been in contact with a person identified as Mustafa B. regarding the murder. Bas learned earlier this year that a number of those conversations had been recorded by a prosecutor, as they had permission to tap the phone of Mustafa B. The Dutch police do not release the full names of suspects.

Zweekhorst was shot and killed in 2014 while walking his dogs near his home in Berkel en Rodenrijs, a town in the western part of the Netherlands. The murder was a case of mistaken identity. The 44-year old Zweekhorst had a similar build to Dennis van den B., a suspected drug trafficker, who was reportedly the intended target of the “liquidation” – the Dutch word “liquidatie” refers to the premeditated and contracted murder of someone involved in criminal activity.

The judge held Bas in contempt of court and ordered him to be held in jail until Monday, finding that Bas had no reason to protect his source because the name of the informant was already known to the police.

Following a public outcry, the District Court of Rotterdam held an emergency session on Friday to evaluate the detention.

“This sends a very bad signal to both journalists and their sources,” said Thomas Bruning, general secretary of the Dutch Union of Journalists.

Marcel Haenen, a journalist for the national newspaper the NRC, organized a protest demanding Bas’ release.

The crowd chanted “laat Robert vrij,” or “let Robert free,” as they marched around the courthouse building with the goal of being heard by the judges who were working inside.

“I understand that this is a frustrating decision for the profession, but it is a law-based decision,” Court President Robine de Lange told the roughly 100 protesters who gathered in front of the courthouse in Rotterdam on Friday morning.

Later Friday afternoon, the court met in a closed session. A few hours later, the verdict was announced: Bas should be freed.

“It is still possible to break the right of non-disclosure, but the court does not consider it to be justified here,” the court wrote in its decision.

Bas told reporters when he was released, “The sense of justice prevails.”

A 2017 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of a Norwegian reporter held that journalists have a right to not disclose information about sources, even if the name of the source is already known to the police. In Becker v. Norway, the court wrote that “a chilling effect will arise” when journalists are seen as being willing to provide information about their sources.

After that decision, the Netherlands updated its own press freedom laws by passing the 2018 Source Protection Act. The Dutch Constitution already protected news outlets from government interference but didn’t specifically protect journalists from having to reveal their sources.

The Netherlands has been before the Court of Human Rights for jailing a journalist. In 2000, a court in Amsterdam held Koen Voskuil, a reporter at the daily newspaper Sp!ts, for 18 days when he refused to name his sources from two articles questioning the motivations of the police in searching for an apartment where they found a weapons cache.

“Such far-reaching measures could but discourage persons who have true and accurate information relating to wrongdoing of the kind here at issue from coming forward and sharing their knowledge with the press in future cases,” the court wrote in its 2007 ruling. “The government’s interest in knowing the identity of the applicant’s source had not been sufficient to override the applicant’s interest in concealing it.”

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