By William Horsley, International Director of CFOM

Dutch crime reporter, one of the Netherlands’ best-known journalists, was shot and seriously injured on Tuesday evening in a street in downtown Amsterdam shortly after leaving the studios of RTL TV.

Amsterdam’s mayor, Femke Halsema, said De Vries was “fighting for his life” in hospital after reportedly being shot five times at close range, including once in the head. De Vries has been the target of numerous death threats during his long career in connection with his extraordinary record of exposing the activities of organised crime in the Netherlands.

Two male suspects, one Dutch and the other a Polish national, were taken into police custody on the day of the shooting. Netherlands news live reported that police are investigating the possibility that the Dutchman, a 21-year-old from Rotterdam, may be the gunman. 

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, called it a shocking attack on a courageous journalist and on “the free press that is critical to our democracy”. European Commission Vera Jourova called it an attack on freedom of the press and democracy, and said those responsible must be brought to justice.

Peter R. de Vries has a near-legendary reputation for covering high-profile crimes, including the kidnapping of beer magnate Freddy Heineken in 1983. The kidnapper, Willem Holleeder, one of the country’s most notorious gangsters, was later convicted of making threats against the journalist, and in 2019 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in five murders.

Last year de Vries reportedly acted as a counsellor for Nabil B,. a former gang member who testified for the prosecution in a trial against Ridouan Taghi, a known crime boss who was arrested in Dubai in 2019. Other Dutch journalists specialising in reporting on organised crime say since then de Vries may have been a prime target on the hitlists of gangs engaged in violent conflicts in the criminal underworld.  

Pattern of contract killings spreads from east to western Europe

Organisations that monitor targeted attacks against journalists are deeply concerned that ‘contract killings’ of investigative journalists, like that of Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow 2006, have grown increasingly frequent in western Europe too.

Last year in Slovakia a former soldier was jailed for 23 years for the mafia-style killing in 2018 of international crime reporter Ján Kuciak and his fianceé Martina Kušnírová.

In Malta in February one of three men accused of planting and detonating the car bomb that killed anti-corruption journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 pleaded guilty to the crime and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Several other arrests were made and the investigation has already dragged on for nearly four years.

And in April this year Giorgos Karaivaz, a prominent Greek TV journalist specialising in crime reporting, was shot dead in broad daylight near his home in Athens. The murder had the hallmarks of a contract killing: the gunman used a silencer to kill the journalist at close range. He  is thought to have been one of two men who approached Karaivaz on a motorbike as he emerged from his car on his return from work.

Like Peter de Vries, Karaivaz was shot at almost point-blank range by apparently trained assassins shortly after appearing live on a national TV programme: .

Press freedom organisations have repeatedly called for much stronger national and international actions to provide effective protection for threatened journalists and ensure that the killers and would-be killers of journalists are brought to justice. Impunity is seen as fuelling rising levels of violence and abuse directed at journalists for performing their essential work of informing the public.

Significantly, in none of the murder cases detailed above have police and prosecutors succeeded in identifying and convicting the instigators or masterminds of the murders.

Netherlands pioneers journalists safety mechanism to counter growing dangers

In recent years media organisations in the Netherlands have suffered a series of major attacks attributed to organised crime gangs. In 2018 the Amsterdam offices of Panorama and other news publications was shot at with an anti-tank missile, and a van was deliberately rammed into the front of the headquarters in the city of De Telegraaf, the largest Dutch newspaper.

In December last year,  a hand grenade was found outside the house of De Limburger crime reporter Jos Emonts. The newspaper’s editor called it an attack on the free press and independent journalism: 

The International Press Institute also reported evidence from Dutch monitoring groups showing as many as 141 threats and acts of aggression against journalists during  2020, including many during street protests. IPI said the surge in violent reflected a decline in public trust in the media during the Covid pandemic, linked to conspiracy theories about the media’s role and anti-press sentiment on right-wing social media networks.

The Netherlands has been at the forefront of coordinated efforts to protect journalists who specialise in crime reporting. In 2018 the Journalists’ Association of the Netherlands (NVJ) and the Society of Chief Editors signed a wide-ranging agreement to strengthen protections for journalists’ safety with the Justice Ministry, the General Prosecutors office and the National Police.

That agreement has led to what are seen as ground-breaking safety mechanisms, including close police protection, a 24-hour emergency hotline, new networks of mutual protection among journalists, protocols to activate rapid response by law-enforcement, and improved access to legal support. But reports indicate that Peter de Vries was unprotected when he was attacked.

The Council of Europe’s Platform for the Safety of Journalists has recorded as many as 33 killings of journalists since 2015. Fatal attacks have taken place in every part of Europe during those 6 years, in Azerbaijan, Greece, Turkey, Malta, Slovakia, Russia, Albania, the UK, Sweden, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Denmark, Serbia, France and Poland.

Image by moritz320 from Pixabay.