Is Europe a safe space for journalists? With values of freedom, democracy and rule of law at its core, you might be tempted to say ‘yes’. But attacks on journalists over recent years suggest something different.
The attack on Dutch crime journalist Peter R. de Vries follows a series of attacks on journalists investigating organised crime and corruption in Europe over recent years.
Since anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb in 2017, three journalists in the European Union have been murdered, and De Vries has been shot. That comes down to one deadly attack on a journalist per year.
In 2018, Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak was murdered with his fiancée. The following year, Northern Irish Lyra McKee was killed. In 2021, the Greek Giorgos Karaivaz was killed, and just months later De Vries was shot.
Who is De Vries?
De Vries (64) is the Netherlands’ most prominent crime journalist and a national figure. He rose to fame with his story covering the kidnapping of beer magnate Freddy Heineken in 1983. For 17 years he had his own TV show, and he always continued to break stories about the Dutch criminal underworld.
Much like Caruana Galizia, he pursued unsolved cases and exposed miscarriages of justice. On 7th July five shots were fired at him, one of which hit his head.
Reporting crime inevitably comes with attacks from the criminals you report about. From physical assault to death threats, both Dutch journalist De Vries and Maltese journalist Caruana Galizia faced threats by some of the most notorious criminals in their respective countries.
A change of heart
The local sentiment about De Vries and Caruana Galizia is similar. In the Netherlands, many locals agree: “He’s an annoying guy with a sharp tongue, but now that he is fighting for his life in the hospital, a vague revulsion turns into deep appreciation.”
In Malta, the hate-sentiment towards Caruana Galizia was more intense. There were those who hated her, but never read a word she had written. Locally, she was known as is-sahhara tal-Bidnija.
But when a journalist fighting crime and corruption for a living is attacked, people’s perspectives change. Suddenly those who challenged and fought the status quo turn out to be the heroes.
It wasn’t that the two didn’t know the dangers that came with their job – in fact, they almost seemed to embrace it.
Just a month before the shooting, De Vries said in an interview: “You don’t have to be hysterical to think something might happen.”
“That’s part of the job. A crime reporter who thinks ‘now it’s getting a little too intense for me’ at really tense moments should work at Libelle” [a light-hearted women’s magazine].
Caruana Galizia was just as aware of the dangers she faced. Just ten days before her murder, she described what her life had become in an interview.
From arson attacks on her home to the freezing of her bank accounts, nothing came as a surprise anymore to the journalist.
She said: “I got used to it, you know, like a scar forms around a wound.” Caruana Galizia knew exactly what danger she was in for about thirty years. Ten days after the interview she was killed.
Europe in shock
As with every other journalist that faced attacks, shockwaves reverberated through Europe. Brutal attacks on reporters are still relatively rare on the continent, and the killings of those journalists raised concerns about the safety of journalists in developed and democratic countries.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen summarised the sentiment in her statement about De Vries:
“We might disagree with a lot we see in our media, but we have to agree that journalists investigating potential abuses of power are not a threat but an asset to our democracies and our societies.”
European Parliament president David Sassoli said he is appalled by the news of the attack on De Vries, as the media are the backbone of democracy. “Attacks against journalists are attacks against all of us.”
Back in 2017, European Parliament president Antonio Tajani said the murder on Caruana Galizia was a “tragic example of a journalist who sacrificed her life to seek out the truth.”
Frans Timmermans, then Vice-President of the European Commission, was ‘shocked and outraged’ to find out about Caruana Galizia. “If journalists are silenced, our freedom is lost.”
The attack on De Vries was the first attack on a journalist in the Netherlands. The shooting was seen as a national tragedy, and just like with Daphne, dozens of people brought flowers to the scene of the attack.
Passers-by said it shook their sense of security and raised worries about respect for the rule of law.
At a press conference, Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema spoke about a “brutal, cowardly crime”. She called De Vries “a national hero and a tireless journalist. He stands up for people in need and keeps the investigative authorities on their toes.”
Prime Minister Mark Rutte spoke of “an attack on a courageous journalist. And with that an attack on free journalism, which is so essential for our democracy, for our constitutional state and our society.”
And just like with De Vries, people from all walks of life condemned the car bomb killing of Caruana Galizia.
Facebook users changed their profile pictures to black user profiles, devoid of any text, to symbolise the seriousness and tragedy of the event.
Opposition leader Adrian Delia called her death “the collapse of democracy and freedom of expression” and stated that “[the country’s] institutions have let us down.”
Fellow blogger Manuel Delia, a former Nationalist Party official, called her “the only ethical voice left. She was the only one talking about right and wrong.”
Caruana Galizia’s employers and The Malta Independent publishers Standard Publications issued a statement in which they called the murder “a threat to journalism, democracy and freedom of expression.”
Media as a watchdog
And that’s exactly what it is. The murder of a journalist isn’t just the silencing of one voice. It is an attack on press freedom, democracy, and society as a whole.
Without communication at the centre, it is next to impossible to conceive of a strong democracy. Rights to communication, like freedom of speech, activism, and the spreading of information, are crucial. Basic freedoms account for an essential part of a just society.
It is the media’s responsibility to act as a watchdog in society, keeping a check on curious developments and the activities of political institutions. Especially when a significant portion of the public is unaware of certain issues.
Moreover, it is their responsibility to voice the concerns and demands of citizens. To represent the people and ensure that their rights are not trampled over by the ruling majority.
No democracy without journalism
That means that you, as a citizen, are suffering the consequences of attacks on journalists. As critical voices are silenced, crime runs rampant.
Without investigative journalism, society loses one of the strongest critics of authorities. Without free press, you do not have access to unbiased information.
The past years have been tragic for the freedom of press in Europe, and on a continent that prides itself on its democratic values, hard work needs to be done.
Because what is a democracy if the press can’t freely write about the crimes that are committed?
What is a democracy if the government cannot control criminals – or even worse, if the government is made up of criminals?
It is the duty and the responsibility of the European Union and local governments to provide a safe space for those with a voice. Because as long as journalists are unsafe, democracy is under attack.