‘Don’t mess with freedom of expression’
Dutch Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin and a majority of MPs say the arrest of cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot (a pseudonym) was not politically motivated. However, some of the opposition could not disagree more and fear that freedom of expression is being curtailed. By Political Editor Hans Andringa*
What in the Netherlands was considered a large number of police officers arrived on 13 May to arrest Nekschot, who was then held for a day and a half. His cartoons were the reason for his arrest: it was said they were an incitement to hate and violence and were discriminatory.
The arrest caused a commotion both inside the political world of The Hague and in the country at large. The Netherlands has a tradition of freedom of expression. For centuries, the boundaries of what may be said or written have been set wide, even if this is hurtful or difficult for politicians, the church or individuals. The arrest of Nekschot does not fit in with this tradition. The question arises whether the policy of the prosecution service or the justice ministry has changed.
Minister Hirsch Ballin denies there is any change. However, freedom of speech has been under pressure since the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh on 2 November 2004 who, together with Ayaan Hirsi Ali made Submission, a film about the oppression of women by conservative Muslim men. Threats against figures including politicians, because of their criticism of, for example, Islam, have breathed new life into discussions about where the limits to freedom of expression should be set. (Photo right: Dutch Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin)
There can be said to be two basic views:
a) unlimited freedom of expression, and
b) the judicious limiting of freedom of expression in not always saying what one thinks.
The government supports the latter view and Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has, on more than one occasion, called upon right-wing MP Geert Wilders to exercise restraint in connection with his film, Fitna, which suggested terrorism was innately connected with Islam. Mr Balkenende believed Mr Wilders should consider the possible consequences of the film.
Certain political parties reject the prime minister's standpoint, arguing it will lead to self-censorship and a weakening of the freedom of expression. The conservative VVD party is especially angry with Minister Hirsch Ballin for doing nothing to stop the cartoonist Nekschot from being arrested.
(photo above: Neckschot cartoon)
A political arrest?
In a letter to parliament, Mr Hirsch Ballin admits that he was consulted seven times about the Nekschot case by the prosecution authorities. VVD leader Mark Rutte says the minister's inaction suggests the case was a political arrest. However, Mr Rutte declined to table a no-confidence motion against the minister despite being challenged to do so.
The idea that Mr Hirsch Ballin is aiming to limit freedom of expression is strengthened by the fact that the Nekschot case is not a one-off. During a debate in parliament on Thursday, it surfaced that an internet website, which publishes articles including some critical of Islam, has received a letter from the police asking that someone attend a police station as a matter of urgency to explain the content of the site.
*RNW translation (mw)
23 June 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands]