A picture of journalist Peter R. de Vries and flowers mark the spot where de Vries was shot in Amsterdam, Netherlands, as pictured on July 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

‘Obviously very chilling’: Peter R. de Vries killing shows the danger of Dutch crime reporting

The brutal slaying of crime reporter Peter R. de Vries has shocked the Netherlands. Although still one of the least violent countries for journalists in the world, reportersparliament, and local press freedom groups warn that threats, intimidation, and violence against outlets and individual journalists reporting on organized crime are on the rise.

More than 80 percent of Dutch journalists experienced aggression on the job in 2021, an increase of 20 percent since 2017 according to a May report by PersVeilig (SafePress), an initiative by the journalists’ union NVJ, the Dutch Society of Editors-in-chief, and the Dutch police and the office of the public prosecutor. 

de Vries was gunned down on July 6 in broad daylight on one of the busiest streets in the Dutch capital Amsterdam after leaving the studio of talk show RTL Boulevard, where he regularly appeared as a studio guest. He died on July 15 of his injuries; Dutch authorities arrested two suspects the same day of the shooting. 

According to news reports, the Dutch public prosecutor said that the killing likely had more to do with the fact that de Vries served as an adviser to the main witness in the trial of alleged drug kingpin Ridouan Taghi, who is accused of involvement in murders and attempted murders, than with de Vries’ journalism. 

Since CPJ began tracking killings of journalists in 1992, it has never recorded one killed for their journalism in the Netherlands – or even one killed, as de Vries was, in a complex situation where journalism was a potential, but not the only, factor.

In the wake of de Vries killing, threats to journalism have continued. RTL Boulevard cancelled its July 10 and 11 broadcasts, after authorities warned of a planned attack on the program’s Amsterdam studio. Recording of the show resumed on July 12 from an alternate location, news reports said. 

Known for his aggressive and confrontational reporting style, de Vries revealed crucial information in a number of murder and organized crime cases. He famously tracked down one of the kidnappers of businessman Freddy Heineken in 1994 and proved the innocence of two men wrongfully convicted for the murder of stewardess Christel Ambrosius, also in 1994.

As the community of Dutch crime and investigative reporters mourns, CPJ spoke by telephone with Thomas Bruning, general secretary of the NVJ, Cees van der Laan, editor-in-chief of national newspaper Trouw and member of the Society of Editors-in-chief, and Saskia Belleman, court reporter for De Telegraaf, about the impact of de Vries’ murder and the response by Dutch authorities. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

What has been the impact of the murder of Peter R. de Vries in the Netherlands?

Thomas Bruning: I think it’s important to distinguish between what happened on the one hand in Malta with Daphne Caruana Galizia and in Slovakia with Ján Kuciak and in the Netherlands with Peter R. de Vries on the other. In Caruana Galizia’s and Kuciak’s case, their murders were clearly directly related to their reporting, whereas de Vries’ murder more likely has to do with his role as an adviser to a witness in a trial. Regardless, the effect his murder has on Dutch journalism is obviously very chilling. It fits in a trend of increasing violence against reporters. This heavy and seemingly unrestricted form of violence threatens all aspects of the justice state; we’ve seen it with the murder of a lawyer and now again with the attack on de Vries. This is why we are deeply concerned that these groups, much like the Italian mafia, are willing to settle scores outside their own ranks.

Cees van der Laan: It doesn’t matter whether de Vries was killed because of his reporting or because of his role as an adviser to a witness. With him, his roles would sometimes overlap, but that doesn’t take away the fact that one of the most important Dutch journalists has been murdered, someone who, with tremendous energy and tenacity, who investigated countless cases and has achieved so much. Crime reporting has definitely become more dangerous; organized crime appears much more willing to use deadly force. But it’s also a broader problem. Journalists are threatened during protests of farmers and of coronavirus skeptics. I have been threatened over an editorial about politician Geert Wilders, a photographer’s car was recently pushed into a ditch by an angry mob.

Saskia Belleman: Everyone was obviously terribly shocked. It didn’t come completely unexpected, as there was always a risk involved in Peter’s role as an adviser to a witness, but it’s still a blow to all of us. I’m not sure if the murder will keep journalists from doing their job. I don’t expect crime reporters to hide under a blanket. Those dedicated to crime reporting are aware of the risks involved. They will be more careful and look over their shoulder more, but they know that, if they don’t want to face danger, they should not get into this line of work. In my case, as a court reporter, I’m not particularly worried. I report on information that’s already public; I don’t believe it places me as much at risk as crime reporters.

Do you believe that Dutch authorities have responded adequately to threats against journalists, and now the killing of de Vries?

Bruning: As a union we have been in constant conversations with the government about safety for some time now. It’s not just about crime reporters; columnists and photographers have also reported increasing violence and intimidation. We are continuously looking at how we can improve things, together with the Minister of Safety and Justice Ferd Grapperhaus. As such, we created PersVeilig [a collaboration between the press and Dutch authorities to coordinate security and report threats]. The violence won’t simply end, but we need to look at what we can do to make the job safer. With the minister, we have looked at the most high-profile crime reporters and made sure they received protection, but there’s also a secondary group of reporters who work more on the regional level. What do we do with them? They have to deal with regional crime groups, not exactly the kind of people you want to get into an argument with either.

Van der Laan: I think the authorities have responded adequately after Peter was gunned down. It was immediately condemned as an attack on the Dutch justice state and there will be an external investigation into whether Peter did in fact refuse to have security assigned to him.

Belleman: In the wake of the murder I’ve heard a lot of good stories about how the authorities acted, but from conversations with colleagues I know that the authorities do little about threats against journalists. I don’t have any illusions after Peter’s murder; when there were attacks on De Telegraaf [in 2018 when an unknown individual crashed a van into the newspaper’s offices and set the vehicle on fire] and Panorama [also in 2018 when unknown attackers fired an anti-tank rocket into the magazine’s offices] the authorities also gave the impression that they were aware of the risks to crime reporters. What else has to happen for them to really act? I’m aware that it’s also a matter of capacity; you can’t place a police officer at every reporter’s home. I’m just not convinced they do enough.

[Editor’s note: CPJ contacted the Dutch police via email but did not immediately receive a reply.]

How should journalism in the Netherlands move forward after such a shocking attack and so many violent incidents in recent years?

Bruning: We need to be aware of how serious this is. We can’t underestimate the significance of this attack. In the days after the attack, you could see how crime reporters reflected on their own situation and realized that these people will not only threaten, but actually act on those threats, even in a busy street in broad daylight. It means they are also willing to walk into studios and editorial offices. Their targets are primarily crime reporters, but there’s also a secondary group, the people who work with those reporters in talk shows like RTL Boulevard, who feel the danger. Safety of journalists in the broadest sense of the word must be the absolute priority of everyone.

Van der Laan: We need to continue doing our job and look at what is the safest way for reporters to do it. It’s the only thing we can do. What happened to Peter was unique, but you can’t rule out that it’ll happen again. We need to look at the material safety of buildings and offices, but also at individual reporters. There are already protocols in place for reporting in conflict zones, but that’s a different line of work. We also need the authorities to combat these organized crime groups as much as possible.

Belleman: The risks for reporters have definitely increased. You notice by the severity and increased frequency of the threats. A number of my colleagues have been threatened and have been assigned police protection. I think reporters will move forward and continue their work, but they’ll be more careful. We have to take these signals seriously.