Today’s Opinion: Muzzling the press

POSTED: 04/6/11 1:00 PM

In the Netherlands the discussion about limits to press freedom got a new lease on life after stories appeared about a 12-year-old girl who gave birth two weeks ago.  The Dagblad van het Noorden had a picture and the full name of the girl, but it decided not to publish this information. The Telegraaf, the largest paper in the Netherlands was not so sensitive to the girl’s privacy: it boldly published her name.

Pieter Sijpersma is the Editor in Chief of the Dagblad van het Noorden, and he is also the chairman of the Society for Editors in Chief. Issuing a ban to all media to publish information of this nature is not an idea he supports.

The director of the school where the child-mom studies, Wim Moes, has called for a discussion about the limits of press freedom. He is angry at the Telegraaf but also at the religious TV-station EO. Moes wonders why some media have so little consideration for the privacy of the people they report about.

After news about the child birth became public, the girl’s school and her home were assaulted by journalists. The children were moved to a secret address when the reporters practically stood with their nose to the windows of the girl’s home.

Sijpersma does not support Moes’ position. He does not like the idea of setting standards for the media, “because maybe those won’t be my standards. Every medium must decide for itself what the limits are.”

But the Council for Journalism does not share that opinion. People who feel short-changed by the media have the option to file a complaint with the council. Last year the council issued a ruling about Ruben, a 12-year-old boy who survived an airplane crash in Tripoli last year. The council ruled in that case that the limits for what is permissible are not different for each medium, but that these limits apply to all acts of journalism that fall under its authority.

Sijpersma recognized the council and abides by its rulings, but there are a few media who don’t. “If you believe in freedom of the press you can forbid little,” he says. “You have to assume the self-cleaning functioning of the press. I am not my brother’s keeper. That is the price you pay for the freedom of expression. That is cruel, but the world often is cruel.”

We agree with Sijpersma. With a draft media law in the pipeline, local media may find themselves on the receiving end of a ban on – among others – reporting about suicide and the publication of invasive pictures of the victims of crimes and traffic accidents.

We oppose such regulations for the same reasons Sijpersma does not want to muzzle the press in the Netherlands. Media that choose to be tasteless or irresponsible, and media that choose to violate time and again the privacy of people who are suspected of a crime and thereby ignore the presumption of innocence, should be free to show their true face to their readers, viewers and listeners.

The local draft media law foresees the establishment of a media council that will be tasked with writing a code of conduct for journalists. We have pointed out on various occasions that such a code already exists (the IFJ-code of 1954) and that St. Maarten does not have to re-invent the wheel.

If this code ever comes into being, it will turn out to be a paper tiger, a statement not worth the paper it is written on. So why bother?


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