Volkskrant examines Richardson’s passport-for-migrants statement

POSTED: 11/12/13 11:29 AM

Journalist Jean Mentens asked permission twice to quote Justice Minister

St. Maarten– Shortly after the Volkskrant published an article in which Justice Minister Dennis Richardson was quoted as saying that he wanted easier access to Dutch passports for migrants in Sint Maarten, the minister denied that there had ever been an interview. On Saturday, the Volkskrant’s Ombudsman Margreet Vermeulen investigated the case, after a reader asked her for clarification, “especially because the relationship between the Netherlands and St. Maarten is already cumbersome and because I appreciate to be informed correctly and accurately by my newspaper.”.

Minister Richardson was quoted as saying that migrants are the engine of the economy in Sint Maarten and that “they should be able to obtain a Dutch passport in an easier way.” That statement caused some commotion and Richardson quickly pointed out that there had been no interview. No interview – no statement.

Ombudswoman Margreet Vermeulen notes in the Volkskrant of last Saturday that the statements attributed to the minister are firm. “Three members of the VVD-faction in the Second Chamber already prepared to oppose more lenient rules. After two weeks the minister issued a press release, saying that he did not make the contested statements. He said he had never even given an interview and accused the Volkskrant of “creative journalism.”

The author of the article is Jean Mentens, a veteran Belgian journalist based in Curacao who was also instrumental to the establishment of Caribisch Netwerk.

Ombudswoman Vermeulen notes that it is correct that the minister did not give an interview.. “But he did have an extensive background conversation with the Volkskrant-correspondent in the Caribbean part of the Kingdom. During such meetings there is never a recorder running, because the journalist is expected not to quote his source. Background conversations are the lubricant of journalism. They give politicians the freedom to offer journalists a peekaboo behind the scenes for better understanding. Sometimes there are attempts to send a journalist in a certain direction.”

If the journalist wants to publish the information – or a part of it – he will first have to search for other sources that confirm the original story. He does not identify the original source, Vermeulen points out.

“According to Richardson the Volkskrant-reporter went beyond his authority by quoting from “such an informal general conversation,” the Ombudsvrouw notes, adding that, according to Minister Richardson, the quotes were incorrect and taken out of context.

Jean Mentens maintains that he asked Minister Richardson immediately and explicitly if he could quote him about the passport-issue, in spite of the conversation’s informal status. The Ombudsvrouw: “apparently that was not a problem. When the reporter encountered the minister a couple of weeks later coincidentally, he asked again if it was okay to quote him. Again that was supposedly not a problem.”

The real problem is now obviously, that Minister Richardson has a different story. And, as Vermeulen correctly observes, because there is no recording it is complicated to get at the truth.

“It is quite possible that the minister made the remarks but that, due to the commotion that ensued, he saw himself forced to retract his statements,” the Ombudsvrouw wrote on Saturday.

In his press release, Minister Richardson wrote the following: “It becomes increasingly clear that the article is feeding the animosity between the Netherlands and St. Maarten and that it has taken up proportions that are in no way related to what I said or what I meant.”

Jean Mentens maintains that he has asked permission twice for the use of the now contested quotes. The Ombudsvrouw: “Assuming that this is correct, he has acted correctly. But he cannot prove it and therefore the accusation remains lingering. Should the newspaper demand of its reporters that they record every conversation or that they ask for the authorization of all quotes? That would limit the freedom of the journalist too much. So it remains a he said – he said. It is up to the reader to determine up to which point he trusts his newspaper.”

That remark seems to clinch the case in favor of veteran journalist Jean Mentens, in the sense that the newspaper backs up its reporter. Given Mentens’ reputation that seems to be the right thing to do – and this means that Minister Richardson still has a problem on his hands..

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