Many crime journalists have experienced it once: a source from the criminal environment talks about a criminal offense. A drug transport, a weapon delivery, a liquidation. Information that the police, the intelligence service, and the Public Prosecution Service are eager to have and that in some cases can save someone’s life.
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“A criminal once told me about a fellow journalist,” recalls crime journalist Geron Telstra of weekly magazine Elenewspao. “He said it has been enough now, that man is going to die.” Telstra, who has been writing about crime for decades, knows that the criminal means it. Immediately he calls the journalist in question and warns him.
Half a year later, Telstra suddenly gets the furious criminal on the phone. “You are for us, I am coming to see you with a whole group,” he said, Telstra said. ‘It turned out that the colleague I had tipped about the threat immediately called in the police and the OM. The criminal later read that back in the file and thought that I had betrayed him. I told him then: listen, if I had heard from my fellow journalist that he would hurt you, I would have warned you too. He understood that. “
It illustrates the difficult position of a crime journalist. Sources within the underworld are indispensable. Appointments in hotel lobbies, coffee houses and in parking lots, with figures for whom the law is no more than a nuisance, are part of the work. This is only possible if criminals trust that the journalist is not an extension of the government.
But what if future crimes are discussed? What if you as a journalist can prevent liquidation?
“It’s my biggest dilemma,” says crime journalist Paul Vugts from Het Parool. “I could not get it if I knew in advance that someone would be shot.” But at the same time I don’t want to do business with the government. “
Vugts lived in a safe house for a while last year and was protected by the Royal Diplomatic Security Service (DKDB) because criminals would like to liquidate him. Danger is part of the job, he knows. That is why he tries to stay on the sidelines as much as possible and not to become part of ‘the game’. Vugts: ‘I don’t want to become a player. Information about future liquidations is the only information I don’t want to hear. “
Dangerous, he calls it, to act as an extension of the government. “A journalist must be independent at all times. You must protect sources, they must be able to trust you. The police and the AIVD must do their own work. “
Citizens who know of an impending murder are obliged to report this to the police or the judicial authorities or to the person threatened. If they don’t, and the murder is actually committed, they can get a prison sentence of up to a year. Whether that also applies to journalists is a legally complex matter, let the OM know. In some cases, journalists will be able to invoke their right of non-disclosure, for example if information can be traced back to the source.
Staying completely away from the investigative services is difficult for journalists anyway. Every crime journalist who is serious about his work comes into contact with the authorities at some point, says crime journalist Peter R. de Vries. “Even if only in the context of a rebuttal.”
De Vries himself makes it no secret that he regularly cooperates with the police. ‘Certainly when I still had my TV program and was busy with journalistic investigation. With that program we are responsible for solving a large number of murders and other crimes. Then you also cannot avoid sitting at the table occasionally and saying: these are our findings. And then you hope you get something in return. “
Bas van Hout had the same hope, he said. Reciprocity was even an absolute condition for him to enter into dialogue with the intelligence service. He later found out that the service ‘ran’ him as an informant, that it was primarily intended that he should talk. Naive, he calls himself afterwards. ‘The government has not proven to be a reliable partner for me. Responding to their request proved life-threatening and is the biggest mistake of my life. “
De Vries has also experienced that investigative authorities ‘fetched’ his information. “I’ve had a fighting fight about that,” he says. ‘You have no control over how they handle your information. Occasionally you have to hit the table with your fist. “
According to him, many people have become worse from the conversations that De Vries had with investigative services and from his broadcasts. “They are now in jail,” says De Vries. “They are not happy.”
Sources are sacred to him and he keeps agreements, says De Vries. Criminals know who they say something to, he thinks. A threatening liquidation is a limit for him, he gave tips in many cases. De Vries: ‘Then I knew: if I don’t do that, the consequences will be worse than if I do. That has nothing to do with journalistic independence. Then you just take your responsibility. But occasionally passing on information is not the same as being an informant. ‘
Knowing that some journalists share information with investigative authorities will cause unrest and restraint in the underworld, crime journalists realize. That makes Van Hout’s story even more painful. Vugts: “Can we start again by explaining that we are independent.”