The ombudsman of the public broadcaster, Margo Smit, has received a record number of almost seventeen hundred complaints about an item in three days. Unheard of News from Thursday. The offending item would be racist.
The number of complaints is more than double the total complaints harvest of an average year. Smit will forward the complaints to the responsible broadcaster Ongehoord Nederland (ON).
The rain of complaints, added to the condemnation of the broadcast by the central management of the public broadcaster (NPO), raises the question of what the consequences will be for ON. What can the NPO leadership do against the radical right broadcaster – and four more questions.
1 What exactly has ‘Unheard News’ done?
The opinion program on Thursday included an item about alleged “racist” aggression by black people against white people. The program showed a collage of social media videos in which a black man repeatedly assaulted a white man. According to pointer-journalist Marieke Kuypers, who examined the imagesthe violence shown was not actually racially motivated.
In the item, presenter Raisa Blommestijn repeatedly used the n-word. She said, among other things: “You see whites being beaten up by n*gers – we see on a large scale, by the way.”
Frederieke Leeflang, chairman of the central board of the public broadcaster (NPO) condemned the item on Friday. According to her, the limit of editorial freedom had been reached “with regard to racist or discriminatory statements”. The joint broadcasters (minus ON and NOS) also came with a conviction. They called the item “a false, racist message” which they collectively qualified as “unjournalistic, unethical and contrary to the core values of the NPO”. Rabin Baldewsingh, National Coordinator Against Racism and Discrimination, said: “It was openly racist on national television.”
2 What does the NPO want to do about it?
NPO board chairman Leeflang does not officially deal with the content of programs, but she calls on two involved bodies to investigate the matter. The Media Authority (CvdM) can check whether ON violated the Media Act. It states that a public broadcaster must “prevent the offer of its media services from inciting violence or hatred against a group”.
Leeflang also called on the NPO ombudsman Margo Smit to check the item against the Journalistic Code of the public broadcaster. Smit can check whether ON has contributed to ‘dissemination of demonstrably incorrect information’. ON boss Arnold Karskens recently renamed his program originally intended to be journalistic to an ‘opinion program’. However, they must also adhere to the Code, said Leeflang.
3 What happens after a possible negative judgement?
If the ombudsman or the CvdM were to rule that ON has violated the Media Act or the Code, Leeflang can fine the broadcaster a maximum of 540,000 euros (15 percent of the annual budget of 3.6 million). What can be aggravating is that the broadcaster was also fined in June, of 93,000 euros, for violation of the Code. According to the ombudsman interviewed Unheard of News the guests too uncritical, causing the program to disseminate incorrect information without contradiction.
After a second fine, Leeflang then reports to the government. After this, State Secretary Gunay Uslu (Media, D66) can decide to prematurely withdraw the five-year temporary employment permit.
4 Can Ongehoord also be prosecuted?
Group insults and hate speech (public incitement to hatred and discrimination against a group because of race, religion, etc.) is punishable by law. If this is done in a group and professionally, it acts as an aggravating circumstance. The n-word, as Blommestijn used it repeatedly, has been regarded as an insult by the judge in previous cases. In addition, Blommestijn used the word to distinguish a population group by skin color, and then to accuse it of massive and aggravated assault. A judge can see this as unnecessarily offensive and as a group insult. Partly because the item had no further clear reason and seemed purely intended to create a mood against black people, the judge could also see it as incitement to hatred.
5 Doesn’t this fall under free speech?
The relevant Articles 137C and 137D of the Criminal Code constitute a legal limitation of a fundamental right, freedom of expression. Not being discriminated against is also a fundamental right. The judge must weigh these two equal fundamental rights against each other.
You can argue that the offending item is allowed as part of the free social debate. Blommestijn acted as a presenter and could be regarded as a journalist or opinion maker. Like politicians, they have greater freedom to participate in the debate. But an opinion maker also has a greater responsibility: what she says carries more weight than what an ordinary citizen says. A public function can therefore also be regarded as aggravating, as was apparent, for example, in the conviction for group insult of Member of Parliament Wilders (PVV) in 2016.
First, the Public Prosecution Service (OM) still has to decide whether it wants to prosecute the people of ON at all. In the case of group insults and hate speech, the Public Prosecution Service is usually very reluctant to do so.
With the collaboration of Gilad Perez
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 19, 2022