The Russiagate disease easily spreads from Washington to her impressionable European allies ...
Until recently The Netherlands was an average European country: Not a day went by without correspondents in Washington copy-pasting reports from CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times about evil Russians having hacked and otherwise influenced the American elections in favor of Donald Trump.
There had also been some psyop from the intelligence community about Russian attempts to manipulate politics in Europe by funding parties and disseminating propaganda. But reports like these could be found in newspapers everywhere in the EU. Nothing special. The usual stuff. And like most of their fellow Europeans, the Dutch did not make a big thing out of it. They took notice of it and talked about it with amusement and shrugged their shoulders.
But then, on August 29th of this year, a high-ranking officer of the Dutch military made some remarkable statements that in hindsight led to the hilarious situation in which the Dutch people find themselves today.
Brigadier General Wilfred Rietdijk, a strategic adviser on National Security and Cyber for the Ministry of Defense, declared in de Volkskrant, one of Holland's leading newspapers, that the Dutch intelligence services and Defense were not adequately prepared to map and face digital threats from abroad. He specifically warned against fake news, naming Russia in particular. According to Rietdijk, The Netherlands needed a new, specialized organization for identifying these threats and preparing for an 'information war'. The General called upon the government to cooperate with 'important media'. The government could confirm to which extent a story is verified, for example. "Media can post that to their report, then we can take a more powerful stand against disinformation."
The Dutch Association of Journalists, NVJ, immediately rejected the idea of cooperation between media and government in the battle against 'fake news'. "Let's not forget disinformation also can come from the government", general secretary Thomas Bruning said.
Digital rights movement Bits Of Freedom issued a statement saying: "We're not waiting for a Ministery of Truth, like in George Orwell's 1984, telling us two plus two is five."
Also, Dutch fake news researcher Peter Burger of the University of Leiden commented: "As far as I can see, there is little Russian fake news aimed at The Netherlands (...). The cybergeneral doesn't provide examples of Russian fake news, apart from the rape of German-Russian Lisa in Berlin and disinformation about MH17."
Prominent MH17-blogger Marcel van den Berg, although a known critic of Russian propaganda, tweeted: "There are many examples I could give of MH17 misinfo coming from the Dutch media."
And military expert Ko Colijn, from Institute Clingendael, added: "I think Russian propaganda is a bit of a hype. Foreign meddling in elections is nothing new, only the means that are being used are different. Moreover, the Americans more than anyone else are into this game."
Perfectly sane reactions. It seemed clear to everyone the Dutch cybergeneral had made a fool of himself. And that Dutch society had gone back to normal.
But things were not what they seemed.
On October 24th the new elected Dutch government was installed. And shortly thereafter, on November 13th, everyone in The Netherlands knew who their new minister of Home Affairs was. That day Liberal Kajsa Ollongren sent the parliament a letter that the Dutch are still talking about.
Russia is using fake news to try to influence public opinion in The Netherlands and other countries, Ollongren wrote, adding that she would meet with media and technology companies to discuss how to tackle this problem and that she would invest 95 million euro in digital security.
Coincidence or not, the alarming letter of minister Ollongren appeared almost immediately after one of Holland's leading newspapers NRC had written a hit piece on member of parliament, Christian Democrat Pieter Omtzigt (CDA). The paper accused Omtzigt of playing an 'active role' in disseminating fake information about the MH17 disaster over Ukraine, by having helped a fake witness to infiltrate a briefing attended by victims’ relatives earlier this year.
Kasja 'fake news' Ollongren
Ollongren's letter was met with shock and outrage in the Dutch parliament and press. 'Fake news avalanche' the main headline of the front page of Holland's largest newspaper de Telegraaf read, continuing on page 2 and 3 with more alarming headlines: 'Threat to Democracy'; 'Moscow steers public opinion and elections with disinformation.'
"The influence of fake accounts on our democracy is life-threatening", CDA leader Sybrand Buma said to public broadcaster NOS. "If you are aware how many free elections have been influenced by Russia, it's terrifying. We ourselves have elections and a referendum soon."
Parliamentarians Harry van der Molen (CDA) and Kees Verhoeven (D66) called for instant measures, among which a government campaign to warn against fake news in the run-up to the municipal elections next year.
Socialist leader Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA), although sharing the concern of other members of parliament, asked Ollongren to show concrete examples of Russian fake news in The Netherlands. She had only named one. Russia had attempted to influence people’s ideas about the MH17 disaster over Ukraine, she had said, referring to a website which was full of false information but had been made to look like an official Dutch operation. When asked where this website could be found, she answered: "I cannot give it to you, because we don't want to do them (the Russians, EvdB) a favor of a lot of people visiting their site, with undesirable consequences."
The fun then started. Journalists and others started searching for this website Ollongren had mentioned. Until now nobody has found anything, MH17 experts included, and so the press and politicians started panicking. De Wereld Draait Door, one of Holland's leading talk shows, invited Derk Sauer and Eva Hartog of The Moscow Times to come over from Moscow to explain what the hell was happening. "Ollongren has created an atmosphere of Holland under threat, without hard evidence," Sauer admitted. "But this is exactly what the Russians want. That we get nervous, insecure, start fighting among ourselves."
In other words: Even if there is no fake news from Russia, or at least no hard evidence of such news, the destructive influence of Russia on The Netherlands is huge?!
Dutch politicans, Ollongren for one, and Dutch papers like de Telegraaf now have become the laughing stock of The Netherlands. Dutch comedian Arjen Lubach dedicated an item to the mysterious MH17 website - and 'fake news specialist' Alexander Pleijter of the University of Leiden wrote an article on the website of the Dutch Association of Journalists, titled 'Fake news avalanche without Fakenews'.
Ollongren now has come up with another example of Russian fake news: a video that was posted last year on Holland's most popular blog Geenstijl, in the run-up to the Dutch referendum about the EU association agreement with Ukraine. The video depicts six soldiers holding guns, supposedly from the notorious far-right, ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion, speaking in Ukrainian before burning a Dutch flag. In the video, the supposed Azov fighters threaten to conduct terrorist attacks in the Netherlands if the Dutch would say 'no' to Ukraine at the April 6 referendum.
Although Ollongren might be right that the video is a fake (the commander of Azov said so), it was of great informational value to the Dutch. Their news media had neglected to inform them about the existence of fascist elements in the Ukrainian army and in Ukrainian politics, or at least hadn't given it the attention it deserved. Until the video popped up, the vast majority of the Dutch had never heard of Azov and fascists in Ukraine. Due to all the attention the video received from the media and politicians, people learned that, although the video seemed to be fake, Azov was very real. The Dutch voted 'no' against the agreement with Ukraine, and then learned another thing: the referendum turned out to be fake. Although they had said 'no' to Ukraine, their government said 'yes'.
Pieter 'MH17' Omtzigt
The hit piece of newspaper NRC on member of parliament Pieter Omtzigt came just before Ollongren had sent her letter to the parliament. Omtzigt was depicted by NRC as a politician disseminating Russian propaganda and spreading doubt about the findings of the official reports of the Dutch Security Board (DSB) and the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) of the Russian army having taken down MH17 with a BUK.
What happened? On May 11th Omtzigt had attended a panel discussion at De Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, about the legal aspects of the MH17 disaster. At the end of the panel discussion at the university, during the Q&As, someone from the public declared that he had seen other aircrafts in the sky near the Malaysian Airlines plane at the time it was shot down in July 2014. He then asked the participants from the panel who he should approach. Omtzigt then replied that he should submit his testimony to the Joint Investigation Team (JIT).
NRC revealed that Omtzigt had met with the man, Aleksandr R., before the meeting and had helped him to script his question. The paper also wrote R. had not been at home on the night of the crash, that he had already been interviewed by officials of JIT who had discounted him as a witness and that Omtzigt knew about this.
The NRC article led to a storm of reactions and it became immediately clear Omtzigt's position had become at stake. Elder statesman Frans Weisglas, a former chair of the Lower House, and prominent member of the ruling VVD party, tweeted that the allegations against Omtzigt, if proven, ‘justified his departure from Parliament’.
Why these attacks of NRC and VVD on Pieter Omtzigt? Omtzigt is a very popular politician. He has won a lot of praise for his tenacious campaigning on the MH17 investigation. But at the same time, he is a pain in the back to prime minister Mark Rutte. In May this year, Rutte accused Omtzigt of making ‘below the belt insinuations’ about MH17, and he also told him to choose between ‘continuing to make political capital out of MH17 or wanting us to reach a conclusion and hopefully convict the bad guys.’
And so no wonder, there are people trying to rid of Omtzigt, especially in Rutte's liberal VVD party.
As for NRC, in its mission statement, it clearly describes itself as a supporter of NATO. Former Secretary-General of NATO Anders Fogh Rasmussen had put the blame for the downing of MH17 on Russia from the beginning, even before the official investigations had started. He said the MH17 disaster was a tragic consequence of Russia’s 'reckless' policy in Ukraine.
NRC and VVD succeeded in their attack on Omtzigt. Although Omtzigt was allowed to remain in his job as a parliamentarian, he stepped down as spokesman on the MH17 crash. Much to the disappointment of chairman Piet Ploeg of Stichting Vliegramp MH17, a group of relatives of the victims, who has expressed his regret about the decision to take Omtzigt from the MH17 case. "He showed an unbelievable activity", Ploeg said. "It's a shame that someone like him with so much knowledge of the subject no longer can speak."
The attack on Omtzigt is now backfiring on NRC. Omtzigt-gate has become NRC-gate. Although Omtzigt regretted his intervention ("I behaved inappropriately at this meeting"), he denied he knew the man wasn't a genuine eyewitness. "A companion of an asylum seeker from Ukraine invited me to talk to him before the meeting", Omtzigt explained on his Facebook timeline. "Speaking through a translator, during a confusing conversation the man indicated he and his wife were in the area where MH17 came down - at least this was the impression I got."
"In addition, the man said no one wanted to listen to his story, and that he and his wife had relevant material at their disposal. When I understood the man wanted to speak at the meeting, I consulted both the moderator and lecturer (...) The man wanted to speak for half an hour, but he was allowed only a minute. He didn't know what element to pick from his long story. To help him with this I then sent him a text message with what I thought were the main points of what he wanted to say."
Both the moderator and the lecturer confirmed Omtzigt's story. Moderator Hella Hueck says she did not feel at the time that Omtzigt had tried to influence the discussion. "He helped me and the organizers to prevent the man from delivering a half-hour tirade," she told broadcaster WNL. "Also, he didn't arrange speaking time for him, because it was an open meeting,"
"It's a remarkable spin to suggest Omtzigt acted inflammatory or was even commissioned by the Russians", lecturer and organizer of the meeting Marieke de Hoon tweeted. In an additional tweet, she delicately noticed that NRC had written an article about a meeting not one of its reporters had witnessed.
Associate professor Erik Denters of the Vrije Universiteit, who had attended the meeting, reacted furiously. "NRC disseminates fake news", he wrote.
Etcetera, etcetera. Even journalists, normally not very eager to criticize each other, are now speaking out. Deputy editor of RTL Nieuws Pieter Klein has revealed NRC interviewed him about his impression of the MH17-meeting. Before publishing, NRC had let him read the article. Klein then told the reporter he only wanted to be quoted if his critical remarks about the paper's narrative were not to be left out." The NRC-reporter did not agree, and Klein wasn't quoted at all. "Life-threatening group-think", Klein criticised the editorial policy of NRC to "ban critical remarks from their columns", to "leave out relevant sidenotes" and to refuse "op-eds of people who had witnessed the meeting".
Chief-editor Hans Laroes of KRO-NCRV tweeted: "I think NRC is heading towards an internal crisis because of this Omtzigt-story."
This year NRC started compiling a file about Russian influences in The Netherlands. Yours truly asked Wilmer Heck, one of the contributors to the file and one of the two writers of the hit piece on Omtzigt, why he didn't write a set of articles about the American influences in The Netherlands. Heck then replied: "Is there anyone denying the long arm of Uncle Sam in The Netherlands? Not me. It's not for nothing we're in NATO with the US. It doesn't seem like a secret to me."
De Telegraaf reported that minister-counsellor Boris Zhilko of the Russian embassy in The Hague has called upon minister Kajsa Ollongren to prove Russia is disseminating fake news in The Netherlands. "We are craving evidence". He furthermore mentioned the fact that Ollongren holds two passports, a Dutch one and Swedish one. "In Russia, it's impossible for those who hold office under the government."
NRC has not yet rectified or made any excuse.
Pieter Omtzigt's party leader Sybrand Buma has not yet excused himself for getting Omtzigt removed from the MH17- case. Nor has he put him back on the case. Instead Buma has developed himself as the main 'Russian fake news' alarmist in the Dutch parliament.
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