How to silence investigative journalism

Here is a way to silence investigative journalism, probably not unique. Insurance companies hold an important key. The case of the Belgian news site apache.be.

Apache is one of these investigative news outlets one finds in many countries these days. Independent journalism, motivated professional journalists, fact finders, no ads, pain in the establishment’s asses. Dependent on donations or subscriptions or both. Many have small audiences, continuously fight to pay the butcher and the baker. Apache now is 10 years old and only in 2020 got into a somewhat calmer financial situation with 5,700 subscribers contributing around 80 euro a year. No surpluses yet, trying to invest in the next investigation and then one more.

Since 2016, Apache’s chief editor Karl van den Broeck doesn’t need a route planner to find his way to the Antwerp courts. He and his publication are being buried in court cases. Almost all come from one group of businesspeople, Eric van der Paal and others of Land Invest Group and affiliates, a real estate group that got the contract from the city of Antwerp to develop the old city slaughterhouse site. And Apache exposed dodgy politics behind the intimate friends Van der Paal and Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever (Flemish nationalist party N·VA and most powerful politician in Belgium).

First complaint in 2016. Apache won that one in 2018. Next in 2017, Apache won that one too, in January 2021. Van der Paal appeals, “into the European courts if necessary” – note: the public prosecutor said there was no case, but the court wanted to go through. In 2020, a unilateral petition to the court that Van der Paal won in first instance; the final verdict to follow later. Result: an article on Van der Paal was taken off the site with a penalty of 5000 euros a day it stayed online (it’s back on, challenging the petitioning party). Karl van den Broeck quotes Van der Paal saying: “I’m retiring. From now on you are my hobby.” Van der Paal had private detectives follow Apache journalists (which led to a debate on stalking of journalists in the European Parliament). “Pure intimidation,” the chief editor says.

This way of stalking a publication not only damages the publication. Apache has an insurance policy for court cases (that leaves tens of thousands of euros uncovered). The insurance company is getting irritated. Their conclusion: they don’t offer legal expenses insurance any more to news outlets.

Ha, there is the recipe: crush investigative news outlets with court cases and legal expenses until their coffers are empty and until the insurance companies walk away. Don’t even argue on facts or research results. Waste their money and their time.

Some people go incredible lengths to suffocate the freedom of the press.

One element of hope: Apache’s readership is growing, at a record pace since early 2020. Apparently, there is a need for independent journalism.

Author: Toon Lowette

Toon Lowette started working in online publishing in 1982 as researcher, publisher and consultant, after six years as economics jourmalist. In July 2018, he retired and moved from Belgium to Spain, (among other things) important interest areas are privacy, protection of personal data, the right to oblivion, and democracy.