Information Law alumnus Jan van Vegchel is the winner of the 2019 UvA Thesis Prize. He investigated ways that members of the public might counter inaccurate media publications about them by invoking a “right of reply”. In his letter of recommendation, supervisor Tarlach McGonagle described the thesis as an "academic page-turner" and a "high-quality contribution to the public debate".
What instruments can the fishmonger use to defend himself publicly after reading in the newspaper or on a website that the fish he sells is rotten? Might the introduction in the Netherlands of a right of reply provide a worthwhile and perhaps even necessary supplement to existing corrective measures? If so, what would a Dutch right of reply look like in practice? Jan van Vegchel's thesis addresses these threequestions.
“Bitten by the law bug”
Jan van Vegchel obtained a degree on this topic in 2018 after a career in journalism spanning more than 25 years.And that is where he developed his fascination with the law. Van Vegchel: “The immediate cause was an incident involving a police officer appearing at our editorial offices (Omroep West) one day requesting that he be allowed to have the IP address of a person who had submitted a comment on our website because that person gave the impression that he had knowledge of a criminal offence about which we had written. That got me wondering what our rights were as a journalistic medium, which prompted me to enrol in a propaedeutic course at the Open University - "Introduction to Law". After that,I never really stopped. That's how interesting I thought it was. You might say I was bittenby the law bug.”
According to the jury, Jan van Vegchel produced "a solid, societally relevant and topical thesis". In it, Van Vegchel researched the ways in which members of the public can challenge incorrect or incomplete media publications about them. He asserts that this is something that has not been adequately addressed in the Netherlands and that it would do well to follow the example of other European countries that do recognise a right toreply.
According to Van Vegchel, the issue he raises is a highly topical one to Dutch society. The very future of journalism lies largely in its reliability. While this has always been an important issue in journalism, in the present-day digital era it could prove to be a unique selling point. At the same time, many members of the public complain about the media's unreliability, especially when they find themselves to be the subject of media attention. In practice, it is also painfully obvious that the media is not immune to making mistakes and that faulty reporting can have very unfortunate consequences for those involved, especially, once again, in the digital era, where reporting remains traceable forever. In addition, the existing instruments that people use to defend themselves from faulty reporting tend not to function optimally.”
Supervisor Tarlach McGonagle also praised the societal perspective of the thesis in his letter of recommendation. “This thesis is an academic "page-turner", the writing beautifully refreshing and a joy to read from start to finish. It is a fine example of a high-quality academic contribution to the public debate, and one that is worthy of considerable praise.”
Jan van Vegchel currently lectures on journalism skills at the Grafisch Lyceum Rotterdam. In addition, he works two days a week at the Amsterdam law firm ABC Legal. As the winnerof the UvA Thesis Prize, he was awarded 3,000 euros, a sum that he will probably use for a doctoral programme.