Insert photo: Evangelist Jaap Dielemans/Screenshot from YouTube/Dutch Rabobank kiosk. Wikipedia
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Dutch banks deny vaccine skeptics a platform to counter ‘conspiracy theories’

In The Netherlands, banks and payment services will be blocking the accounts of organizations they believe spread "misinformation" about Covid vaccines. Over the past months at least eight online sites were either listed as deferred or simply had their accounts closed.

Published: August 20, 2021, 12:48 pm

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    Dutch outlet NRC conducted its own research on the money flows from anti-vaccine organizations, also regarding the Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Prevention Act, according to the newspaper. The measure was taken to combat “extremism” and “dangerous” messaging. The financial service providers refusing these clients include the ING, Triodos Bank, Rabobank and payment platform Mollie.

    A Rabobank spokesperson confirmed to NRC that it no longer accepted customers who spread “conspiracy theories and other proven disinformation” because the bank considers their actions “harmful”.

    Anti-vaccine Dutch evangelist Jaap Dieleman saw his payment account with Mollie discontinued in February. Dieleman reaches millions of Dutch households. According to Mollie, Dieleman’s stance against getting vaccinated “do not fit with Mollie’s business operations”. Mollie also banned Café Weltschmerz, a popular YouTube channel that has called the Coronavirus narrative a conspiracy.

    Other service providers have refused to open accounts for prospective anti-vaccine clients. Triodos bank has refused to allow action group Viruswaarheid as a customer, since the group “called for confrontations that are at odds with our values”. NRC quoted from the refusal email the bank had sent to Viruswaarheid.

    ING had previously suspended the Viruswaarheid account of Covid critic Willem Engel, but a court had ruled that there had been no concrete evidence of money laundering or other criminal activities. In addition, the foundation’s interests – which had been threatened by the lack of access to funding – outweighed that of the bank, the court said, ordering ING to allow Engel access to the account – but only for four months.

    Engel started Viruswaanzin [virus madness] in May 2020 after his business was shut down due to Corona measures. It was later renamed Viruswaarheid. Engel maintains that corruption in the government has ruined many people, and that the number of deaths from Covid-19 are on par with those during a normal flu season. In early 2021 he launched a court case to challenge the curfew that had been decreed by the Dutch government, and the court found that he was right to the extent that there had been insufficient legal justification for the government’s curfew.

    The government appealed the ruling which had been in Engel’s favour and with a sped-up procedure passed a law that provided the legal fig-leaf for their illegal measure. The amendment was accepted by the House of Representatives on 18 February 2021, and by the Senate on the next day, the same day on which appeal was going to be heard by a higher court – which then nullified the lower court’s judgment.

    Publisher De Blauwe Tijger also saw its services suspended with ING after anti-terrorism coordinator NCTV labeled it “a conduit for anti-government propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories”. The publisher translated Camp of the Saints, a dystopian novel on mass immigration by Jean Raspail in 2016 after a Belgian edition appeared in 2015 by the publishing house Egmont, which is affiliated with Vlaams Belang.

    Without a bank account, many platforms can no longer receive donations, which is often their only source of income. Other financial transactions also become impossible, which could mean the end of the organization.

    ING’s fervour may be because of a settlement that it had reached for hundreds of millions with the judiciary because of criminal money transfers, ensuring that banks have started to shy away from “risky” customers. That now includes “conspiracy theorists”.

    After the account of Café Weltschmerz was closed down by Mollie in mid-April, a similar channel Blckbx was put on hold. A Mollie employee told Blckbx that the move may be the result of criticism of government policy. Only when Blckbx published the telephone conversation with the employee online, an apology followed. Mollie now claims it made an “administrative error” and would still accept Blckbx as a customer, according to a spokesperson.

    “We had been a customer of Mollie’s for several months. Suddenly we received an email that they were unilaterally canceling the agreement,” Flavio Pasquino of Blckbx explained. Blckbx receives donations through Mollie. “That’s not just an intervention. Donations are our most important cash flow. They basically flattened the lifeline.”

    When Pasquino called Mollie to object, he was told that his critical attitude to government policy was a reason. The same day, the decision was reversed and another Mollie employee apologized. Pasquino published the phone calls online. “You see that these types of companies also have to deal with polarization internally,” he said.

    Mollie founder Adriaan Mol says that there is no policy to “repel or close customers because of the customer’s opinion”. “That has never been the case. An employee may have said something different, but that is only one employee.”

    Café Weltschmerz meanwhile has teamed up with another payment service. “We have an excellent relationship with our bank Triodos,” said Steven Lenderink, Weltschmerz’s financial manager – even though Trodios had banned Engel.

    “Pure discrimination against dissenters,” Jaap Dieleman told NRC. In February, after the evangelist from Zeewolde distributed the magazine Eyeopener to millions of readers, payment service Mollie, which processes his donations, cancelled his account.

    The same happened to the collective Artsen voor Waarheid [Doctors for Truth] run by Elke de Klerk, after the group sent a letter to all general practitioners warning them that they themselves were going to be held liable for the side effects of Covid-19 vaccines. Ali Niknam, a Canadian born in Iran, and founder and CEO of Bunq Bank, initially did not want to respond to the account closure of the medical collective, only stating that his bank wanted to comply with “the law”.

    The account had been in De Klerk’s name, according to Niknam. “In general we don’t allow it to use a personal account for business purposes.” According to Niknam, this is done to prevent money laundering. Since the cancellation of the account, the collective has asked for donations via a foreign account and Bitcoin.

    Financial service providers have thus actively been banning internet channels questioning the vaccine drive.

    Department of Counter Terrorism Finance

    Rabobank seems to be most over-zealous in closing down dissenters. The bank has a Counter Terrorism Finance department that actually investigates Corona “conspiracy theorists”. This was revealed from an internal message for bank employees entitled “How does Rabo arm itself against dangerous conspiracy theories and extremism?”

    “Some of the extremists can already be prosecuted. That is usually the smallest group consisting of diehard radicals,” noted the bank. Reference is made to public attacks with fireworks bombs. “But there is a larger club that spreads the ideas and thus makes radical actions possible. …What do we do with that?”, the bank wondered. They provided the answer in the same document: “Rabobank does not facilitate initiatives that actively spread conspiracy theories and other proven disinformation.” It even concerns customers who do not cross the line from a legal point of view: “We mainly focus on the activists, because the radicals can already be tackled via the Wwft [law against money laundering and terrorism, ed.].”

    Afraid of negative publicity

    The banks often spring into action after organizations become public targets of smear campaigns. Can banks simply cancel an account because of conspiracy thinking? No, says Yvonne Willemsen, head of security affairs at the Dutch Banking Association. “You can keep out new customers, but if you want to close an existing account, you have to arrive with good documentation, especially in court.” According to Willemsen, banks are wary of negative publicity. “If the media or the NCTV warn about corona extremists, banks will look at it very seriously. They include such a signal in their risk assessment of a customer.”

    Banks more often go too far when canceling bank accounts of customers with a controversial profile, Gijs Bronzwaer, PhD student in criminal law at Radboud University in Nijmegen, told NRC. “They sometimes use anti-money laundering and terrorist financing legislation as an excuse to cancel certain customers when the law is not intended for that purpose.” According to Bronzwaer, financial institutions can draw up acceptance criteria on the basis of which customers are excluded. “For example, Triodos refused sex workers’ association Proud in 2015 because that organization would be incompatible with the bank’s mission.”

    However, according to Bronzwaer, cancelling a bank account is more difficult. “There must be a valid reason for the termination of the relationship. The mere fact that someone is interpreting conspiracy theories does not seem to me to be sufficient grounds for closing an account. The bank will then have to demonstrate that its reputation is really at stake at the hands of the customer. Especially if such a customer cannot go to other banks.”

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