Media: Dutch website strives to raise children’s political awareness
March 17, 2006 1 Comment
The story of Taida Pasic has been a big news item in Dutch papers and on television in recent months. After her family’s application for asylum in the Netherlands was turned down last year, the 18-year-old highschool student was repatriated to Kosovo. But in January this year Taida re-entered the Netherlands on a tourist visa , because she wanted to sit the final school exams which would complete her six-year Dutch education. Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk however now wants her out of the country again and the young student faces deportation by the end of March, two months only before the exams.
While Taida’s fate, coupled with Minister Rita Verdonk’s hardline immigration policies, have piqued the interest of the media, has it also drawn the attention of Dutch schoolchildren?
Marinus, a 12-year-old schoolboy from Maastricht, admits that he does not know much about Taida’s story although he has seen her photograph in the news. Still, the issue of immigration is all too familiar to Marinus, whose mother comes from Brazil. He also discusses the topic at school and is able to clearly express his views on the Dutch government’s ongoing moves to restrict the influx of immigrants.
So when he read Verdonk’s interview in “Politiek4kids,” a website offering political news for children aged 10 to 15, Marinus was a bit sceptical. “Mrs Verdonk says people don’t have to go back to their country if it is not safe. But there are people who are forced to go back to countries that are not safe. She says she would never do that, but she’s just saying things that people want to hear and not what she actually does,” Marinus comments.
Although Marinus has never seen any asylum seeker at school, he has a few classmates whose parents have immigrated to the Netherlands and who have different customs. For example, his classmate from Turkey always brings bread and food from a special shop in an Islamic mosque and never from regular Dutch stores. Youp, a 14-year-old close friend of Marinus, says that in his class, there is a student from Syria who takes leave from school for the first two hours every Tuesday to pray at the mosque.
Children notice these differences and sometimes verbally aggress their Islamic classmates. For example, when they start an argument, non-Islamic children will poke fun at their Islamic comrades’ religious practices, knowing that these are their “weak point.” But for children, being Islamic does not have the same sort of long-lasting significance that it has on adults. So most of the time, according to Marinus and Youp, schoolchildren are able to make up and become friends again by the next day.
“It happens often that children in the classroom come from foreign countries. So it’s interesting for children to read my interview with Rita Verdonk”, says Peter Schavemaker, the founder and designer of Politiek4kids.
The website consists of interviews with politicians, news items and basic explanations about the work of political institutions. It currently gets 8,000-10,000 page views every month, while Schavemaker receives about 35 emails per week from children and parents.
Schavemaker, who has interviewed more than half of current Dutch ministers, always makes sure that the interviews are conducted in “children’s language”. “I ask ministers to pretend that I am 15 years old. I ask my questions in children’s language. And the ministers have to answer me in children’s language too,” he says. “If I don’t understand their answers, I tell them ‘Maybe you can say this again in children’s language.’ Then they have to think and rethink and rephrase their answer in children’s language,” Schavemaker explains.
Schavemaker prefers to use the interview format because he thinks it is better to let politicians expose their policies themselves. He also tries to give a “funny touch” to his interviews so that the stories become more interesting for his young readers. Verdonk for instance, despite her public image as the Iron Lady, reveals in her interview that she used to make French fries in a fast-food restaurant to earn some extra money when she was 14 and also that she likes Dutch pop singer Anouk.
“That’s the kind of story you never read about ministers,” says Schavemaker. “Children find these details important because then they understand that the minister is just a person like you and me.”
Formerly a journalist for nearly 20 years, Schavemaker founded the website on 21 March last year. When he was working in The Hague, he suddenly realised that there were no politics-related magazines or websites for children. This was something to be remedied, because according to him 80 per cent of all political topics are related in some way to children.
“Every politician is helping me with the website now. No politician has said ‘No’ to my requests for interviews because they understand that children are the future and that they have to talk to children,” says Schavemaker.
With his website reaching its one-year anniversary, Schavemaker is now busy working on a special page about Europe because he thinks that Europe will become even more important in the future. At present, Dutch MEPs are “not doing their utmost to reach Dutch children,” he notes.
Schavemaker also plans to launch an English-language version of the website in coming months, in order to meet requests from foreign MEPs and government officials. The English version will target children in broader Europe and new features will include columns by the youngest European MEPs about what it is like to be young and member of the European Parliament already.
But do children actually talk about politics?
“The European Union, I think it’s cool,” says Youp, although he complains that in his opinion everything has become more expensive after the introduction of the common currency euro.
Youp also says that he and his classmates discuss some of major political issues at school twice or three times a week, such as the legality of smoking marijuana in the Netherlands: “Most kids ask: “Why is it legal in Holland but not legal in France or Belgium?”. Some kids say it’s cool that way because they want to smoke weed in the future. But I think it’s not good for you especially when you are in school because you still need your brains.”
As for Dutch politicians, including Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, Marinus compliments them in a cynical way: “Dutch politicians don’t change things in the Netherlands. That’s a good thing because politicians usually make problems worse. So it’s OK to keep them as long as they don’t make problems worse.”
By Rie Ishiguro