Published On: Mon, Aug 7th, 2017

Proposed Suriname defamation law setback for freedom of expression in the Caribbean

wesley_gibbingsPARAMARIBO - In an effort to curb criticism on the government, and especially the president, the Suriname government has submitted a draft bill to parliament in which insulting the president on social media is punishable by either imprisonment or fines.

During Thursday’s first debate on the draft bill ‘Electronic Legal Transactions’, member of parliament Stephen Tsang argued that “we will have to be more careful and be more polite against each other online”.

Beside the proposed legislation parliament is also aiming at revitalizing several dormant defamation laws dating from Suriname’s colonial era.

Meanwhile several national and regional organizations, including the Surinamese Association of Journalists (SVJ) and the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), have voiced their concern regarding the draft bill.

“The introduction of this proposed law is a significant backward step for freedom of expression in the Caribbean. In many places in the Latin America and the Caribbean, so-called insult laws are being shunned, repealed and generally condemned as being contrary to constitutional provisions that guarantee free expression,” said ACM president Wesley Gibbings, in an invited comment.

He further noted that the ACM “has observed a general tendency to reverse gains made over the years”.

"It's very worrying that the parliament wants to make a special law to protect the president from insult. The president is not above the law. You may say about the president what you want. If he believes that he is offended he should seek remedy by going to court as every other citizen. That’s how it works in a democracy," said SVJ chairman, Wilfred Leeuwin.

He further argued that the right to free speech is anchored in the Surinamese constitution.

“Therefore you cannot punish those who exercise this right with imprisonment. You can’t criminalize someone who is exercising their constitutional rights,” he said.

Both Leeuwin and Gibbings believe that the proposed legislation will have a negative impact on Suriname’s positive international rating regarding press freedom and human rights.

“It is a virtual guarantee that the ratings agencies that look at issues of press freedom internationally will score this development negatively,” Gibbings added.

The SVJ president argued that for the past several years Suriname has received very positive ratings regarding press freedom from organizations such as Reporters Without Borders.

According to Gibbings following ACM’s intensive joint campaign with the International Press Institute and others within recent years, countries such as Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have either partially or entirely removed jail terms for defamation from their statute books. Recent signals from Guyana suggest such a change might be coming sooner rather than later.

“We encourage Suriname to follow this trend,” he said.

Meanwhile, the SVJ is preparing a letter to send to parliament in which it expresses its serious concern about the proposed legislation. Parliament will be urged to reconsider the introduction of the new law. While the ACM is not resourced to provide certain assistance, according to Gibbings, his organization has partnerships with other international organizations that “are quite keen to work with governments and interested NGOs to ensure they get the legislation right, meaning that such laws are in compliance with free expressions norms at the global level.”

By Ivan Cairo

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