The government has introduced the ‘Electronic Legal “bill to Parliament and one legislator, Stephen Tsang, has warned “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 back to the Dutch-speaking Caribbean Community (CARICOM) country’s colonial era.
Several national and regional organizations, including the Surinamese Association of Journalists (SVJ) and the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (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 In many places in the Latin America and the Caribbean, so-called insult laws are being shunned, repealed and generally condemned as being contrary to constitutional provisions that guarantee free expression”, said ACM-president Wesley Gibbing.
He said that the ACM “has observed a general tendency to reverse gains made over the years”.
SVJ chairman, Wilfred Leeuwin, said “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 Leeuwin.
He said 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.”
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,” said Gibbings.
The SVJ president said that for the past several years Suriname has received very positive ratings regarding press freedom from organizations such as Reporters Without Borders.
Gibbings said that following the ACM’s intensive 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 said it is preparing a letter to send to Parliament expressing its “serious concerns” about the proposed legislation.
Parliament will be urged to reconsider the introduction of the new law.
Gibbings said that the ACM and its regional and international partners “are quite keen to work with governments and interested NGO’s to ensure they get the legislation right, meaning that such laws are in compliance with free expressions norms at the global level.”
- Countries: Suriname