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Suriname defamation law requires serious reform

An independent legal analysis has concluded that Suriname's defamation laws are in “serious need of revision”, says the International Press Institute (IPI).

The report, authored by Dr. Anthony L. Fargo, was produced as part of IPI's Campaign to Repeal Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean. Fargo is the director of the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies in the school of journalism at Indiana University.

In his analysis, Fargo outlines a number of concerns relative to the way in which the country's criminal code (Wetboek van Strafrecht) treats defamation. These include the lack of a specified defence of truth; harsh punishments, including the loss of civil rights; special protection for public institutions, public bodies and public symbols; and increased punishments for defamation of public officials.

IPI sent copies of the report, along with a letter from IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie, to key Surinamese legislators, including Assembly Speaker Dr. Jennifer Simons.

In her letter, Bethel McKenzie urged Suriname to adapt its defamation law to international standards. Such a reform, she said, “would benefit not only Surinamese journalists seeking to report on matters of public interest, but also Surinamese citizens generally, who should have the right to express their opinions without fear of legal action”.

IPI previously has expressed concern over Suriname's defamation laws. Individuals convicted of publicly expressing enmity, hatred or contempt toward the government of Suriname face up to seven years in prison. Insulting the Surinamese flag may lead to six months behind bars.

The Surinamese Criminal Code recognises several offences under the umbrella of defamation, including spoken defamation (smaad), libel (smaadschrift) and slander (laster). While Fargo found that all of these had problematic aspects, he expressed particular concern over the offence of insult (belediging).

He wrote: “The crime of 'insult' is so vague and vulnerable to abuse that it should be eliminated, particularly in regard to public officials, who should be able to withstand a certain degree of criticism, even unfair criticism, in return for the honor of being elected or appointed to serve the public.”

Currently, insult of the Surinamese head of state can lead to five years in prison plus the loss of certain civil rights, such as the right to vote or hold public office.

IPI visited Suriname in April 2013 as part of a wider mission to the Caribbean. Leading figures in both the ruling and opposition parties said they supported libel reform, but they emphasised the need to improve media standards.

IPI's report on the situation of press freedom in Suriname can be found here.

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