Article Suriname: Draft Legislation on Electronic Transactions Includes Provision on Insulting President

(Aug. 25, 2017) It was reported on August 7, 2017, that the Government of Suriname has submitted draft legislation on electronic commercial transactions to the parliament. (Ivan Cairo, Proposed Suriname Defamation Law Setback for Freedom of Expression in the Caribbean, CARIBBEAN NEWS NOW (Aug. 7, 2017).) The draft law addresses communications between government and citizens, the protection of personal data, the organization of electronic commerce, and the fight against cybercrime; it also provides for the use of electronic agreements, transactions, and signatures. (Wilfred Leeuwin, Laster en belediging via sociale media aan banden [Slander and Insult via Social Media], DWTONLINE.COM (Aug. 3, 2017).)

An electronic transaction is defined in the draft document as one or more transactions involving the sale or purchase of goods and services mediated by computer networks through which goods and services can be ordered but whose payment and final delivery is also possible without the use of such networks. (Onderwerp: aanbíeding Ontwerpwet houdende regels ínzake elektronisch handelsverkeer (Wet Elektronísch Handelsverkeer) [Subject Matter: Presentation of Draft Law on Electronic Commercial Transactions (Electronic Commercial Transactions Act)] (text as of Sept. 21, 2016), art. 1(o), Suriname National Assembly website.)

The draft legislation also contains a controversial provision that makes insulting the country’s president on social media an offense punishable with fines or imprisonment. (Cairo, supra.) This provision is meant to curb criticism of the government and in particular of the president; during the first debate on the draft law, one member of parliament asserted that it is necessary to be more careful and polite online. (Id.)

At the same time, the parliament is reportedly intending to revitalize “several dormant defamation laws dating from Suriname’s colonial era.” (Id.)

Criminal Code Provisions on Insulting the Head of State

Insulting the president is already criminalized under the current laws of Suriname. Article 152 of the Criminal Code provides, for example, that intentional insult of the head of state or the acting head of state is punishable with imprisonment of up to five years and a fourth category fine (SRD50,000, about US$6,707). (Wet van 30 maart 2015, houdende nadere wijziging van het Wetboek van Strafrecht (G.B. 1911 no. 1, zoals laatstelijk gewijzigd bij S.B. 2012 no. 70) in verband met herziening van het Wetboek van Strafrecht [Law of 30 March 2015, Amending the Criminal Code (G.B. 1911 No. 1, as last amended by S.B. 2012 No. 70) in Connection with the Revision of the Criminal Code, STAATSBLAD VAN DE REPUBLIEK SURINAME No. 44 (2015).)

Under article 153, possession or distribution of content that insults the head of state or acting head of state in writing, with an image, or using data from an automated work is punishable with a prison term of up to one year and a fine of the third category (SRD25,000), or both; the same punishment applies to one who has knowledge of or is suspected of having knowledge of such content and openly conveys it to an audience.

Furthermore, the court may deprive convicted offenders of certain civil rights, such as the right to be appointed to public office, to practice certain professions, to elect or be elected to general representative bodies, and to travel freely in Suriname. (Id. art. 46(1); Suriname: Criminal Defamation, International Press Institute website (last visited Aug. 22, 2017).)

The existing articles on criminal insult and defamation are called muilkorfwetten (muzzle laws) by the media, journalists, politicians, and trade union leaders and date back to the Dutch colonial period when it was forbidden to speak negatively or offensively about the royal house of the Netherlands.  (Leeuwin, supra.)

Reactions to the Proposed Legislation

The Surinamese Association of Journalists (SVJ) and the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), among other local and regional organizations, have expressed concern about the draft law. The president of the ACM, Wesley Gibbings, views the provision on insulting the president as “a significant backward step for freedom of expression in the Caribbean,” noting that in much of the region, “so-called insult laws are being shunned, repealed and generally condemned as being contrary to constitutional provisions that guarantee free expression.” (Cairo, supra.) According to Gibbings, after an intensive joint campaign the ACM carried out with the International Press Institute and other organizations in recent years, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago have removed prison terms for defamation from their laws, either entirely or in part, and Guyana might follow suit in the near future. (Id.)

Wilfred Leeuwin, head of the SVJ, commented “[i]t’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. …  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.” (Id.)

The SVJ organization plans to submit a letter to parliament urging it to reconsider the legislation. (Id.) Both Leeuwin and Gibbings believe, moreover, that the proposed law would negatively impact Suriname’s positive international rating from organizations such as Reporters Without Borders for press freedom and human rights. (Id.)

In contrast, former Vooruitstrevende Hervormingspartij (Progressive Reform Party) member of parliament Sharmila Kalidien-Mansaram defended the draft legislation and asserted that it is not a muzzle law. She pointed out that the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed under article 19 of the Suriname Constitution, but added that the article’s clause “subject to the responsibility of all as set forth in the law” means that no one in the country may be unrestricted in expressing opinions. (Sharmila Kalidien-Mansaram, Elektronisch Rechtsverkeer is geen ‘muilkorfwet’ [The Electronic Transaction Act Is Not a ‘Muzzle Law’], STAR NIEUWS(Aug. 7, 2017); Suriname’s Constitution of 1987 with Amendments Through 1992, CONSTITUTE PROJECT.) The former MP also noted that there are distinctions made in the law between defamation (smaad), slander (laster), and “ordinary” insult (‘gewone’ belediging) and that it is forbidden to make insults against public officials, the judiciary, the royal house, and friendly heads of state. (Id.)

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