Legal proceedings were set to begin today against a Surinamese newsmagazine that was sued by a former government minister after the magazine detailed wide-ranging allegations of corruption against him.
The minister, Ramon Abrahams, was removed from his post as public works minister in June 2013, approximately one-and-a-half months before Parbode, the magazine, published its account. The magazine relied heavily on anonymous sources for its story, including, it claims, civil servants within the Ministry of Public Works.
Jaap Hoogendam, Parbode’s publisher, indicated in a telephone interview with the International Press Institute (IPI) that the reported sources would likely not be named or appear in any affidavits given the sensitivity of their position. However, he said that the magazine did have information that it could present to back up its story. The proceedings will not be conducted as an open trial; rather, the judge will consider written petitions by lawyers from both parties over a period of several weeks.
Abrahams is demanding both a printed rectification as well as damages in the amount of SRD 1 million (€250,000), according to reports.
IPI called on the court to consider the case in an independent manner, and to allow Parbode to present evidence for their claims as part of a full and fair defence.
“All individuals, including public officials, have a right to reputation, which civil courts can help protect,” IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said. “But courts should also consider the public interest value of exposing alleged corruption of a government’s minister, as well as the due diligence and good faith employed by the journalist in collecting and disseminating information about this case. All these, together with truthfulness, are legitimate defences that should be taken into account by courts when ruling on defamation cases. This will ensure that the media is able to carry out its function in support of democracy and hold public officials accountable for their actions.”
She added: “We urge the court to keep this in mind when making a final decision.”
IPI visited Suriname on a fact-finding mission in April as part of its Campaign to Repeal Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean. While a number of leading government officials with whom IPI met appeared to support for the repeal of the country’s criminal defamation laws, many expressed concern over what they viewed as the media’s lack of responsible reporting.
However, IPI’s <media 5167 – external-link-new-window “Opens external link in new window”>mission report</media> also noted that the government did not always fully acknowledge the role of the media in a democratic society. The country’s vice-president, for example, stated earlier this year that the media were “in the service of the government”.
In the report, IPI commented: “[J]ournalists serve only the Surinamese people, to whom journalists have an obligation to provide factual and balanced information, whether or not this information is to the government’s liking.