Suriname

 

By Brooke Wilhelm

suriname flag

The Flag of Suriname

Introduction

 

If the country of Suriname in South America seems unfamiliar, it helps to know about its key geographic points. Suriname is one of the eight countries that are touched by the world’s largest Amazon River Basin which is home to the Amazon Rainforest. The basin is approximately the size of forty-eight contiguous states in the United States. The Amazon Rainforest also been referred to as the “Lungs of the World” because more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced here. (The Amazon: The World’s Largest Rainforest).

According to the World Press Freedom Index, the country of Suriname is ranked number 22. This ranking jumped up seven spots from the previous year of 2016. Suriname has acquired a relatively high standing on the freedom scale with 77/100, (1 is less free & 100 is most free).  This country did not achieve independence until 1977 and suffered years of post war trauma up until cleanup started happening between 1996 and 1998.

Historical Background

“The majority of the country’s political activity takes place in the capital, Paramaribo, with a narrow belt running east and west of it along the coast” (Suriname Human Rights Reports). Suriname has a population of 500,000, all living “wedged between heavily silted waters of the Caribbean to the north and dense pristine rainforest to the south” (Youkee, Mat). What Suriname lacks in population, they make up for it by diversity, and they do it well. The Republic of Suriname was freed from colonialism and won its independence from the Netherlands in 1977. It was a violent guerilla war. During a personal interview with Walter Wilhelm, some feedback on post-independence was given. Wilhelm began working overseas in Suriname in 1996. He said that the aftermath was still lingering, and the roads were filthy. He said had yet to begin cleaning up because they could not afford it. The people of Suriname finally began cleaning in 1998. Wilhelm says that the government was taking money out of the people’s bank accounts in order to pay for it. This put the people in a bind, especially the tribes that were already living in poverty. Food import was also something else Suriname struggled to get because of their lack of funds. Wilhelm said ships would come into port with food and if the money was not there, he actually watched a ship turn around and leave (Wilhelm, Walter).

Since the time of winning their independence, Suriname has created a structured government system like that of the United States. The country has established a legislative, judicial, and executive branch. The elected president and vice president both serve a five-year term, with no term limits. The people of Suriname give a lot of praise and or respect to their president in office even more specific, to their current president, Desi Bouterse. The National Assembly of Suriname elects a president based on a two-thirds vote; if a decision cannot be made then it goes to the People Assembly.

Freedom of Speech   

Article 19 of the Republic of Suriname Constitution states, “Everyone has the right to make public his thoughts or feelings and to express his opinion through the printed press or other means of communication, notwithstanding everyone’s responsibility according to the law” (Constitution of Suriname, 1987). The United States is fully equipped with judges and courts in every county and higher levels; which allows for more access to a trial. This is an important right for people because their protected rights of speech, along with civil and criminal issues will be acted on. The right to trial is a way for people to stand up for their right and use free speech in order to express and protect themselves. Suriname has struggled with accessing many fair trials because of their “lack of judges, which limited the effectiveness of the civilian and military courts. There were seven permanent judges and five deputy judges for the entire country” (Suriname Country Reports).

Efforts to control speech and information are increasing by both governments and private actors in the form of censorship, restrictions on access, and violent acts directed against those whose views or doubts are seen as somehow dangerous or wrong. The establishment of the amnesty law in Suriname strongly suggests that the government censored speech when it became highly related the law and who was in power. President Desi Bourterse, as mentioned later on was the prime suspect of the December murders. Opponents, including journalists were killed. The amnesty law was created that would omit the president from being convicted for any crime committed between 1980 and 1991. This was a huge move for Suriname and it infuriated many of its people and the media because of the power he held. With this law being passed their speech and jobs in the media become more censored and they were not allowed to discuss the matter to the public without being penalized.

Freedom of the Press

“The constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice “Suriname-Country Reports). As of 2004,there were 3 daily newspapers, 11 television stations, and approximately 25 radio stations. Three television stations and two radio stations were publicly owned. Three companies, one owned publicly, provided cable television, which included foreign channels” (Suriname Human Rights Reports). “However, some media outlets engage in occasional self-censorship due to fear of reprisal from members of the former military leadership or pressure from senior government officials and others who object to critical stories about the administration” (Suriname-Country Reports). Suriname has been mostly recognized as being a generally free country. The revolution for independence and what was known as the 1982 December Murders put a vast dent in media freeness. “Fifteen prominent opponents of Suriname’s military dictatorship were brought to the fort, tortured, and executed against the wall. The prime suspect was Dési Bouterse, coup leader, military dictator, drug runner, and, since 2010, the hugely popular, democratically elected president of Suriname” (Mat Youkee). So the people and press of Suriname feared to say or publish anything that portrayed Bouterse to be the murderer, or words opposing the government.  As far as media goes, there was a case Parbode, a magazine that publishes investigative reporting and opinion pieces was being sued by a former minister Ramon Abrahams. Abrahams was seeking 230,000 Euros which is 1 million Surinamese dollars in damages. The risk of maybe having to pay this amount to the plaintiff put not only would put Parbode out of business, but would cost the reporters that worked there their jobs. Abrahams was also asking for a correction to be made in the next publishing, and Reporter’s Without Borders responded to this by stating that “this would be tantamount to self-censorship. As a public figure, the former minister should expect to be criticized.” “With few attacks on journalists and a varied media landscape, Surinam gets fairly good marks these days for its respect for freedom of information. Media Freedoms in the America’s suffered a downfall in 2015 because of “mounting political tension in many countries fueled by economic recession, uncertainty about the future and weakening solidarity between communities” (2016 World Press Freedom Index Gives Suriname High Marks). Suriname did not follow this trend, instead as mentioned in the introduction they climbed up seven ranking spots.

Critical Comparison

In comparison to the United States, Suriname is ranked higher at 22 and the United States at 41. People in America seem to believe that the United States is the “freest” country in the world, but based on this scale it is not. When Suriname first gained their independence from the Netherlands they had a civilian government that was later overthrown by a military regime. Over a span of five years, the regime was overthrown and Suriname was able to restore a civilian government. Suriname sought guidance from the United States because they were freshly independent and had little experience of running a democracy on their own.  “Since the reestablishment of a democratic, elected government in 1991, the United States has maintained positive and mutually beneficial relations with Suriname based on the principles of democracy, respect for human rights, rule of law, and civilian authority over the military. To strengthen civil society and bolster democratic institutions, the U.S. has provided training regarding appropriate roles for the military in civil society to some of Suriname’s military officers and decision makers” (Suriname Human Rights Reports).

Suriname has experienced similar issues that the United States has regarding media freedoms; for example, the suppression of speech when publishing about a public figure. The Supreme Court case, New York Times v. Sullivan gives news outlets leg room to report on public figures with protection from getting sued in return. In Suriname, media outlets like Pardobe that generated its work based on the public also had threats of being sued. Both countries, the United States and Suriname, are run by a democracy. In Suriname journalists put their lives in danger when they publish stories on corruption, drug-trafficking and cyber-surveillance. Punishment by these types of releases to the public infringes on each of the Countries Constitutions because they both protect the right to free speech and free press. But in many repeating instances, there’s a thin line that prevents them to do so. This is one way that both governments have restricted the right of their people. Journalist that sacrifice their job or in some cases their life do so by informing the public of matters that they should have a right to know about. At the end of the day, both governments can tinker and gain control when they feel as needed, but with Suriname’s population only being 500,000 compared to the 300 million in the United States, directly impacts the people in Suriname more strictly and directly. “Freedoms are very much under threat due to the government’s own policies concerning secrecy, leak prevention, and officials’ contact with the media, combined with large-scale surveillance programs. Although it is has been a surfaced issue in Suriname, it is worse in the United States. If the United States fails to address these concerns promptly and effectively, it could do serious, long-term damage to the fabric of democracy in the country” (With Liberty to Monitor All).

In 1918, after the United States entered World War I, a law was made in Montana called the State Sedition Law. Similar to others that have been brought to attention throughout history, this law stated that a crime may be punishable by a fine up to $20,000 and a prison term of up to 20 years, if one were to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous, slurring, or abusive language” in wartime about the government…” (Lewis, Anthony). In Suriname, ““public expression of hatred” towards the government is punishable by up to seven years in prison under a draconian defamation law” (2016 World Press Freedom Index Gives Suriname High Marks).

Conclusion

Suriname is a country that “lies off of the grid” to most people, but it has experienced a few events that put it on the map. The December murders in 1982 were Suriname’s major political event. To put into perspective, remember the JFK assassination and the Watergate scandal that happened in the United States? The December murders event in Suriname was as bad as those two events rolled into one. (Youkee, Mat). Overall Suriname has been mostly consistent in being a free country, and it also has the potential to keep growing and progressing as a democracy. With Suriname being newly independent it could hurt them or help them, because their government is still progressing and if matters are handled correctly Suriname will succeed, but they have some room for error and improvement.
Works Cited

Dew, Edward M. The Trouble in Suriname, 1975-1993. Westport, Praeger Publishers, 2016.

Lewis, Anthony. Freedom For the Thought That We Hate. New York, Basic Books, 2009.

Price, Richard. Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights: Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

“Constitution of Suriname, 1987.” Constitution Society, http://www.constitution.org/cons/suriname.htm. Accessed 20 Mar. 2017.

“Constitution of the Republic of Suriname.” Parliament, Waterfront Press, http://www.parliament.am/library/sahmanadrutyunner/surinam.pdf. Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.

“Suriname-Country Reports.” Freedom House, Freedom House, 2017, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/suriname. Accessed 25 Mar. 2017.

“Suriname Human Rights Reports.” NC. BUY, Net Cent Communications, 2016, http://www.ncbuy.com/reference/country/humanrights.html?code=ns&sec=2a. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

“Surinam.” Reporters Without Borders, 2016, https://rsf.org/en/surinam. Accessed 25 Mar. 2017.

“The Amazon: The World’s Largest Rainforest.” Amazonswim, June 2007, http://www.amazonswim.com/main.php?S=1&Folder=1. Accessed 8 Apr. 2017.

Warner, Kelly. “U.S. Defamation Law and Standards.” Kelly Warner Law, 2017. Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

“With Liberty to Monitor All.” HRW, 28 July 2014, https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/07/28/liberty-monitor-all/how-large-scale-us-surveillance-harming-journalism-law-and. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Wilhelm, Walter. Personal Interview. 22 Mar. 2017.

Youkee, Mat. “Prime Suspect.” Slate, 18 Dec. 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/roads/2015/12/suriname_s_president_is_the_prime_suspect_in_a_1982_murder.html. Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.\

“2016 World Press Freedom Index Gives Suriname High Marks.” Loop: Your News Now, Loop News, 20 Apr. 2016, http://www.loopsuriname.com/content/2016-world-press-freedom-index-gives-suriname-high-marks. Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.

 

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2017.

 

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