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Int’l media watchdogs concerned by Abrahams vs Parbode suit

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PARAMARIBO–Two international media watchdogs -Reporters Without Borders RSF and the International Press Institute (IPI) – have squared themselves behind investigative monthly Parbode that has been sued by a former Government Minister for reporting that he was corrupt.  

 

Ramon Abrahams, who until last June served as Minister of Public Works is seeking 1 million Surinamese dollars (230,000 euros) in damages and a correction in the magazine’s next issue. Court hearings began on Thursday. Both media watchdogs have expressed concern over the precedent that could be set should the magazine loose the case. 

Parbode published a daring story in its August edition that detailed Abrahams’ ministership from his 2010 swearing-in to his dismissal in June 2013.

The story “The Abrahams Affair; stealing in Politics pays” claimed that after Abrahams’ tenure, millions of Surinamese dollars (SRDs) remain unaccounted for. “There are many different accounts about how Abrahams operated and enriched himself at Public Works, but it was difficult to get the exact story because President Bouterse put a lid on it. It probably was so bad the President didn’t even give an official reason why he sacked Abrahams,” the magazine alleged, quoting a host of anonymous sources that it had interviewed. Abrahams didn’t let it slide. Parbode publisher Jaap Hoogendam on 26 August received a letter from his lawyer Irwin Kanhai, demanding a retraction.

Kanhai said the story reeked of questionable journalism. “Parbode didn’t provide any proof to go with the story. It damaged my client’s reputation. You can’t invoke journalistic rights based on this,” the lawyer argued. The magazine refused to retract and the former Minister took to court.

The story at first seemed to have escaped international attention, but as the court date neared RSF and IPI took action. Both spoke to Publisher Hoogendam, who insisted that the article was based on interviews with businessmen, architects, politicians and members of Abrahams’ own party. The magazine’s editor in chief, Armand Snijders, has said it could not identify its sources because of the harm this would cause them.

Hoogendam said that sources would not be named in court 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.

IPI, which visited Suriname on a fact-finding mission in April as part of its Campaign to Repeal Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean, called on the court to consider the case in an independent manner, and to allow Parbode to present evidence for the claims as part of a full and fair defense.

“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 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 defenses 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.”

RSF said this case could be decisive as regards the position that Suriname’s courts take on whistleblowers and respect for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. It hinted that the case could spell more than just the magazine’s doom. “Parbode could be forced to close if the court orders it to pay this amount of damages,” RSF said. “This would not only be devastating for Parbode’s journalists but would also have a deterrent effect on any other publication that might be interested in doing investigative reporting on government officials.”

The organization added: “We are concerned by the fact that, instead of using his right to have his response published in Parbode, Abrahams is demanding a correction, that is to say, he is insisting that the magazine’s reporters retract what they wrote. This would be tantamount to self-censorship. As a public figure, the former minister should expect to be criticized.”

IPI recalled that during its Suriname mission it spoke to several government officials who appeared to support the repeal of the country’s criminal defamation laws, but there were still many who expressed concern over “the media’s lack of responsible reporting.”

The organization said its mission 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,” IPI said, reacting: “Journalists 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.”