Statement by Sandew Hira on the attack on freedom of speech

At the beginning of January I received an invitation from the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee) to give the keynote lecture on June 29th, 2019 on black philosophers, spirituality and slavery in the Maritime Museum. I accepted the invitation.

In recent weeks, a group of extremists led by Theo Para has set up an intimidation campaign in the Surinamese community to prevent me from giving the lecture on black philosophers and slavery. The Maritime Museum was put under great pressure to cancel the venue. NiNsee has thus lost its location. The Maritime Museum has made its decision without applying the principle of hearing both sides. I was never asked or given a chance to present my side of the story. The board of NiNsee was subsequently put under enormous pressure to cancel the lecture. On Radio Tamara, hours of broadcasts were devoted to demonizing my person and callers were allowed to make a call upon people to disrupt the lecture. The board of NiNsee collapsed under that pressure and canceled the lecture.

On June 6th, the chairman of NiNsee, Linda Nooitmeer, called me in Suriname to make an appointment to talk about the situation. On June 7th I had a Skype conversation with her and NiNsee director Martin Verbeet in which they indicated that they wanted to cancel the lecture. I responded that that would mean that they would no longer respect the freedom of expression. I suggested that NiNsee could organize a conversation between me and the people who criticize me, so that we can uphold the principles of diversity of opinion and freedom of expression in a worthy atmosphere of dialogue. I also told them that this group had previously tried to put pressure on the Pakhuis De Zwijger not to let me speak at their event, but that as a white institution they had kept freedom of expression in high regard and I expected the same from a black organization, and certainly an organization built on the principle of freedom. Nooitmeer and Verbeet agreed with my argument and asked for a delay to make a final decision until Wednesday the 12th of June. They would then tell me about the next steps. I did not get a call on Wednesday. On Saturday afternoon, Nooitmeer called me with the announcement that NiNsee had decided not to organize a dialogue meeting and withdrew the invitation of June 29th.

The NiNsee press release states the following:

The NiNsee board, in close consultation with the National Maritime Museum, has decided to cancel the Keti-Koti lecture 2019.

This decision was prompted by the unrest within the community regarding the planned Keti-Koti lecture with Sandew Hira as keynote speaker. Because of this unrest, the desire of NiNsee to organize a worthy Keti-Koti reading in 2019 – which contributes to harmony and solidarity within and outside the community – does not seem feasible.

NiNsee has the ambition to collaborate with anyone who makes a positive contribution to its mission. However, now that the implementation of this ambition has led to an escalation between supporters and opponents of having Sandew Hira as a speaker, NiNsee cannot help but withdraw.

The extremists have got their way. The group of Theo Para has been calling, emailing and speaking to put pressure on organizers and venues to cancel rooms or cancel lectures in which I am involved. In Suriname, Hugo Essed is their counterpart and is conducting a demonizing campaign against me in the Surinamese media that challenges my integrity.

The same group has previously tried to silence me at the Pakhuis De Zwijger debate center in Amsterdam. On March 18th, I was invited to lead a presentation of a documentary about Frantz Fanon. I was not even a speaker, but a chairman of the session. The management and program leaders have been put under enormous pressure to get me out of the program, but they have kept their back straight and have not succumbed. The theme doesn’t matter to the extremists. Even if I spoke about the weather, they would have a campaign to make it impossible for me to speak.

On Saturday afternoon, June 15th at 12:00, Glenn Codfried from Radio Mart invited me to talk to me about these developments. Radio Mart announced that on Friday. When I arrived at the studio on Saturday at 10.30 am, it appeared that the window had been smashed from the front door and microphones and the broadcasting modem had been stolen, so that the broadcast could not take place.

These are serious developments. In the wake of the violation of freedom of expression, the principle of diversity of opinion is also attacked. The extremists believe that only one vision is possible in social discussions and that diversity of visions is not acceptable and that other visions should not be heard.

The theme of my reading was a decolonial vision of the history of slavery. Dutch historians and people of color trained by them have always described slavery from the point of view of the colonizer. I explain in my writings and lectures that black thinkers during slavery and afterwards have made analyses that are fundamentally different from those of the enslavers and their ideologues. The extremists want to prevent the presentation of decolonial theories.

This is a very disturbing development in the Surinamese community. Freedom of expression is an important achievement that has come about through hard struggles in which many people have sacrificed their lives. The essence of freedom of expression is that everyone has the right to express his or her opinion, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the person. Even people who do not agree with me must have the right to express their opinion.

Diversity of views is a crucial part of a democratic society. The dominant colonial historiography may be challenged by decolonial and other alternatives. That is part of the process of knowledge production in a multiform society.

Discussion and debate are the foundations of a democratic society. That is why I challenge Theo Para and Hugo Essed to face-to-face debates on issues in which they have a different opinions than me. Such debates are an extension of the freedom of expression. Every Surinamese should be a proponent of this, including Para and Essed.

I call on the Surinamese community in the Netherlands to organize a meeting where I can hold the keti koti lecture as a protest against the violation of freedom of expression.

Sandew Hira

June 15, 2019