Panama took steps to improve press freedom, lifting broad deterrents
against criticism of public officials and repealing laws that gave authorities vast censorship powers. The National Assembly approved a bill with wide-ranging reforms in May, and it was signed by President Martín Torrijos two months later.
Panamanian journalists said the changes were encouraging given the country's history of institutionalized harassment of the press. But they also noted that some of the changes were cosmetic, eliminating provisions that had already fallen into disuse. Criminal defamation statutes remain on the books, they said, and pose a serious, ongoing threat to journalists.
The 2005 measure did repeal many of the country's infamous "gag laws," the set of restrictive statutes and decrees enacted under military rule in the late 1960s and commonly used by Panamanian authorities to quash dissenting views and prosecute those who reported critically.
The new law explicitly bars public officials from imposing monetary or penal sanctions against journalists and others who allegedly "disrespect" them. These desacato (disrespect) provisions had been scattered throughout Panama's criminal and administrative codes, protecting the president, legislators, judges, prosecutors, governors, mayors, and clerics.
The new measure repealed Law 11, adopted in 1978 under the military rule of Gen. Omar Torrijos. Law 11 empowered a government censorship board to block publication of what it considered to be "false" news or "false" facts. The archaic Decree 251, a remnant of military rule enacted in 1969, was also scrapped. Under Decree 251, a censorship board could block materials "that make the moral texture of the media weaker, deforming the concept of human, moral, and family values." Laws granting the government the authority to license journalists were also struck from the books.
While lifting many onerous provisions, the 2005 measure imposed a restrictive new requirement on the press. The law states: "All individuals who feel offended by a publication or broadcast in the media have the right to publish or broadcast in those media the clarifications or replies they deem necessary." The "clarifications or replies" must be published or broadcast within a day and with the same prominence, according to the measure. The law does not explicitly say that the clarifications must be based in fact.
The new law does not shield journalists from criminal penalties, either. Panama's penal code still includes criminal defamation provisions that allow for penalties of up to two years in prison. Any journalist who "spreads false, exaggerated, or misleading news or propagates rumors" that endanger the national economy can be imprisoned for up to three years; the sentence can be doubled if the news leads to the devaluation of the national currency. Some journalists and press freedom advocates also expressed concern that Articles 307 and 308 of the penal code still contain language similar to the former desacato provisions.
An egregious reminder of the consequences faced by journalists came in July, when Supreme Court Judge Winston Spadafora filed a criminal defamation complaint against Jean Marcel Chéry, a reporter with the Panama City-based daily La Prensa. Chéry wrote that month that a Supreme Court decision effectively canceled Spadafora's US$2 million debt to a government canal agency known as the Interoceanic Regional Authority.
In a separate case, Spadafora filed a civil lawsuit that sought US$2 million in damages from EPASA, publisher of the Panama City daily El Panamá America, for a 2001 report that allegedly "insulted" him when he was minister of government and justice. The suit also named the story's authors—Gustavo Aparicio and Chéry, who was reporting for El Panamá América at the time. In addition, Spadafora sought confiscation of Chéry's salary in the amount of US$18,753.
The article said that public money was used to build a road leading to private property owned by Spadafora and Comptroller Alvin Weeden. Aparicio and Chéry were initially sentenced to a year in prison in 2004, but in August of that year outgoing president Mireya Moscoso pardoned them, along with 85 other Panamanian journalists then facing criminal defamation charges.