|Although President Ernesto Pérez Balladares promised in 1997 to
repeal "gag laws" on the books since the military government of Omar Torrijos
in the late 1970s, authorities continue to use them to muzzle journalists
who report on corruption and the growing influence of drug traffickers.
In one dramatic incident in December, police officers tried to arrest journalist
Herasto Reyes on charges that an article he published in August defamed President
Pérez Balladares. The arrest was thwarted when Reyes' colleagues from
the Panama City daily La Prensa surrounded the journalist. Meanwhile,
two other reporters from La Prensa, associate editor Gustavo
Gorriti and investigative reporter Rolando Rodríguez, have been battling
a lawsuit filed by Attorney General José Antonio Sossa. The charges
stem from a 1996 article the two journalists wrote linking Sossa to a drug
trafficker. In 1997, authorities tried to expel Gorriti, who is originally
from Peru, because of his investigative stories exposing corruption in the
P&eacujte;rez Balladares administration. For his defense of press freedom
in Panama and in his native Peru, Gorriti received
CPJ's 1998 International
Press Freedom Award in November.
Under the gag laws, criticism of the president or other high officials can
result in a prison sentence of up to 10 months; libel is punishable by up
to two years in prison. The laws stipulate that all top newspaper editors
must be Panamanians, and grant broad censorship authority to the Interior
Ministry. A censorship board, which reports to the president, has the authority
to confiscate newspapers, shut down radio stations, or fine reporters. The
government has little to worry about from television stations: Most of them
are owned by relatives and associates of the president.
Rather than repealing the laws, the Panamanian Congress is considering
legislation that could further hinder journalists' work. Under the proposed
law, local or foreign reporters could be jailed for writing stories that
affect global shipping or international trade.
Despite the clear risk, Panamanian journalists have continued to aggressively
cover major news stories. In November, Gorriti and Rodríguez published
a three-part series in La Prensa on José Castrillón
Henao, a notorious Colombian drug trafficker who nearly succeeded in bribing
his way out of a Panamanian jail.