Panama: Turmoil over proposed gag law “reform”In the space of three days, the Panamanian government withdrew an obnoxious amendment to one of the country’s gag laws, and then proposed a second amendment that was no better.

July 28, 1999 –On July 28, two days after the Minister of Government and Justice withdrew her proposed amendment to a 1978 gag law in the face of national and international criticism, the Panamanian Cabinet approved an only slightly different amendment to the law. As a July 30 editorial of the Panama City-based daily La Prensa put it, this new bill amounts to “the same injection with a different needle.”

The government’s new proposal is expected to reach the Legislative Assembly early next week. It is better than the first proposal in some respects, but worse in others.

The first bill gave justices of the peace power to sanction journalists who publish information on someone’s private life or physical handicap. The new bill gives this power to family court judges instead. This should ensure more judicial independence, because unlike justices of the peace, family court judges don’t come under the authority of the civil administration. The new bill also eliminates prison as a sanction for disseminating such information.

But both versions raise the maximum fine from US$2,500 to $10,000. And in the new bill, each repeat offence would earn a progressively doubled fine. Where the old bill imposed a $1,000 maximum fine on media outlets that fail to give space to people who disagree with how they have been covered (this is known as the “Right to Reply”), the new bill raises this fine to $5,000.

CPJ is troubled by the government’s seemingly ill-intentioned attempts to keep the Panamanian press gagged. We urge the government to withdraw this latest proposal immediately, and to work for the comprehensive repeal of the gag laws.

Click here to read CPJ’s letter protesting the first amendment to the gag law.

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