Attacks on the Press 1999: Panama

A roller-coaster year for the Panamanian press began with a flurry of prosecutions under the country’s infamous “gag laws.” After the outgoing government tried to strengthen the gag laws under the pretense of reforming them, the year ended with the new government repealing some of the gag laws’ most onerous provisions.

In the 20 years since the first gag laws were introduced following a 1969 coup, a series of laws, decrees, and resolutions have been used to stifle independent journalism in Panama. Law 11, for example, prohibited the publication of false news; facts relating to a person’s private life; or comments, references, and insinuations about a person’s physical handicaps. Laws 67 and 68 gave government the authority to license journalists.

Former president Ernesto Pérez Balladares, who left office in September after completing a five-year term, promised on several occasions to repeal the laws. Far from repealing the laws, he used them to prosecute journalists who criticized his administration. Pérez Balladares’ intolerance waxed in the run-up to last year’s presidential elections. The first few months of 1999 saw a flurry of legal actions against journalists, many of them filed by public officials.

In a March 4 letter to President Pérez Balladares, CPJ urged him to repeal the gag laws. A month later, government ombudsman Italo Isaac Antinori Bolaños published a report criticizing the “systematic and permanent campaign to silence, gag, and persecute journalists.” Santiago Canton, the special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Organization of American States, called the gag laws a “tool frequently used by public officials to silence their critics.”

But instead of repealing the laws, Pérez Balladares dug in his heels. Less than two months before he was scheduled to leave office, the government proposed onerous new provisions that masqueraded as an effort to reform the gag laws. In a July 26 letter to Pérez Balladares, CPJ wrote, “May we suggest that expanding the legal means for repressing journalists is not a fitting legacy for a president who came to power pledging to strengthen Panamanian democracy.”

The bill was finally withdrawn in the face of national and international protests. Another last-ditch effort to ram equally restrictive gag-law amendments through Congress also failed. On September 1, Mireya Moscoso, who had defeated Pérez Balladares’ heir apparent, Martín Torrijos, in the May elections, took over the presidency. A week later, a CPJ delegation met with the president in Panama City and urged her to repeal the gag laws. In the meeting, Moscoso promised to repeal them as soon as possible but cautioned that the process could take time. Speaking at the Freedom Forum’s Latin America Media Forum the next day, she noted that restrictive press laws had “no possible justification” in Panamanian society.

On November 30, the country’s Legislative Assembly approved a bill repealing some of the more onerous provisions of the gag laws. Passed with the approval of 70 of the Legislative Assembly’s 71 members, the bill repealed part of Law 11 (prohibiting privacy violations and the publication of false news) and all of Law 68, which allowed the government to license journalists.

President Moscoso signed the bill into law on December 20 in a ceremony attended by CPJ board member Alberto IbargŸen and Tony Pederson, president of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), who led an IAPA delegation.

The Moscoso government was required to submit a bill before June 2000 that was expected to bring Panama’s press laws in line with international standards. One of the more notorious remaining laws was Decree 251, which authorizes the National Board of Censorship.

Under the country’s penal code, criminal defamation is a crime punishable by up to two years in prison. Minister of Government and Justice Winston Spadafora created two commissions last year, charged with studying not only the elimination of the remaining gag laws but the possible decriminalization of defamation in Panama.

The good news that one of Latin America’s most restrictive press laws had been dismantled was tempered by a vicious defamation campaign against La Prensa, Panama’s leading daily, and its associate editor Gustavo Gorriti, a Peruvian citizen who had repeatedly clashed with Pérez Balladeres. The former president had tried to deport Gorriti in August 1997, after La Prensa reported that a drug trafficker had helped finance the president’s campaign. Pérez Balladares backed down under international and domestic pressure.

This time Gorriti’s enemies tried a different strategy. In early October, a mysterious organization called the Comité por la Libertad de Expresión en Panamá put up posters of Gorriti around Panama City that read, “Get to know the assassin of press freedom in Panama.” He was branded a foreign spy, and “an unreliable person predisposed to treason.”

While a labor dispute at La Prensa was the catalyst for the campaign, it apparently started after La Prensa published a series of articles in early August revealing suspicious links between Panamanian attorney general José Antonio Sossa, two U.S. drug traffickers, a naturalized Panamanian named Marc Harris, and local lawyer Carlos Jones.

La Prensa reported that as part of the defamation campaign, other Panamanian journalists were offered money to write negative articles about the paper. Sossa, whose alleged corruption had frequently been covered in La Prensa, publicly accused Gorriti of waging “a campaign of loss of prestige and lies” against him. And the Independent Lawyers’ Association (Frente de Abogados Independientes), which is headed by Jones, branded Gorriti persona non grata and asked him to leave the country. “Gorriti is more than a journalist,” the local press quoted Jones as saying, “He’s an infiltrated agent disguised as a journalist.”

After La Prensa published articles detailing its investigation of Sossa, a Legislative Assembly commission summoned him to testify in response to the paper’s allegations. Having heard Sossa’s testimony, the commission referred the investigation to the Supreme Court and urged that Sossa be dismissed as attorney general.

Despite the partial repeal of the gag laws, Panamanian journalists continued to face legal harassment in response to their work. While the defamation campaign died down toward the end of the year, La Prensa was still fighting a flurry of lawsuits brought by Pérez Balladares, Harris, Jones, and Sossa.

January 5
Carmen Boyd Marciacq, El Siglo LEGAL ACTION
Blas Julio Rodríguez, El Siglo LEGAL ACTION

Officers of the Police Information and Investigation Board tried to detain El Siglo reporters Boyd and Julio in relation to defamation charges stemming from a December 1997 article about the sale of taxi licenses. The journalists refused to accompany the officers without a written warrant, arguing that they had already testified in the defamation case.

On March 4, CPJ sent a letter to President Ernesto Pérez Balladares, urging him to fulfill his often-stated promise to repeal the country’s “gag laws.” The letter mentioned the case among other examples of the many criminal-defamation cases brought against Panamanian journalists in previous months.

February 11
Marcelino Amador Rodríguez Batista, El Siglo LEGAL ACTION
Brittmarie Janson Pérez, free-lancer LEGAL ACTION
Michelle Lescure Guevara, El Siglo LEGAL ACTION

Rodríguez, a reporter with the Panama City daily El Siglo; Lescure, El Siglo‘s editor; and columnist Janson Pérez were all prosecuted for defamation.

On August 4, 1998, federal prosecutor Alma Montenegro de Fletcher filed a criminal-defamation suit against Rodríguez, based on an August 3 article in El Siglo alleging that Montenegro de Fletcher had used her influence to acquire government housing in the former Canal Zone.

On September 30, 1998, Janson Pérez, a Panamanian anthropologist and free-lance contributor to various Panamanian dailies, published a column in El Siglo in which she acknowledged being the source for Rodríguez’s story. According to a government edict published in the Panamanian press in late January, Janson Pérez (who is a U.S. resident) and El Siglo editor Michelle Lescure were added to the defamation suit as defendants. A preliminary hearing was held on February 11, 1999, followed by three more hearings.

CPJ mentioned the case in a March 4 letter to then-president Ernesto Pérez Balladares, urging him to fulfill his often stated promise to repeal the country’s so-called “gag laws.”

February 18
José Otero, El Siglo LEGAL ACTION

Judge Raúl Olmos of the Thirteenth Criminal Court held a preliminary hearing in a criminal defamation case against Otero, reporter with the Panama City daily La Prensa, without formally questioning the defendant or even notifying him about the case. The hearing was first set for January 19 but had been postponed.

The defamation charge was filed by a dentist, Samuel Osorio Caicedo, who Otero had alleged was practicing without a license. Less than a week after the stories ran, the newspaper printed a correction. The next hearing was set for January 27, 2000. In addition to the criminal-defamation charges, Osori demanded US$100,000 in civil damages.

On March 4, CPJ wrote a letter to then- president Ernesto Pérez Balladares, urging him to fulfill his often-stated promise to repeal the country’s “gag laws.” The letter mentioned the Otero case as one of several recent examples of criminal defamation cases against Panamanian journalists.

March 19
Miguel Antonio Bernal, free-lancer LEGAL ACTION

Columnist and radio journalist Bernal was charged with defaming former national police director José Luis Sosa. During a February 4, 1998, broadcast of the news program “TVN-Noticias,” Bernal blamed the police for the deaths of four inmates at the Coiba Island prison. The inmates were decapitated by other prisoners.

The Tenth Criminal Court scheduled a preliminary hearing for March 19. But since Bernal was running for the mayoralty of Panama City at the time, the hearing was postponed until after the May 2 elections. The preliminary hearing was eventually held on November 16. Substitute judge Elena Jaén de Herrera decided to move the case forward; Bernal, who had meanwhile been appointed special adviser to President Mireya Moscoso, awaited a trial date at year’s end.

CPJ mentioned Bernal’s case in a March 4 letter to then-president Ernesto Pérez Balladares, urging the president to fulfill his often- stated promise to repeal the country’s so-called “gag laws.”