New law restricts access to information

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New York, August 3, 2000 — Eleven months after pledging to eliminate Panama’s notorious “gag laws,” President Mireya Moscoso has signed a bill that sharply restricts public access to information.

The new law broadens official definitions of privacy and confidentiality and applies harsh sanctions to officials who release classified material.

On September 10, 1999, Moscoso publicly announced that restrictive press laws had “no possible justification” in Panamanian society. On December 20, Moscoso signed a bill that repealed some of the more onerous gag-law provisions and required the government to submit a comprehensive press-law reform bill by June, 2000.

Two months after the deadline, the old laws are still on the books, authorizing the National Board of Censorship and making defamation a crime punishable by up to two years in prison. On July 31, meanwhile, President Moscoso signed Law 38, an omnibus code of administrative procedure that in effect eliminates the concept of “public” information.

Under Article 70 of the new law, information can be considered “confidential or of limited access” if it “could cause serious damage to society or to the State or to the person concerned, as is the case with negotiations for international treaties or conventions, national security, health, political ideas, marital status, sexual inclination, criminal or police record, bank accounts, and other such information that has this character according to a legal norm.”

The article imposes a range of administrative sanctions, including warnings, suspension, and dismissal, on officials who breach these extremely vague standards of confidentiality, even in cases where secrecy is clearly not in the public interest.

Restricting public access to financial records, for example, could make it much harder for journalists to cover the trials of officials and other persons charged with money laundering or drug trafficking. President Moscoso signed this law only days after pledging to strengthen Panama’s drug-trafficking laws, according to a recent statement issued by Panamanian people’s defender Italo Isaac Antinori Bolaños.

Ironically, Moscoso’s presidential campaign pledges included “consolidated systems of information of the public administration to allow agile and transparent access to it, so that an adequate [degree of] participation and social control can be exercised.”

CPJ views the confidentiality provisions of Law 38 as an infraction of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 13 of which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds …”

“Law 38 clearly damages the ability of Panamanian journalists to inform the public about matters of vital public interest,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “By signing it, President Moscoso has undone much of the progress achieved during her first months in office. We call on the government to repeal this unjust legislation, along with existing laws used to stifle independent journalism in Panama.”