July 21, 2000–The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has written to Panama President Mireya Moscoso to express concern about the lack of progress in the reform of Panama’s “gag laws.” Although Moscoso has stated publicly that such laws have “no possible justification” in Panamanian society, the laws remain on the books and have been used in two recent cases in which Panamanian journalists were sentenced to prison for allegedly defaming public officials.

For full details, read CPJ’s letter to Panama’s President Moscoso.

The two cases–involving journalists Jean Marcel Chéry, of the Panama City-based daily El Panamá América, and Carlos Singares, editor of El Siglo— “highlight the urgency of abolishing these unjust statutes without delay,” CPJ executive director Ann Cooper wrote to Moscoso.

The gag laws include a range of articles, laws, and decree–many promulgated under Panamanian military government–that not only criminalize criticism of public officials, but also permit prior censorship.

180-Day Deadline Has Passed
Panamanian journalists, CPJ, and others in the international press-freedom community were heartened when Moscoso approved a new law that eliminated some of the more onerous gag-law provisions. Legislation which she signed on December 20, 1999, required the Ministry of Government and Justice to submit a bill within 180 days that was expected to bring Panama’s press laws fully in line with international standards. The Ministry has failed to do this.

In her letter to Moscoso, Cooper points out that on May 25, a Legislative Assembly committee approved a draft bill “that actually strengthens certain aspects of existing criminal-defamation law.” After vocal protests from the Panamanian press, the bill was withdrawn on June 28, but it is now expected to reach the Assembly floor in September.

“CPJ hopes the legislative committee will consult with a wide range of journalists and press-freedom advocates before submitting the revised bill for parliamentary debate,” Cooper wrote. The letter also offered CPJ’s services, “should the committee care to receive an opinion on how best to bring Panama’s existing press laws into compliance with international law.”

Summary Power To Jail Anyone Who Offends
Singares, one of the two journalists recently sentenced to jail, was charged with “defamation and disrespect” under Panama’s Judicial Code, which grants the attorney general summary power to jail anyone who offends him for up to eight days. Persons charged under this statute are not allowed to defend themselves.

While CPJ believes that journalists are responsible for what they publish, we think that civil libel law offers adequate remedies to people who think they have been defamed. No journalist should ever be jailed for what he or she writes. CPJ also believes that democracy suffers whenever public officials are entitled to more legal protection than ordinary citizens.

Read about the Declaration of Buenos Aires, in which CPJ and other press-freedom advocates call for the abolition of criminal-defamation statutes throughout the Americas.

Click here to read more about press freedom conditions in PANAMA