Journalist Faces Jail for Reporting Sexual Allegations against Attorney General

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New York, July 26, 2000 — In a much-delayed ruling made public yesterday, Panama’s Supreme Court rejected the writ of habeas corpus filed by journalist Carlos Singares, who had appealed to the high court on June 23 after he was sentenced to eight days in prison for disrespect of Attorney General José Antonio Sossa. Singares is now waiting for Sossa himself to rule on the journalist’s petition that the jail sentence be reconsidered.

On June 22, Singares, editor of the Panama City-based daily El Siglo, published an article titled “Sossa seeks pleasure among young women.” The article cited old allegations that Sossa frequented a brothel that employs underage prostitutes. (Sossa has pressed criminal-defamation charges against Panamanian lawyer Sidney Sittón, the source of the allegations.)

The same day the article was published, Sossa, acting as both plaintiff and judge, ordered that Singares be jailed for “defamation and disrespect.” Sossa acted under Article 386, Paragraph 1 of 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.

At around 3:30 p.m., Sossa sent a group of armed police officers to the El Siglo offices to arrest the journalist. Unable to locate Singares, the officers returned early in the evening, this time searching the entire office.

On June 23, Singares filed the writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Court. The high court took nearly a month to rule on the petition, even though Article 23 of Panama’s Constitution requires the court to rule promptly on habeas corpus petitions, according to Singares’ lawyer, Jaime Padilla González.

The Supreme Court ruling was dated July 21 but made public only yesterday. According to the decision, a copy of which was obtained by CPJ, criticism that offends “the right to honor and dignity of the official it is about” must be punished, “especially when the offensive information is directed to the high official in the exercise of the delicate functions assigned to him by law.”

The ruling ignores the fact that a lower court has not yet ruled on the truth of Sittón’s allegations. Singares is now waiting for Sossa’s decision on his July 4 request that the prison sentence be reviewed.

CPJ expressed its concern about the Singares case in a July 21 letter to President Mireya Moscoso. The letter urged Moscoso to expedite the repeal of Panama’s so-called gag laws, a range of articles, laws, and decrees—many promulgated under military governments—that not only criminalize criticism of public officials, but also permit prior censorship. Click here to read letter.

“Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision is a step backward for press freedom in Panama,” CPJ executive director Ann Cooper said today. “We call on Attorney General Sossa to reconsider his ill-advised decision to jail Carlos Singares, and we urge the government of Panama to repeal the anachronistic criminal-defamation laws that enabled this travesty of justice.”