Panama: Jail for journalists as government drags heels on gag-law reform

July 21, 2000

Her Excellency Mireya Moscoso
President of Panama
Presidential Palace
Panama City, Panama

VIA FACSIMILE: 011-507-227-0073

Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is concerned about the lack of progress in the reform of Panama’s “gag laws.” Two recent cases in which Panamanian journalists were sentenced to prison for allegedly defaming public officials highlight the urgency of abolishing these unjust statutes without delay.

On July 14, Judge Zaida Cárdenas of the Tenth Criminal Court issued an eighteen-month prison sentence to journalist Jean Marcel Chéry, currently with the Panama City-based daily El Panamá América. Chéry was convicted of criminal defamation because of a 1996 article, published in the daily El Siglo, in which he reported that law-enforcement personnel had been accused of stealing jewelry in the course of a raid. Chéry plans to appeal the sentence before the Second Superior Court of Justice, according to his lawyer.

On June 22, Carlos Singares, the current editor of El Siglo, was sentenced to eight days imprisonment for reporting allegations that Attorney General José Antonio Sossa frequented a brothel that employed under-age prostitutes.

On the same day that the article was published, Sossa charged Singares with “defamation and disrespect” 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.

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

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) has ruled that such “contempt laws” (leyes de desacato) violate “the most fundamental principle of a democratic system, which subjects the government to the scrutiny of citizens, so that abuse of power can be prevented or controlled.” The IACHR has urged all countries to work toward their elimination.

Panama’s gag laws include 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. Your Excellency has stated publicly that such laws have “no possible justification” in Panamanian society.

Along with Panamanian journalists and our colleagues in the international press-freedom community, CPJ was heartened when you approved a new law that eliminated some of the more onerous gag-law provisions. Law 55, which Your Excellency signed on December 20, 1999, also 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 so. On May 25, the Legislative Assembly’s Communication and Transportation 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. 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. We take this opportunity to offer our services, should the committee care to receive an opinion on how best to bring Panama’s existing press laws into compliance with international law.

CPJ was gratified to learn that after a recent meeting with Santiago A. Canton, the Organization of American States’ Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Your Excellency’s government committed itself to promoting freedom of expression as guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights, and, in particular, to repealing the country’s “contempt laws.” We trust that your government will implement this laudable program without further delay.

We thank you for your attention to these important matters, and would welcome any comments you might have.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director