Police surround homes of three journalists charged with criminal defamation of attorney general

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New York, August 8, 2000 — In the latest in a series of attacks on the press in Panama, police this morning surrounded the home of Gustavo Gorriti, associate director of the Panama City daily La Prensa, and those of two of his colleagues, reporters Rolando Rodríguez and Mónica Palm.

The police were sent to compel the three journalists to testify in a criminal-defamation suit filed against them by Attorney General José Antonio Sossa. The suit is based on La Prensa‘s 1999 coverage of Sossa’s alleged links with two convicted U.S. drug traffickers. (Click here to read CPJ’s news alert about this case.)

(La Prensa‘s business editor Miren Gutiérrez is also a defendant in the case. But the police were unable to locate her home today, according to executive editor Jorge Giannareas.)

Sossa filed suit under Article 175 of Panama’s Penal Code, which states: “Whoever publishes or reproduces in any media offenses to an individual’s good reputation shall be penalized with 18 to 24 months in prison.”

Obvious Conflict of Interest
Despite an obvious conflict of interest, the case was forwarded to Sossa himself for investigation. Sossa then delegated the preliminary investigation to local prosecutor Armando Fuentes.

On August 1, Fuentes issued a warrant for police to compel the four journalists to testify in the preliminary investigation of Sossa’s case. Fuentes was reported in the local press as saying that the journalists had ignored five previous summonses. (The lawyer representing the four journalists, Alejandro Watson, argues that the journalists were not obliged to respond because of procedural flaws in the summonses.)

After Gorriti and his colleagues learned that they might be arrested, Watson filed a preventive writ of habeas corpus yesterday with the Second Superior Tribunal of Justice. The court had not yet ruled on the writ by this morning, when armed police officers arrived at the homes of Gorriti, Rodríguez, and Palm.

La Prensa‘s executive editor told CPJ that the police left after conversations with Fuentes’ office and police. Gorriti, Rodríguez, Palm, and Gutiérrez appeared voluntarily at the prosecutor’s office this afternoon.

Arrest is “Badge of Honor”
Gorriti recently returned to Panama after a stint in his native Peru, where he worked on the campaign of presidential candidate Alejandro Toledo. In a telephone conversation with CPJ, he said: “I just came back from three months of confronting a dictatorship in Peru, to a country … where an attorney general who has been consistently investigated by journalists for corruption and abuse of authority is … using all the machinery of justice to ensure that no journalist who dares to investigate his deeds and misdeeds goes unpunished. Being arrested at the orders of such an individual is a badge of honor for me and my fellow journalists.”


August 3: Another jail sentence for Singares

August 3:
New law restricts access to information

July 26: Journalist faces jail for reporting sexual allegations against the Attorney General

July 21: CPJ concerned about the slow pace of Panamanian press-law reform

July 21: Jail for journalists as government drags heels on gag-law reform (letter)

July 6: Journalist faces arrest for offending Attorney General