THE PANAMANIAN GOVERNMENT NOT ONLY FAILED TO LIVE UP TO its promise to repeal the country’s so-called gag laws, but also made several attempts to impose new restrictions in 2000. Meanwhile, several journalists were handed jail sentences for defamation.
The gag laws consist of a range of articles, laws, and decrees-many promulgated under military governments-that criminalize criticism of public officials and also permit prior censorship. In the decades since the first gag laws were introduced following a 1969 coup, they have often been used to stifle and control the work of Panama’s dynamic press.
On September 8, 1999, a week after President Mireya Moscoso took office, a CPJ delegation met with the new president and urged her to repeal the gag laws. A few months later, Moscoso signed a bill that repealed some of the more onerous provisions, including part of a 1978 law that allowed a newspaper to be closed down for publishing “false news.” Under the new law, the government was legally bound to submit legislation before June 2000 that, it was hoped, would bring Panama’s press laws in line with international standards.
But the government failed to do so. On May 25, the Legislative Assembly’s Communication and Transportation Committee approved a draft bill that actually strengthened certain aspects of existing criminal defamation law. After vocal protests from the Panamanian press, the bill was withdrawn on June 28.
On July 31, President Moscoso took another backward step by signing Law 38, an omnibus code of administrative procedure that in effect eliminated the concept of public information. Article 70 of the law imposed a range of administrative sanctions on officials who violated extremely vague standards of confidentiality by leaking government documents to the public or the press. The law was expected to have significant impact on Panamanian journalism, since it punished government sources who spoke with journalists and defined nearly all government information as confidential.
CPJ issued an alert about this law on August 3. Along with Panama’s press freedom community and other international press freedom organizations, we called on the government to repeal Article 70. Toward the end of the year, the Legislative Assembly approved modifications that took out the article’s sting by eliminating the overly broad definition of confidentiality.
Meanwhile, calls to repeal Panama’s “insult laws” (leyes de desacato), under which public officials are entitled to more protection than ordinary citizens, went unheeded. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has ruled that such laws 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.” In July, after Moscoso met with Santiago A. Canton, the Organization of American States’ special rapporteur for freedom of expression, and committed herself to repealing the country’s insult laws, CPJ wrote urging her to do so without delay. Regrettably, the Moscoso government took no significant action.
At the end of the year, the Legislative Assembly rejected a proposal for a bill to repeal the insult laws, which had been presented by Panama’s ombudsman, Italo Isaac Antinori Bolaños, on June 27.
Meanwhile, Attorney General José Antonio Sossa used the insult laws to punish journalists who reported on his allegedly colorful private life. On June 22, under a statute that grants the attorney general summary power to jail anyone for up to eight days, Sossa imprisoned Carlos Singares, editor of the Panama City daily El Siglo, for printing allegations about Sossa’s fondness for underage prostitutes. (Sossa had also tried to jail Singares a month earlier over an article alleging that he had tried to exert improper influence in the prosecution of three other journalists, but backed down after President Moscoso criticized him.)
Insult laws were not the only statutes used against the press. Even while Singares was serving his eight-day prison term, an appeals court confirmed a 20-month prison sentence against him for having allegedly defamed former president Ernesto Pérez Balladares in a 1993 article. A few weeks earlier, a judge issued an 18-month prison sentence against journalist Jean Marcel Chéry, currently with the Panama City daily El Panamá América. Chéry was convicted of criminal defamation based on a 1996 article, published in the daily El Siglo, in which he reported allegations that police had stolen jewelry during a raid. Both sentences are under appeal.
On August 8, police arrived at the homes of Gustavo Gorriti, associate director of the Panama City daily La Prensa, and La Prensa reporters Rolando Rodríguez and Mónica Palm, to compel them to testify in another criminal defamation suit filed by Sossa. The suit was based on La Prensa‘s 1999 coverage of Sossa’s alleged links to two convicted U.S. drug traffickers.
The three journalists, along with La Prensa business editor Miren Gutiérrez, who was also named as a defendant but whose house the police reportedly could not locate, appeared voluntarily at the prosecutor’s office later that day. On January 17, 2001, the case was temporarily shelved. Many other criminal defamation cases against local journalists remained open and could be reactivated at any moment.
In December, Sossa barred journalists from an excavation site at a former military barracks where human remains had been discovered, suggested its former use as a clandestine cemetery. Sossa also prohibited officials from talking to the press about the affair. On December 27, Moscoso reversed Sossa’s orders, according to La Prensa. The paper quoted the president as saying that henceforth “nothing will be hidden about these investigations.”
Carlos Singares, El Siglo
Singares, the editor of the Panama City daily El Siglo, was sentenced to eight days’ imprisonment for reporting sexual-impropriety allegations against Attorney General José Antonio Sossa.
A June 22 article, “Sossa Seeks Pleasure Among Young Women,” reported that Sossa frequented a brothel that employed underage prostitutes. The source of the allegation was Sidney Sittón, a local attorney.
Sossa launched a criminal defamation case against Singares 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. Acting as plaintiff, prosecutor, and judge, Sossa found Singares guilty of “defamation and disrespect” and issued the maximum eight-day sentence.
On the same day the piece was published, around 3:30 p.m., Sossa sent a group of armed officers of the Technical Judicial Police (PTJ) to the El Siglo offices to arrest Singares, but he could not be found. They returned in the early evening to search the office.
Singares filed a writ of habeas corpus before the Supreme Court on June 23. On July 4, Singares, his lawyer Jaime Padilla González, and public defender Italo Isaac Antinori Bolaños visited the attorney general’s office, but Sossa would not see them. That same day, Padilla González filed a request that the decision be reconsidered.
CPJ circulated a news alert about the case on July 6, and expressed further concern 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.
In a ruling dated July 21 but not made public until July 25, the Supreme Court rejected the writ of habeas corpus filed by Singares. 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.
According to the Supreme Court’s decision, a copy of which was obtained by CPJ, criticism that offends “the right to honor and dignity of the official [concerned]” 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 ignored the fact that a lower court had not yet ruled on the truth of Sittón’s allegations. On July 26, CPJ issued another news alert labeling the Supreme Court decision as a step backward for press freedom in Panama.
Singares turned himself in to the police on July 28. He was transferred from the National Police headquarters to Tinajitas, a prison in the outskirts of Panama City for people who have committed administrative offenses. He was released on August 4.
In January, 2001, Singares told CPJ that he had appealed the sentence to the Supreme Court and was awaiting a decision.
Jean Marcel Chéry, El Panamá América
Judge Zaida Cárdenas of the 10th Criminal Court issued an 18-month prison sentence to Chéry, a reporter with the Panama City daily El Panamá América. Chéry had been convicted of criminal defamation based on a 1996 article, published in the daily El Siglo, in which he reported that law enforcementy personnel had been accused of stealing jewelry during a raid. Chéry appealed the sentence before the Second Superior Court of Justice, according to his lawyer, Jaime Padilla González.
CPJ wrote a letter to President Mireya Moscoso on July 21, saying Chéry’s case illustrated the urgency of abolishing Panama’s gag laws, a range of articles, laws, and decrees, many of them promulgated under military governments, that not only criminalize criticism of public officials but also permit prior censorship.
At year’s end, Chéry was free pending a ruling on his appeal.
Carlos Singares, El Siglo
While Singares, editor of the Panama City-based daily El Siglo, was serving an eight-day prison sentence for “disrespect” of Panama’s attorney general (see June 22 Panama case), an appellate court confirmed a 20-month prison sentence against him for having allegedly defamed former president Ernesto Pérez Balladares in a 1993 article.
The Second Superior Tribunal of Justice confirmed the sentence issued to Singares more than a year and a half earlier by the Second Criminal Court.
According to Singares’ lawyer, Jaime Padilla González, Pérez Balladares filed the suit on July 12, 1993, when he was still a presidential candidate. The former president, who left office in 1999, argued that he had been defamed in an unsigned El Siglo article that accused him of helping former dictator Omar Torrijos move money outside Panama. The Second Criminal Court found Singares guilty of defamation on December 10, 1998.
The prison sentence was later commuted to a US$1875 fine. CPJ issued an alert about the case on August 3.
Gustavo Gorriti, La Prensa
Miren Gutiérrez, La Prensa
Rolando Rodríguez, La Prensa
Mónica Palm, La Prensa
Police arrived at the homes of Gorriti, associate director of the Panama City daily La Prensa, and two of his colleagues, reporters Rodríguez and Palm, seeking to compel their testimony in a criminal defamation case. Gutiérrez, La Prensa‘s business editor, was also a defendant in the case, but the police were unable to locate her home, according to executive editor Jorge Giannareas.
Having learned that they might be arrested, Gorriti and his colleagues had already filed a preventive writ of habeas corpus with the Second Superior Tribunal of Justice. The court had not yet ruled on the writ when armed police officers arrived at their homes.
The case stemmed from a suit filed by Attorney General José Antonio Sossa over La Prensa‘s 1999 coverage of Sossa’s alleged links with two convicted U.S. drug traffickers. Despite an obvious conflict of interest, the case was forwarded to Sossa himself for investigation. He then delegated the preliminary investigation to local prosecutor Armando Fuentes.
On August 1, Fuentes ordered the four journalists to testify in the preliminary investigation of Sossa’s lawsuit. According to local press reports, Fuentes claimed that the defendants had ignored five previous summonses. (The lawyer representing the four journalists, Alejandro Watson, argued that his clients were not obliged to respond because of procedural flaws in the summonses.)
Giannareas told CPJ that the police left after conversations with Fuentes’ office and police headquarters. Gorriti, Rodríguez, Palm, and Gutiérrez appeared voluntarily at the prosecutor’s office on the afternoon of August 8.
CPJ issued a news alert about the incident that same day. On January 17, 2001, La Prensa reported that after a January 11 hearing, Judge Diego Fernández of the Ninth Criminal District Court had shelved the case for the time being, citing insufficient evidence to prove the alleged crime.