Journalist’s criminal defamation trial starts tomorrow

New York, May 15, 2001 — Panamanian radio journalist, columnist, and university professor Miguel Antonio Bernal goes on trial tomorrow in a criminal defamation case filed in 1998 by then-National Police director José Luis Sosa.

During a February 1998 broadcast of the news program “TVN-Noticias”, Bernal held the National Police responsible for the decapitation of four Coiba Island Prison inmates by fellow prisoners.

At the time, Sosa was quoted in the Panama City daily La Prensa as saying, “Apart from being false, Bernal’s assertions are slanderous of the good name of the institution and help to debilitate the confidence and support that the community has given to the National Police.”

The trial will take place in Panama City’s Tenth Criminal Court. Bernal faces an 18-month prison sentence if convicted.

Bernal hosts the daily radio program “Alternativa”, which covers current affairs. He also writes a weekly column for the Panama City daily El Panamá América, and contributes to the dailies La Prensa and El Siglo.

Seventy Panamanian journalists currently face criminal defamation charges in this country of less than three million inhabitants, according to local press reports.

“It is shocking that officials of a democratic country should abuse criminal defamation laws to stifle critical voices in the media,” said CPJ’s executive director Ann K. Cooper.

There is a growing international consensus that public officials should not wield criminal defamation statutes to shield themselves from public scrutiny. In its Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, for example, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States notes that the protection of a person’s reputation “should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official, a public person or a private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest.”

For more information about this issue in Latin America, see CPJ’s Defamation Law Resource page.