Attacks on the Press 2001: Panama

During 2001, Government officials proposed legislation to toughen repressive press laws, castigated local journalists and media outlets, and prosecuted them for criminal defamation.

Panama’s so-called gag laws include a range of articles, laws, and decrees–many promulgated under military governments–that criminalize criticism of public officials and permit prior censorship. In December 1999, following a pledge to repeal those regulations after she took office in September 1999, President Mireya Moscoso signed a bill that repealed some of the more onerous provisions. Under the law, the government was required to submit a bill before June 2000 that was expected to bring Panama’s press laws in line with international standards.

But the bill was never submitted, neither in 2000 nor in 2001. In fact, the government considered presenting legislation that would have tightened press laws, though no new restrictions had been formally proposed by year’s end.

In a positive development, the government passed a new access to information law based on a proposal from Transparency International, an international nongovernmental organization that aims to combat corruption. The bill establishes fines of up to 2,000 balboas (US$2,000) and even dismissal for government employees who do not release public information in a timely manner.

The government continues to use lawsuits to attack journalists, accusing the media of waging a campaign against public officials. Even President Moscoso, along with Winston Spadafora, the former minister of government and justice and a current Supreme Court justice, filed a criminal defamation suit. On September 17, the weekly La Cáscara News published a photomontage portraying Moscoso and Spadafora, both scantily dressed, in an intimate embrace. Several La Cáscara News employees were briefly detained, and on September 19, the Ministry of Government and Justice temporarily banned the weekly for violating parts of the press laws that had not been repealed in December 1999, including the requirement that publications provide the ministry with data such as the names of its editors and legal counsel.

Meanwhile, Attorney General José Antonio Sossa again proved to be a foe of the press. “There’s a criminal aspect to Panamanian journalism that can only be eradicated with the application of penal laws,” he was quoted as saying in the June 3 edition of the daily La Prensa. The chief prosecutor kept up a drum beat of criticism before and during a June visit to Panama by members from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the IACHR’s then-special rapporteur for freedom of expression Santiago A. Canton. The IACHR delegates used this visit, during which they also met with an indignant Sossa, to reiterate an earlier request to eliminate Panama’s “disrespect” provisions.

Panamanian journalists have taken to the streets to protest their situation. On March 19, after two of their colleagues were handed suspended 18-month prison sentences, journalists picketed the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, in a country where, according to some estimates, one-third of journalists face criminal defamation prosecutions, self-censorship has become rampant, and even protests have become subdued.

On March 22, Panama’s leading daily La Prensa was subjected to what has been dubbed a “boardroom coup” by Ricardo Alberto Arias, the foreign minister for former president Ernesto Pérez Balladares. The daily, which was created in 1980 to fight Panama’s military dictatorship, later became a thorn in the side of Pérez Balladares because of its take-no-prisoners muckraking of his government’s officials.

According to CPJ contacts, Arias persuaded a majority of the paper’s shareholders to elect him as the new president of the paper. Previously, Arias had convinced a majority of executive board members to vote against renewing the contract of Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti, who, as La Prensa‘s associate editor, led the paper to break scandal after scandal about the Pérez Balladares administration during the late 1990s. A key member of La Prensa‘s crack reporting team subsequently resigned, and others at the paper were demoted, leaving the once feisty paper a shadow of its former self.

January 3

Julio Briceño, La Prensa
Stanley Muschett, La Prensa
La Prensa

Ricardo Arias Calderón, a former Panamanian vice president who later became president-for-life of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), filed a criminal defamation case against Briceño, cartoonist with the Panama City daily La Prensa, and Muschett, then the paper’s editor, over a cartoon that ran in the paper on December 30, 2000. He also filed a civil action against La Prensa.

Briceño’s cartoon criticized a recent alliance between the PDC and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which allowed the two opposition parties to take control of the Legislative Assembly. The cartoon depicted Arias Calderón holding hands with the Grim Reaper, a reference to PRD support for Panama’s former military regimes.

The cartoon was published just after the remains of several political dissidents were found buried near military barracks outside of Panama City. On December 31, 2000, La Prensa published a letter by Arias Calderón responding to the cartoon.

In his civil suit, Arias Calderón asked for 1 million balboas (US$1,000,000) in damages. Briceño faced two years in jail. (Muschett was dropped from the suit, Briceño told CPJ.)

On June 29, Briceño testified before the Seventh Attorney General’s Office. On July 4, the cartoonist was prohibited from leaving Panama and ordered to sign a government register every 15 days. Briceño told CPJ that he signed the register once before a higher court declared the measure void in mid-July.

Briceño was summoned for another hearing on December 28, but did not attend because a brief his lawyer wanted to present was not ready. They decided to wait for a second summons, which had not arrived at press time.

March 12

Octavio Amat, El Panamá América
Jean Marcel Chéry, El Panamá América
Gustavo Aparicio, El Panamá América
John Watson Riley, El Panamá América

Then-minister of government and justice Winston Spadafora filed a criminal defamation case against Aparicio and Chéry, reporters with the Panama City daily El Panamá América; Watson, a photographer with the paper; and Amat, the paper’s editor. In addition, Spadafora accused Chéry, Aparicio, and Watson of trespassing on private property.

The suit came after a March 8 article in El Panamá América reported that a remote road being built by the Social Investment Fund would pass by the country estates of Spadafora and comptroller Alvin Weeden. The article was accompanied by aerial photos. The journalists claimed one of Spadafora’s employees let them onto the property.

On March 20, agents of the Public Ministry visited El Panamá América‘s offices to notify the journalists of the suit. Public Ministry officials carried out an on-site inspection of the premises the next day. However, El Panamá América editor Rosa Guizado told CPJ that Panamanian law requires two days advance notice of such an inspection.

At year’s end, Guizado said, the case was still in the hands of the Public Ministry.

March 20

Marcelino Rodríguez, El Siglo

Rodríguez, a former reporter with the Panama City daily El Siglo, was convicted of defaming Panama’s solicitor general, Alma Montenegro de Fletcher, and sentenced to serve 16 months in prison. The sentence was then reduced to a fine of 1,000 balboas (US$1,000), but Rodríguez was barred from holding public office for the 16-month period.

On August 4, 1998, Montenegro de Fletcher filed a criminal defamation case against Rodríguez after an El Siglo article published the previous day alleged that the prosecutor had used her influence to acquire government housing in the former Panama Canal Zone. Montenegro de Fletcher denied the allegations.

Shortly thereafter, Brittmarie Janson Pérez, a Panamanian anthropologist and columnist who resides in the United States, published a column in El Siglo saying that she was the source for Rodríguez’s story. Janson Pérez and Michelle Lescure, editor of El Siglo at the time, were later added as defendants in the defamation suit.

On March 4, 1999, CPJ sent a letter to then-president Ernesto Pérez Balladares urging him to fulfill his often stated promise to repeal the country’s so-called gag laws. The letter mentioned the El Siglo case as an example of the many criminal defamation cases involving Panamanian journalists.

On January 10, 2000, Ninth Circuit district attorney Roberto Murgas Torraza asked that the case be dismissed, Lescure told CPJ. Montenegro de Fletcher subsequently filed a petition with the Attorney General’s Office calling for an investigation into Murgas Torraza. The attorney resigned on January 20, 2000, claiming that he had been pressured and threatened, Lescure said.

Judge Ileana Turner Montenegro then dismissed the case against Lescure and Janson Pérez but ordered that Rodríguez be tried.

After the journalist was sentenced, Montenegro de Fletcher asked President Mireya Moscoso to pardon the journalist. Although the president promised to do so, she had apparently not kept her promise by year’s end.

May 16

Miguel Antonio Bernal, “Alternativa,” El Panamá América

Radio journalist, columnist, and university professor Bernal was tried on criminal defamation charges filed originally 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.”

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.

In a May 15 news alert about the upcoming trial, CPJ’s executive director Ann Cooper said, “It is shocking that officials of a democratic country should abuse criminal defamation laws to stifle critical voices in the media.”

On the day of the hearing, Bernal moved to have the charges dismissed, arguing that Sosa had no standing to file defamation charges because he was not directly affected by the remarks.

Bernal’s petition was rejected in July. He appealed the rejection to the Second Superior Tribunal of Justice, which had not yet responded at press time.