Authorities seek strict press licensing regime

New York, April 11, 2002—A draft Panamanian press law contains a troubling provision that would require all journalists in the country to hold a license in order to practice journalism.

The proposed legislation is currently before the Legislative Assembly. Meanwhile, a government agency announced that it would fine violators of an existing law that imposes mandatory licensing on radio and television newsreaders.

In March, the Communication and Transportation Commission of the unicameral Legislative Assembly began debating a press bill that would only recognize as journalists those who hold a university degree in journalism.

The bill would also create a Superior Council of Journalism that would issue identification cards to local journalists, accredit foreign correspondents, and impose “moral sanctions” on anyone it deems to have violated journalistic ethics. The council would comprise representatives from local press organizations, according to Panamanian press reports.

Another provision states that foreigners can only work as journalists in Panama for a year at a time, assuming there are no Panamanians who can fill the position, local sources told CPJ.

The bill was drafted by the Panamanian press union Sindicato de Periodistas de Panamá and submitted to the Communication and Transportation Commission in September 2001, according to commission president Denis Arce Morales. A press union official would sit on the Superior Council of Journalism, Arce said.

Arce conceded that the bill was controversial and said that the commission would seek input from concerned parties, including local journalists who do not hold a journalism degree.

In 1985, the Costa Rica­based Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that laws requiring the mandatory licensing of journalists violate the American Convention on Human Rights.

Gag laws

Panama is notorious for its wide array of restrictive press statutes, commonly known as “gag laws.” In 1999, after intense national and international pressure on the government of President Mireya Moscoso, the Legislative Assembly passed a law that repealed a number of these statutes, including Law 68, a holdover from the military dictatorship that allowed the government to license journalists.

The government was required to submit a bill within six months that was expected to bring Panama’s press laws in line with international standards. The government, however, has not fulfilled this obligation. Instead, senior government officials, including President Moscoso, have used remaining gag laws to justify criminal defamation suits against local journalists.

Arce claimed that the Legislative Assembly felt compelled to consider the press union’s bill because of the government’s failure to submit its own press bill. “We take freedom of expression very seriously and the commission does not want to do anything that damages this right,” Arce said.

“People should be able to exercise journalism whether they hold a journalism degree or not,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “A press licensing regime compromises freedom of expression by allowing a limited group to determine who can exercise this universal right and who cannot.”

One-two punch

Decree 189 of 1999 already imposes mandatory licensing on radio and television newsreaders in Panama. The country’s Public Services Regulatory Body has announced that it will start cracking down on violators of the law.

Respected radio journalist, columnist, and university professor Miguel Antonio Bernal told CPJ that on April 1, officials said his radio program “Alternativa” would be suspended unless he applied for a license that same day.

Sources at the Public Services Regulatory Body told CPJ they had asked all broadcast media owners to submit a list of all their newsreaders by April 1.

Radio stations face fines of up to US$500 per day for each unlicensed newsreader that appears on the air. Television stations can be fined up to US$25,000 per day for the same offense.

Since Decree 189 was adopted, newsreader license requirements have included attending a six-week seminar open to anyone who has completed at least four semesters of any university-level degree program. More than 2,000 licenses have been handed out under this regime, according to official sources.

From now on, the source said, newsreaders must either hold a university degree in a relevant field or attend an eight-month course at the University of Panama. The course is supposed to begin around June of this year.