Journalist goes on trial for defamation

New York, May 13, 2002—Panamanian journalist Miguel Antonio Bernal will go to court tomorrow morning to face criminal defamation charges 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. After Bernal made his remarks, 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.”

Sosa then filed defamation charges against Bernal under Panama’s Penal Code. The offense carries a prison term of up to two years. Currently, Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere where a journalist is behind bars for his work.

Bernal, a respected journalist and human rights activist, hosts the daily current affairs program “Alternativa” on Radio Exitosa. He also writes a weekly column for the Panama City daily El Panamá América and contributes to the dailies La Prensa and El Siglo.

Bernal could be convicted at tomorrow’s hearing, which will take place at the Tenth Criminal Court in Panama City. However, the journalist told CPJ that the court might also invoke a legal provision that gives it 30 days to reach a decision.

“The Committee to Protect Journalists sincerely hopes the court will dismiss this unjust charge,” said executive director Ann Cooper. “It is outrageous that a journalist can be sent to jail in Panama for expressing his opinion on a matter of clear public interest.”

Legal quandary
Bernal was indicted on May 27, 1998. The journalist then challenged the constitutionality of the Penal Code provisions on which the charges were based. In November 1998, the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal, citing an earlier Supreme Court ruling that the provisions were constitutional.

On November 18, 1999, the Tenth Criminal Court initiated legal proceedings against Bernal. A preliminary hearing was set for May 16, 2001. During that 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 motion was rejected in July 2001. He then appealed, unsuccessfully, to the Second Superior Tribunal of Justice.

Gag laws
Panama is notorious for its wide array of restrictive press statutes, commonly known as “gag laws.” Although some of those provisions were repealed in December 1999, the Panamanian government has since failed to honor its commitment to bring Panama’s press laws in line with international standards. The Legislative Assembly is currently considering legislation that would further restrict press freedom (see April 11 news alert).

At the same time, senior government officials, including President Mireya Moscoso, have used the remaining gag laws to file numerous criminal defamation suits against local journalists.

In a hearing on freedom of expression and press freedom in Panama at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, Bernal and two of colleagues presented a list of 91 Panamanian journalists who currently face criminal defamation charges. Almost 70 of them face charges filed by public officials, Bernal told CPJ.

On Friday, May 10, the Center for Justice and International Law petitioned the IACHR for relief in Bernal’s case. In its Spanish letter to the IACHR executive secretary, Santiago A. Canton, the Washington, D.C.-based organization wrote, “The adoption of precautionary measures in favor of Miguel Antonio Bernal is indispensable because his right to free expression is being violated every day as a penal process against him materializes that seeks to silence him, terrify him, and punish him for having criticized an authority and public institution.”