Judge orders journalist to serve jail time

New York, February 28, 2003—Offended by allegations of corruption, a Panamanian judge has ordered investigative journalist Carlos Zavala to serve six days in jail.

Zavala, who hosts the weekly talk show “Cuentas Claras” (Clear Accounts) on RCM Televisión in Panama City, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that the order stems from his criticisms of corruption in the Panamanian judiciary. Zavala has claimed that several judges engaged in misconduct and favoritism in several bankruptcy cases involving 350 million balboas (US$350 million).

During the February 7 and 14 editions of his show, Zavala alleged that Civil Judge Jorge Isaac Escobar, of the 17th Circuit Court of the First Judicial Circuit of Panama, was biased in his rulings and violated due process.

Judge Escobar subsequently ordered that disciplinary proceedings be initiated against Zavala and on February 19 issued a judicial resolution, a copy of which was obtained by CPJ. Acting as both prosecutor and judge, Escobar handed down the maximum six-day sentence to Zavala for “disrespect.”

Judge Escobar’s decision is based on Article 33 of the Panamanian Constitution, as well as on several articles of Panama’s Judicial Code. Article 161.7 of the Judicial Code allows circuit judges to “punish with a fine of up to 15 balboas [US$15] or detention up to six days, those who disobey or disrespect them while they are exercising their functions or by reason thereof.”

The only recourse for defense for those subjected to these proceedings is to file an appeal for reconsideration (recurso de consideración) of the decision with the same judge, according to Guillermo Morales, one of Zavala’s lawyers.

On February 20, within the three-day period provided by law before the detention order became effective, Zavala’s lawyers filed an appeal, contending that there are no grounds for application of the measure against Zavala because Article 161.7 only refers to court hearings and other judicial procedures. The appeal also argued that Zavala also enjoys a constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression.

Judge Escobar rejected the appeal, and Zavala’s lawyers countered by filing several documents in support of the appeal, which awaits another ruling by Judge Escobar.

On February 21, Zavala went to the police headquarters to find out if an arrest warrant had been issued but was told that it had not yet been submitted to the police. In another attempt to forestall the journalist’s detention, Zavala’s lawyers have filed a writ of habeas corpus before the Second Superior Tribunal of the First Judicial District of Panama.

On February 26, Zavala told CPJ that he did not know whether the detention order had been issued but that his arrest could come at any time.

“CPJ believes that journalists should never be jailed for their work, and this case is particularly absurd,” noted Joel Simon, CPJ’s acting director. “We urge the Panamanian government to work toward the elimination of all ‘disrespect’ provisions from its laws.”