Attacks on the Press 2002: Panama

Since the U.S. invasion in 1991, Panama’s three democratic administrations have pledged to repeal legislation that restricts press freedom. But little has been done, and officials seeking to silence critics or prevent exposure of corruption continue to harass the press with numerous “gag laws.”

National and international pressure forced President Mireya Moscoso to approve a transparency law in January. The legislation is based on a proposal from the anti-corruption nongovernmental organization Transparency International and calls for fines of as much as 2,000 balboas (US$2,000) and the dismissal of government employees who do not release public information in a timely manner. In June, however, the government issued a decree that essentially annulled the law by attaching regulations that, among other things, exempt officials’ salaries, benefits, bonuses, and travel expenses from public view. The regulations also require that those seeking information have some relationship to it–in effect barring the press and the public from taking advantage of the law. The People’s Ombudsman Office challenged the decree in the Supreme Court, which had not ruled on the matter by year’s end.

In March, the Communication and Transportation Commission of Panama’s unicameral Legislative Assembly discussed a bill that would only recognize journalists who hold a university degree. The bill, which was still under consideration at year’s end, would also create the Superior Council of Journalism, which would issue identification cards to journalists, accredit foreign correspondents, and sanction members of the media who violate journalistic ethics. On May 9, CPJ sent a protest letter to commission head Dennis Arce expressing concern that the proposal violates the standards established by the American Convention on Human Rights, which Panama ratified in 1978.

The proposed bill comes on top of an existing statute that requires all newsreaders at radio and television stations to be licensed. To get a license, newsreaders must hold a degree in a relevant field or attend an eight-month course at the University of Panama.

Annoyed by numerous reports documenting increased corruption, cronyism, and nepotism since President Moscoso took office, the government attempted to intimi- date the media in 2002, accusing them of abusing press freedom. Authorities also established a new commission to evaluate existing press statutes without the participation of media representatives.

Panamanians use defamation laws liberally. More than 90 journalists in the country–almost half of the media’s work force–have criminal libel or slander cases pending against them. And in 70 percent of those cases, public officials who felt their honor and dignity had been sullied filed the suits.

For example, after a February 1998 broadcast by Panamanian lawyer, columnist, and radio journalist Miguel Antonio Bernal on the news program “TVN Noticias,” National Police director José Luis Sosa filed defamation charges against the journalist, claiming that his comments damaged the National Police’s reputation. Under Panama’s Penal Code, defamation carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.

Bernal was indicted on May 27, 1998, and later challenged the ruling. After numerous appeals, Judge Lorena Hernández acquitted him on May 29, 2002. The Attorney General’s office appealed her decision, but the Second Superior Tribunal of Justice acquitted Bernal on October 27.

Although this case was a significant victory for press freedom in the country, Bernal has a grim view of the future. “I think I was acquitted because of the overwhelming international support my case has attracted,” he said. In Panama, he added, “The judiciary, legislative, and executive branches of government are all hostile to the concept of free speech.”