Attacks on the Press 2003: Panama

Panama is known for its institutionalized system of legal harassment against the press. Journalists there confront antiquated media laws that impose prison terms for defamation, criminalize criticism of public officials, and permit prior censorship.

In July, Eduardo Bertoni, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ special rapporteur for freedom of expression, visited Panama and recommended that the government eliminate all desacato (disrespect) provisions and repeal criminal defamation statutes. President Mireya Moscoso responded by assuring that her administration would lift such laws before the end of her term in August 2004. But by the end of 2003, authorities had taken no steps in that direction, and public officials continued to use the country’s infamous “gag laws” to stifle critical voices and intimidate independent journalists with the threat of jail time.

On August 1, three weeks after President Moscoso promised to repeal criminal provisions for press offenses, Jean Marcel Chéry and Gustavo Aparicio, reporters with the Panama Citybased daily newspapers La Prensa and El Panamá América, respectively, were each sentenced to one year in prison. Their sentences were later commuted to fines of US$600 each. They were prosecuted for a 2001 report that allegedly “insulted” then Minister of Government and Justice Winston Spadafora. The article claimed that public money was used to finance the construction of a road leading to private property owned by Spadafora, who is now a Supreme Court judge, and Comptroller Alvin Weeden.

On April 14, Chéry and three colleagues from La Prensa–reporters Alcibíades Cortés and Julio Aizprúa and photographer Bernardino Freire–were detained for allegedly breaching the security perimeter around President Moscoso’s beach house in Punta Mala. The journalists were reporting on the president’s house there, which has raised public concern because of high remodeling and maintenance costs. The men were released after being held for 26 hours, and a municipal judge later dismissed all charges.

Media ownership concentration, particularly in television, limits the range of opinions that Panamanians can access, according to some journalists. For example, supporters of one of the two leading presidential candidates in elections scheduled for May 2004, former President Guillermo Endara, are regularly excluded from one nationwide morning talk show.

The Medcom Corporation operates the country’s two most popular networks (RPC Canal 4 and Telemetro Canal 13), it has 75 percent of the viewing audience, and it also owns the cable station Cableonda and several radio stations. There is only one state-owned network, Televisón Educativa Canal 11, which is run by the Education Ministry.

Limited access to government information is also a problem for local journalists. In January 2002, President Moscoso approved a transparency law expanding access, but in June that year, the government issued a decree that essentially neutralized the law by attaching regulations that, among other things, exempt officials’ salaries, benefits, bonuses, and travel expenses. The regulations also require that those seeking information have some direct or personal 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 the end of 2003.

On October 27, a Panamanian court barred renowned Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti–in the country to attend a conference about corruption–from leaving Panama and ordered him to stand trial on criminal defamation charges. The case stemmed from a July 1996 article by Gorriti in La Prensa reporting that current Panamanian Attorney General José Antonio Sossa, who was then running for re-election to the legislature, had received campaign funds from a company that was allegedly a front for drug traffickers. Sossa filed a suit against Gorriti, who at the time was associate director of La Prensa. On October 29, the court order holding Gorriti in the country for trial was overturned, and the journalist was allowed to leave Panama.