Dear Mr. Salas:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide, welcomes the Legislative Assembly’s initial approval of constitutional reforms that repeal the constitutional basis for desacato (disrespect) laws. We urge Panamanian legislators to ratify these reforms.
In a first debate on July 7, Panamanian legislators approved the repeal of Article 33.1 of Panama’s 1972 Constitution, which serves as the basis for Panama’s desacato laws–several provisions that criminalize expressions that offend public officials. For the repeal to take effect, the reforms must pass a second and third vote in the Legislative Assembly. Then newly elected legislators, who were voted into office on May 2 and are due to begin sessions on September 1, will have to approve the reforms in one final vote.
Under Article 33.1 of Panama’s 1972 Constitution, “[t]hose public officials who exercise office and jurisdiction […] may order fines or arrests against whoever offends or disrespects them while they are carrying out the duties of their office or as a result of carrying out those duties.”
The initial bill submitted by legislators made certain, limited changes in Article 33.1, leaving intact the fundamental, constitutional basis. But on June 29, Panamanian Ombudsman Juan Antonio Tejada Espino urged members of the Legislative Assembly’s Government, Justice, and Constitutional Affairs Committee to repeal Article 33.1.
Increasingly, international human rights bodies have recognized that public officials are subject to a greater level of scrutiny and should not enjoy a higher level of protection than the rest of society. In 1994, the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published a report concluding that desacato laws are incompatible with Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which Panama has ratified, because they suppress the freedom of expression necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic society. The report recommended that member countries of the Organization of American States repeal such laws or amend them to bring them in line with international standards.
The IACHR’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, approved in October 2000, reaffirmed that “[p]ublic officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials, generally known as ‘desacato laws,’ restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.”
We are pleased that Panamanian legislators have taken a first step toward repealing the constitutional basis for desacato laws and hope that the Legislative Assembly will eliminate all remaining desacato provisions from Panamanian laws.
Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.