Despite legislative steps toward repealing desacato (disrespect) laws in 2004, Panama’s press is among the most legally constricted in Latin America. The country’s “gag laws,” which include a range of statutes criminalizing criticism of public officials, were enacted under military rule in the 1960s. Some of these laws have been repealed, but Panamanian authorities continue to use the remaining statutes to stifle opponents and intimidate the local media.
On July 27, the outgoing Legislative Assembly repealed Article 33.1 of the constitution, which includes provisions criminalizing expressions that offend public officials.
Newly elected legislators, whose terms began on September 1, approved the reforms on October 26.
A week before leaving office, outgoing President Mireya Moscoso pardoned 87 journalists on August 25 who had been charged with criminal defamation, about half of the country’s entire press corps. Moscoso had promised to eliminate the infamous gag laws before the end of her term but did not because public figures who benefited from them successfully blocked reform. Many of the lawsuits were filed by Panama’s litigious attorney general, José Antonio Sossa, whose term ended on December 31.
On May 2, more than 14 years after the end of authoritarian rule, Panamanians elected the son of a former military dictator as the country’s next president. Martín Torrijos, 41, took office on September 1 and, in one of his first decisions, helped ensure access to government information by voiding a June 2002 presidential decree that, among other things, had exempted government officials’ salaries, benefits, bonuses, and travel expenses from a transparency law approved in January 2002. At year’s end, it was too early to tell whether the move would ensure access to government information.
Two bills under consideration at year’s end could significantly affect the Panamanian media: One would require journalists to hold a university degree in journalism; the other would decriminalize defamation and seek to reduce government manipulation of state advertising.
Several influential reporters and media executives have been hired to work for the Torrijos administration, a common practice, local journalists say. Former TV program hosts Judy Meana, of RCN TV, and Alfonso Fraguela, of TVN Channel 2, now work as spokespeople for the minister of government and justice and the president, respectively. Meanwhile, Federico Humbert Arias, former president of the board of directors at La Prensa (The Press), Panama’s main daily, has been nominated to be the ambassador to the United States, and Ebrahim Asvat, former president of the daily El Siglo (The Century), has been nominated for a post as a government secretary.
On June 21, La Prensa published a story titled “Torrijos, a man with media” outlining the close links between the new administration and some of the country’s major news outlets. Journalists and press freedom advocates are concerned that such close ties endanger independent reporting, and that the government could use its influence to “manipulate information and public opinion,” says Miguel Antonio Bernal, a Panamanian lawyer, columnist, and radio journalist.