Panama: Columnist barred from leaving the country

New York, July 28, 2008–A Panamanian judge barred sports columnist Bienvenido Brown from leaving the country and ordered him to stand trial on criminal defamation charges filed in 2005.

Eleventh Criminal Court Judge Josefina Sclopis issued the ruling on Friday against Brown, a columnist with the daily La Estrella de Panamá, the newspaper reported. The judge’s decision stemmed from a criminal defamation suit against the sports reporter filed by the director of the Panamanian Sports Institute, Ramón Cardoze, after Brown denounced alleged irregularities in his column. The Panamanian Sports Institute is the government body tasked with promoting sports in Panama.

Last week, Brown wrote a column revealing the costs of the Panamanian delegation that will participate in the 2008 Olympic Games. The ruling came two weeks before Brown’s departure to Beijing.

Under Article 192 of the Panamanian penal code, which came into effect in May 2008, libel and slander are not subject to penal sanctions in the case of public officials. 

Olmedo Cedeño, Brown’s lawyer, filed an appeal today before the Eleventh Court requesting a judicial permission that would allow the reporter to travel and cover the Olympic Games from Beijing. “This decision has no legal foundation,” he told CPJ.      

Local reporters criticized the court’s decision to keep Brown from leaving the country. Prominent journalist and lawyer Miguel Antonio Bernal told CPJ that the suit against Brown should be dismissed. Jean Marcel Chéry, president of the Association of Panamanian Journalists, said that Brown has been treated as if he were “a dangerous criminal,” adding that the ruling was “arbitrary,” reported La Estrella de Panamá.   

“This ruling contradicts Panamanian law since journalists cannot be charged with a crime for defaming public officials,” said CPJ Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría. “We call on the appeals court to dismiss these bogus charges against Brown and allow him to travel to Beijing to cover the Olympics.”

There is growing consensus in the Americas that public officials should not enjoy protection from scrutiny. In several cases, criminal penalties for defamation have been repealed or weakened. On June 24, Argentina’s Supreme Court of Justice stated that public officials should be held to a high level of scrutiny, overturning a civil judgment against a national daily that had criticized a government agency.

In its ruling, the Argentine high court stated that “criticism or dissent” of public officials “shouldn’t be subjected to any liability as every plural and diverse society needs democratic debate.”