Judge orders seizure of weekly after story on alleged tax evasion

New York, September 8, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by the decision of a Panamanian civil court on Friday to order the seizure of assets belonging to a weekly newspaper, as well as portions of two staff members’ salaries. The ruling came after the publication ran a story on alleged tax evasion by a local real estate tycoon.

Judge María Leticia Cedeño Suira with the Eleventh Civil Court of the First Judicial district in Panama City ordered the confiscation of US$1.1 million of El Periódico‘s assets, according to local news reports. The seizure included the premises of Editora Gráfica del Pacífico, S.A., the company that owns the weekly, El Periódico’s bank accounts, and 15 percent of the wages of Omar Wong, the paper’s director, and one of its journalists, according to the daily La Prensa.

Jean Marcel Chéry, president of the Association of Panamanian Journalists, told CPJ that the paper plans to file an appeal.

“We are alarmed by the severity of this decision, which sets a chilling precedent for the local press,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s Americas senior program coordinator. “We call on the Panamanian judicial authorities to overturn this ruling on appeal and allow El Periódico to continue publishing.”        

The judge’s decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Panamanian real state mogul Herman Bern after Panama City-based El Peródico published an investigative piece on September 1, titled “Pobre Millonario” (Poor Millionaire), which included a copy of Bern’s 2007 tax return. El Periódico said it had obtained Bern’s tax filings through an anonymous reader.

Bern sued El Periódico for damages, alleging the paper had violated Article 722 of the Fiscal Code, which forbids the disclosure of information on taxpayers’ income, the local press said. Wong said the information was verified prior to publication and called the judge’s decision an “attack on freedom of expression,” according to La Prensa. El Periódico has ceased publication but plans to appeal the decision.     

Bern’s holding company, Empresas Bern, owns Panama Canal Holiday Inn, Intercontinental Miramar Hotel, Crowne Plaza Panama, Intercontinental Playa Bonita, and Gamba Rainforest Resort, among other corporations in the country.