Veteran Panamanian journalist jailed on defamation charges

New York, June 30, 2010—A 70-year-old Panamanian journalist arrested and jailed Saturday on a 2008 defamation conviction should be immediately released, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The charges against Carlos Núñez López, at left, stemmed from a 2005 story in the now-defunct weekly newspaper La Crónica about environmental damage in the province of Bocas del Toro, his lawyer, Luis Ferreyra, told CPJ. A landowner alleged his reputation had been damaged by the article, the local press said.

Núñez was first sentenced to one year in jail in December 2006, according to Ferreyra. A court of appeals upheld his conviction in August 2008 but Núñez was not notified of this by his lawyers, Ferreyra said. He added that Núñez has exhausted all legal remedies in Panama. Ferreyra has requested that his client serve his sentence outside prison due to his age.

Local police arrested Nuñez while routinely checking IDs on Saturday at an Internet café in Panama City, Aurelia Marín, president of the Panama Journalists Association, told CPJ. The journalist is currently imprisoned at the Department of Judicial Inquiries.

Nuñez has worked for different local media outlets, including the newspapers Crítica and La Crónica, Marín said. He currently writes for the news website Estudio 1.

“We condemn the decision to jail Carlos Núñez López on defamation charges,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior Americas program coordinator. “This verdict should be voided, Núñez should be released, and Panama’s legislature must eliminate all criminal penalties for defamation.”

Panama has partially decriminalized defamation: 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.

There is growing international consensus that journalists should not be jailed for criminal defamation. In November 2009, the Argentine Congress repealed criminal defamation provisions in its penal code, and in April 2009, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal annulled the 1967 Press Law, which had imposed harsh penalties for libel and slander.