Critical Spanish journalists expelled from Panama

New York, March 2, 2011The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the Panamanian government to allow two Spanish journalists and human rights activists who were expelled to return to the country. The journalists were covering and documenting an indigenous demonstration on Saturday when they were detained by authorities and accused of “disrupting public order” according to an official statement

Francisco Gómez Nadal, a Spanish native, is a columnist at the Panamanian national daily La Prensa and contributor to the Spanish daily El País known for his criticism President Ricardo Martinelli’s policies. A rights activist who has been living in Panama for six years, Gómez Nadal is the coordinator in Panama City of the group Human Rights Everywhere (HREV). His girlfriend, Pilar Chato, is a contributor for the Spanish daily El Diario Montañés and also works for HREV.   

Gómez Nadal and Chato were arrested Saturday in Panama City during a demonstration in front of the National Assembly by members of the indigenous group Ngäbe Buglé who were protesting reforms to a mining law, according to local and international press reports. They were covering and documenting the detention of demonstrators when they were arrested by Panamanian police, press reports said. The two reporters were detained for nearly 48 hours, in three separate detention centers, Gómez Nadal told CPJ. He said that they were accused of “disrupting public order,” and harassed by authorities.

Indigenous and environmental groups throughout Panama have been staging massive protests against reforms to the mining code, approved by Martinelli in early February, according to international press reports. Agence France-Presse reported  that clashes between protesters and police erupted around the country when demonstrators set up blockades along the Pan-American Highway and demanded that Martinelli reverse the legislation. The protestors claim that the reforms, which include the increase of royalties paid to mining companies, will jeopardize the environment.

On Monday, authorities said in a statement that Gómez Nadal and Chato could be expelled from Panama for posing a threat to public order, according to press reports and CPJ interviews. Later that day, the journalists accepted voluntary repatriation instead of deportation and left the country for Spain.

“These expulsions set an alarming precedent for journalists in Panama,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “We call on the Panamanian government to allow Francisco Gómez Nadal and Pilar Chato to return to the country, and to let journalists cover this matter without harassment.”

The decision was made under pressure and intimidation by Panamanian authorities, Gómez Nadal said. He said they will appeal the decision before local courts. The Panamanian government has justified the repatriation by saying that “foreigners are prohibited from participating in all types of political activities or protests,” the Spanish news agency EFE reported. Gómez and Chato arrived in Madrid on Tuesday in the custody of two Panamanian police agents, EFE reported.

Gómez Nadal said he believes that he has been targeted for his activism on indigenous rights and his criticism in La Prensa, he told CPJ. In July 2010, Gómez Nadal was detained for a few hours at Panama City international airport, press reports said. The journalist never received a clear explanation for the detention, which he tied to his criticism of local authorities.