The La Prensa newspaper is seen in Panama City on May 6, 2019. The paper's parent company's assets were recently frozen amid a civil defamation lawsuit. (AP/Arnulfo Franco)

Panama court freezes La Prensa’s assets amid defamation suit by former president

Managua, July 10, 2020 –  Panamanian authorities should immediately restore Corporación La Prensa’s access to its financial assets, and ensure that legal actions do not censor the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On July 4, a Panamanian civil court ordered a freeze on the assets and bank accounts of Corporación La Prensa, which owns the newspapers La Prensa and Mi Diario, totaling $1.13 million, as part of a civil defamation lawsuit filed by former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares, according to news reports and a report by La Prensa. The order was finalized on June 22, but was not communicated to the company until July 4, according to La Prensa.

Under Panamanian law, one party in a civil suit can request a freeze on the other’s assets if they can persuade a court that those assets would be necessary to pay damages.

“By taking away the possibility of accessing our accounts, they take away our ability to pay our employees and buy supplies. It is a clear attempt at censorship,” Rita Vásquez, director of La Prensa, told CPJ via phone.

“A media company should not have its ability to function held hostage by an outrageous lawsuit, especially in a country like Panama, where there is a clear pattern of political figures using defamation suits to intimidate the press,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “The Panamanian judiciary should release Corporación La Prensa’s assets and not allow powerful individuals to use the judicial system to restrict press freedom.”

Pérez Balladares, who was president from 1994 to 1999, originally filed the defamation suit in 2012, according to a report by local broadcaster TVN. The suit alleged that La Prensa articles from March 2011, which said that the former president could face a new criminal investigation for alleged money laundering, discredited his image nationally and internationally, and inflicted moral damages, according to a July 4, 2020, statement published on Pérez Balladares’ website.

“The plaintiff attorneys requested the embargo under the provisions of Article 533 and following the Judicial Code, in order to prevent the civil process against the La Prensa Corporation from being illusory in its effects,” said the statement, which said the former president is seeking $5.5 million in damages.

Vásquez told CPJ that the March 2011 reports quoted a prosecutor, who alleged connections between the former president and a $176 million account in a bank in the Bahamas, which later proved inaccurate. La Prensa later published comments from Pérez Balladares’ lawyers, who denied that story, Vásquez said.

According to another TVN report, Jose Maria Castillo, Perez Balladares’ lawyer, stated during a July 6 press conference that the former president’s lawyers “do not intend to harm journalism but that the right to defend against slanderous news cannot be restricted.”

CPJ emailed Perez Balladares at the address listed on his website for comment, but did not receive any reply.

On July 6, Corporación La Prensa’s insurance company offered a bond of $1.13 million to the civil court in an attempt to lift the freeze, but yesterday the court denied that request, according to Vásquez and a report by the paper.

CPJ emailed Panama’s judiciary for comment, but did not receive any response.

Diego Quijano, chairman of the Board of Directors of Corporación La Prensa, said on July 5 at a press conference that the corporation faces 12 civil suits and 22 criminal complaints by political critics of the newspapers, including Pérez Balladares and Ricardo Martinelli, another former president, totaling $84 million in fines and damages.

“The Panamanian system is being used by everyone who has the resources to silence the voice of people or media that do not think in the same way,” Vásquez told CPJ. “What do these claimants have in common? They are politicians, they are people who have been linked to public office, and they are precisely criticized for it.”

Editor’s note: The size of the bank account in the Bahamas cited in the eighth paragraph has been corrected.