PANAMA Report to the Midyear Meeting Caracas, Venezuela March 28 - 30, 2008 Press freedom has been affected by various incidents, including occasions when journalists’ work was blocked as well as several cases of judicial intimidation. In November of last year there was a series of prisoner escapes from penitentiaries, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office opened five cases to investigate the events. A team of journalists from Editora Panama America and other journalists and cameramen from TVN-2 (Channel 2) toured the perimeter of the prisons involved. The team breached the perimeter and drove into the jail without being detected. The journalists took photographs and approached authorities inside the jail. Instead of being escorted to the appropriate places or to hear observations about what had happened, they were detained and interrogated for several hours and then taken to the office of the warden where they were detained for several more hours, which delayed the publication of the events. On March 7, a photographer of the daily La Prensa de Panamá was detained for three hours and her equipment was confiscated as she was taking pictures of officials campaigning. No representatives of the security details or of state authorities intervened, since everyone involved was a high official of the governing party. La Prensa complained about the incident to the party, but the complaint was ignored. In this context, it is important to recall that last year the general director of the National Police accused a television station of staging a gun battle in the street to sensationalize its news show instead of investigating the events that were reported. The judicial intimidation and harassment are not limited to news stories and journalists. A columnist criticized the independence of a judge, and the judge charged him criminally for defamation-related offenses. A hearing is set for October of this year. However, by then a new Penal Code will be in effect stating that a judge cannot prosecute such offenses criminally. Both the old and the new Penal Codes say that the defendant must be judged under the laws most favorable to him at the time of his trial, which implies that the judge’s case will not be admissible. Nevertheless, the summons remains in effect. One of the most symbolic cases of judicial harassment of the media involving an investigative project is the case of Judge Spadafora vs. Editora Panamá América et. al., which has taken on new life The civil case has moved forward and a sentence may be issued in a few months. On March 8, 2001, the daily Panamá América published a news story about the discovery of public machinery being used to build a highway basically to benefit two high officials of the government at the time—a cabinet minister and the national comptroller. The news included photographs of heavy machinery working and parked on the comptroller’s farm which was adjacent to property of then Minister Spadafora as well as aerial photographs showing that there were no other houses or farms that the highway would serve at that time. Minister Spadafora did not reply or clarify the report, but just sued the publishing house and the journalists for injuria, (insults or damage to the good name). On August 1, 2003, EPASA and the journalists were convicted, and the conviction was upheld on appeal on July 5, 2004. In September of 2004, the president at that time, who was at the end of her term, pardoned the journalists who were convicted in this case. However, one of the officials mentioned, who had become (and still is) a justice on the Supreme Court, is pursuing a civil case against the publishing house and the journalists who wrote the article. It resulted from the original criminal case, in an attempt to punish the speed with which the news was published and claiming non-pecuniary damages of $2 million (U.S.). There is no basis for that amount of damages, as is necessary under civil legislation. The plaintiff relies on the simple allegation that “the pain and suffering are assumed because of the very fact of the damaging event.” He bases the “damaging event” on the challenged criminal sentence. The main evidence put forward in the civil case is the criminal sentence which specified no amount. It is just this result that plaintiff says legitimates his claim. In addition, it is obvious that neither the plaintiff’s political career nor his reputation was adversely affected by the news story., since from being a cabinet minister at the time of the report he became a Supreme Court justice. He prevailed in the process of objections and hearings before the National Assembly’s Credentials Committee. Currently he is chief justice of the Third Branch of the Supreme Court of Panama. In the civil case, the presentation of evidence and arguments are over. The publishing house was not allowed to present its main evidence, including inspection of the highway in question and the report of the authority that loaned its machinery to the project. It appears that there has been a lack of due process, since the statute of limitations has passed for the civil case according to the laws of Panama. It is important to confirm that in the case the plaintiff chose to attach the salaries of the accused journalists and the publishing house put up bonds so they would not be affected. So far, there has been no formal order to take over the publishing house. In October of 2005, a Panamanian delegation presented the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as an example of the judicial harassment in the country that damages press freedom. It is also important to keep in mind that one of the journalists who were sued never wrote anything in the newspaper against the plaintiff Spadafora. His only assignment was to get Spadafora’s response to the report. He never visited the site or wrote about the facts that were reported. He only sought the explanation or reply that Spadafora might have wanted to appear in the initial article. In the criminal phase, the journalist was convicted of an alleged offense that he did not commit. The Ethics Committee of the National Journalism Council initiated at the beginning of the year a public campaign encouraging reports of ethical errors in the media. In the legislative field, the new Penal Code will take effect May 8. There is concern about the definition of new criminal offenses against privacy that could restrict the practice of journalism.