Panama

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Freedom of expression has yet to be a part of the agenda of the new administration of President Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal, who took office on July 1. However, Government and Justice Minister José Raúl Mulino has on repeated occasions accused the news media of being responsible for a climate of public anxiety in reporting on homicides, the consequence of a crime wave resulting from the illicit drug trade. In addition, Mulino and Panama’s Attorney General Ana Matilde Gómez, have written op-ed pieces in newspapers in favor of regulating press content. The government has decided to centralize official communications and press releases in the State Communication Ministry, which has caused ill-feeling because of the impossibility of the media being able to have access to official sources. All requests for information, as well as interviews with senior officials, have to be channeled through a system of written questions, which has made reporters’ work more difficult. There continues to be a confused legal picture with the implementation of the new Penal Code, which while protecting freedom of expression and access to information has barely been applied. The changes are designed to make offenses against reputation involving public servants no longer criminal offenses, in line with the American Convention on Human Rights. During these last six months Rafael Berrocal of the newspaper La Prensa was found guilty of libel on a lawsuit brought by Dominador Kayser Bazán, former vice-president (1999-2004), whom the journalist denounced as having been favored by a state bank of which his son was assistant manager, granting him land for real estate development projects. The report was not denied and despite that the journalist was found guilty and he has lodged an appeal. In another development, former President Ernesto Pérez-Balladares (1994-1999) publicly threatened the president and editor of La Prensa, Fernando Berguido, and journalists Santiago Fascetto and Mónica Palm, as a consequence of the publication of several reports on the award of concessions to family members and those close to him for the operation of betting parlors, without payment of fees stipulated by law. In another incident, the editor of the newspaper El Siglo, Jean Marcel Chery, was sentenced to two years in prison by a criminal court judge in the township of La Chorrera, near Panama City, on a charge of violation of parole, in a suit brought by Supreme Court Justice Winston Spadafora, who accused Chery of secretly entering his ranch located in a rural area when he was a reporter for the newspaper Panamá América. During the proceedings what was clear was the presiding judge’s inclination to favor the plaintiff, even going so far as to alter the testimony of some of the witnesses for the defense. Journalist Rubén Polanco, who worked for El Siglo, was sued on for libel by Juan Vega, assistant to Judge Rubén Royo. Polanco wrote about an investigation into the judge concerning an alleged bribe. The judge’s assistant was mentioned in the case file, which was reproduced by the journalist in his report. Another libel suit was brought by former congressional candidate Héctor Raúl Cedeño against journalist Rosmar Castillo, who also worked at El Siglo. Castillo wrote that Cedeño had a criminal record and presented as evidence the police blotter that mentioned him in a case of armed robbery. Both cases are under investigation. A civil court judge ordered the Editora Panamá América publishing house and journalists Jean Marcel Chery and Gustavo Aparicio to pay $20,000 as indemnity for the damage allegedly done to the reputation of Supreme Court Justice Winston Spadafora in publication in March 2001 of a report that told of the construction of a highway with public funds that led to a ranch owned by Spadafora, who at that time was serving as Government and Justice Minister in the Mireya Moscoso administration. The sentence was appealed by both the Editora Panamá América attorneys and those of the two journalists, as well as by Spadafora’s attorney. The appeal is under way. In another development, restrictions preventing print media from participating in radio or television companies continue in force, under Law 24 of 1999, which reorganized the legal framework that regulates broadcast services. This law says, in its Article 1, that what is sought is to foster and protect investment and free competition and quality among concession grantees. However, it imposes a limit on print media to acquire, manage or operate radio or televisions stations in Panama. It expressly establishes that no radio or television station shall be controlled, directly or indirectly, by a newspaper of national circulation.”

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