69th General Assembly

Denver, Colorado

October 18 – 22, 2013

At six months before the upcoming general elections there have been some developments that have given rise to concern about the climate of press freedom. There was an increase in hostility on the part of the authorities towards the free practice of journalism, evidenced in the discriminatory treatment of news media, in restrictions on access to information and in attacks, in specific cases, upon journalists. On October 9 access to the Web site of the newspaper La Prensa,, was blockaded for eight hours. This also prevented journalists from updating the news. The action comes within the framework of recent publications that the newspaper has made regarding the investigation under way in Italy into alleged bribes by Italian Valter Lavitola, said in Panama to be a person close to former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi and family members and officials of the government of President Martinelli. In July journalist Castalia Pascual of the morning newscast of Canal TVN television reported that government officials refused to attend her program, and the Sunday one “Radar,” which is broadcast by the same channel. Under the premise that stigmatization can give rise to a risk in working as a journalist Panama’s President Martinelli in his Twitter account has referred to La Prensa as the “diario de la opo” (newspaper of the opposition.) The governor of Panama province in her radio program questioned a published item that she regarded as “purely conjecture and not real facts.” She referred to La Prensa reporter Flor Mizrachi Ángel as “judita de la Gestapo” (little Jew of the Gestapo). Both religious representatives and press groups condemned these insults. Panamanian Vice President Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez rebuked the State Radio and Television System (SERTV) journalist Ricardo Peñalba, saying that as he was a “public employee” he could not make questions regarding polls on voting intentions, which was condemned by journalists’ organizations. While pointing at the journalist, the vice president said in a threatening tone, “You can’t ask me that question. You see? You see? Was I clear?” The electoral ethics board assessed a non-pecuniary penalty on Panamá América, in a proceeding that violated the defendants’ basic rights, such as the right to mount a defense, the right to be notified of the alleged infractions, and the right to a proceeding governed by clear, predetermined rules. This penalty stems from the publication of stories on child-support claims against a member of the national legislature and candidate for mayor of Panama City. In response to these claims, the legislator submitted two completely different income statements to fight the petition for an increase in child support filed by the mother of his two children. The story is of public interest because it involves a national legislator and mayoral candidate, who may become a manager of government employees and resources for family-related programs. The ethics board concealed information from Panamá América and denied its requests for information, both during and after the proceedings, which limited its right to mount a defense. Since then, Panamá América has been threatened and attacked by the legislator and his father, a television commentator. Panamá América will appeal the penalty on the grounds described above. Rafael Jiménez, a journalist with the newspaper El Siglo, was detained for 12 hours by National Police officers and to date the reasons are not known. In June Canal TVN television reporter Elizabeth González and cameraman Bolívar Jurado were held for more than two hours by Security Council officers who demanded that they hand over their material, which consisted only of views of Mount Ancón. Appearing at the scene were Journalists Union President Filemón Medina and the Security Council executive secretary, who struck Medina and then escorted González and Jurado to the television station, where it could be seen that the recordings did not contain relevant material that put national security in danger. On repeated occasions news media have indicated that they have difficulty in accessing information of a public nature or getting public servants to answer their questions. In a recent interview on the morning newscast of Canal Telemetro television in which information was sought about his travels President Martinelli replied, “I have told people ‘do not answer questions,’” implying that the media distort the answers. The government’s boycott denying information to La Prensa was acknowledged by the president, who said in a televised interview that he had instructed officials in his administration not to give statements to journalists from La Prensa and not to respond to its requests for public information. Since January 2013, La Prensa has filed 19 habeas data petitions with the Supreme Court and has received no response thus far. In addition, 18 requests for information have been denied, and 21 others are awaiting a response. Noted with concern is the generalization of actions in civil courts that seek to obtain sentences against media without there being any proportionality between the alleged damage and the amounts claimed, which compromises the work of journalists. It is an aggravating factor that the claimants are people or privately-owned corporations that boast a relationship with the government. Currently there are under way multiple lawsuits against the newspapers Panamá-América, La Estrella, El Siglo and La Prensa. An investigation carried out by the Authority of Consumer Protection and Defense of Competition into La Prensa and La Estrella for alleged monopolistic activities after they raised their cover price by 15 cents was filed away. After holding a contrary position the Attorney General’s Office changed its view on which it was proposed to carry out visual inspections and have access to the equipment of journalists of La Estrella and El Siglo. The original intention was to learn the source that had served as a reference for the publication of a report. Even though the final decision is pending the public prosecutors reversed their original arguments and acknowledged the principle contained in the Declaration of Chapultepec and in Panamanian legislation that journalists not be required to reveal the identity of their sources. Increasingly there is partiality in the distribution and choice of placement of government advertising. Since taking office, President Martinelli has purchased media outlets and, in so doing, has violated Law 24 of 1999, which bars individuals and entities, and those related to or affiliated with them, from directly or indirectly controlling television or radio stations and print media outlets in the same geographic area of influence. Some of these media outlets are used to conduct attacks on political adversaries and on executives and/or journalists from independent media outlets.