Report to the 71th General Assembly

Charleston, South Carolina

October 2 – 6, 2015

At one year of the new administration in government there is seen less hostility toward news media in general and we continue to monitor the commitments assumed publicly by the government, principally as regards the free practice of journalism, compliance with legal requirements of access to public information and unrestricted respect for the privacy of people's communications, safeguarded by the Constitution.

Electoral officials are still lacking in investigation and resultant punishments for dirty campaigns waged during the 2014 election process, denounced by the Catholic Church and the Justice and Peace Commission, and concerning the results of the investigations into limitations on official advertising in the electoral periods.

The Electoral Reforms Commission, under the auspices of the Electoral Tribunal, envisions steps to ensure the regulation and verification of distribution of official advertising.

There remain pending formal complaints made by Public Prosecutor Eduardo Peñaloza to the Attorney General's Office against the newspapers La Prensa and Mi Diario, due to the fact that they had denounced the inefficiency of his work in watching over a legitimate electoral process.

In May all Panamanian news media, under the auspices of the National Journalism Council and the United Nations Development Program, signed the Declaration of Panama, through which they reaffirmed their commitment to safeguard freedom of the press, of expression and of information. The chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Claudio Paolillo, was present at the signing.

There continues the process of following the former executive secretary of the National Security Council, Alejandro Garuz, and others for attacking and preventing the filming with a cel phone of Journalists Union Secretary General Filemón Medina, an incident that was preventing the work of two journalists with television channel TVN.

The Appeals and Inquiries Tribunal of Panama's First Circuit Court ordered a stay of execution in favor of workers of the construction company Transcaribe Trading S.A. (TCT) in a case that was being pursued over the use of that company's equipment to block and prevent the circulation of the newspapers published by Corporación La Prensa in August 2012.

There continues without conclusion an investigation by the Panama Assistant Attorney General's Office concerning illegal phone tapping carried out by the National Security Council (CNS) during the Ricardo Martinelli government. These violations were formally complained of by the current CNS executive secretary and would show that more than 150 people, among them journalists, were victims. On August 8 the Supreme Court opened criminal proceedings against former president Martinelli, who will be investigated by it.

The 11th Criminal Court temporarily archived a libel suit filed by Ignacio Fábrega, former supervision director of the Superintendency of the Stock Market against journalist Adela Coriat of the newspaper La Estrella de Panama. Judge Eduardo de la Torre explained that the accusation was not recognized due to the fact that the term "deep throat" (that Coriat attributed to Fábrega) was the pseudonym used by Willliam Marfelt at the time that he had brought the Watergate case to light. Fábrega, investigated for leaking classified information to Financial Pacific from his position as an official, finally submitted to the courts and was sentenced to five years in prison.

In August the Attorney General's Office ordered a precautionary measure against journalist and lawyer Julio Miller over an investigation concerning advertising contracts received by a company being investigated for alleged corruption. Despite the fact that the investigations have nothing to do with his work as a journalist the National Journalists Guild and the Journalists Union views this situation as a threat to members of the press that criticize the actions of the current government.

On August 25 journalist Álvaro Alvarado of television channel Telemetro complained through his social media that he had received an alert from government sources that there was a plan of repression against him. The legal authorities are aware of the case and an investigation is pending.

Member of Congress Zulay Rodríguez recently filed a criminal lawsuit against journalist Flor Mizrachi for the alleged crime against the Inviolability of Secrecy and the Right to Intimacy (Article 162 of the Penal Code). The suit is the consequence of two reports by Mizrachi in her column Tal Cual of July 11 and 13, 2015 about a message by the whatsapp group that referred to members of Congress Rodríguez and Ana Matilde Gómez.

There continues without significant progress the process in the Panama-based Latin American Parliament (Parlatino) concerning a bill filed by Ecuadorean legislator Octavio Villacreces that seeks to enact a Communications Law for the Parliament's member countries "on the right to free access to communication."

On July 29 there was presented in the National Assembly a draft bill "To regulate the professional career of the journalist and news photographer in Panama." It consists of 22 articles and contains unnecessary rules and serious restrictions on freedom of expression.

The draft bill was submitted by substitute Assembly member Juan Bautista Moya, who belongs to the governing Panameñista Party.

The draft bill would create a "Technical-Academic Journalism Commission (CTAP)" for the "professional accreditation" permitting the practice of journalism by "the professionals of the Panamanian press" and for "temporary professional accreditation" of foreign journalists, valid for one year, with right to only one extension for another year.

It proposes a "Disciplinary Tribunal" that would have, among other powers, that of "applying sanctions contemplated in the Code of Ethics, which include up to the suspension of professional accreditation." The Code of Ethics of The Professional of Journalism would be administered and updated by the Technical-Academic Journalism Commission (CTAP), without there being a democratic ruling under this Code or, what is worse, official ethics would be set. It would establish that appeals of decisions by the "Disciplinary Tribunal" would be resolved "before the Ministry of Government," leaving the final decision to a political official.

It would also establish punishment of "imprisonment from two (2) to five (5) years" for the alleged unlawful practice of the profession.

The draft bill would establish so-called obligatory guild membership, setting as a requirement the obtaining of a "professional accreditation certificate" and being "a member of two professional journalistic organizations," a requirement that the Inter-American Human Rights Court clearly came out against in 1985.

These rules are a regression of the so-called "Panama gag laws" (Law 67 of 1978) adopted during the military dictatorship and repealed in 2005.

During the course of the IAPA General Assembly sessions and after this report was presented President Juan Carlos Varela publicly declared that he was "in total disagreement with Moya's draft bill and the legislators and the party have said they do not support that. [The bill] makes no sense." Nevertheless, the bill continues to be pending legislative treatment which could turn it into law.