In the past six months, journalists’ ability to work freely and access to public information have been maintained, and the National Assembly has turned back a proposed law on journalism that would have been very harmful to press freedom and freedom of expression.
A verdict is pending in the trial of Alejandro Garuz, former executive secretary of the National Security Council, and others for assaulting Filemón Medina, general secretary of the Journalists Union, and preventing Medina from using his cellphone to record video of an incident in which two journalists from the TVN network were denied the freedom to do their work.
A hearing has been scheduled for April 11 in the case related to the investigation of illegal wiretaps at the National Security Council during the previous administration. More than 150 people, including journalists, were victims of these wiretaps. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is pursuing separate proceedings against former President Ricardo Martinelli and issued a warrant for his arrest on December 21.
In December, the 23rd Civil Court of Panama, with Judge Melina Robinson presiding, ordered Corporación La Prensa to pay US$600,000 in damages to business owners plus US$60,000 in court costs, in a lawsuit initially brought in 2012 by David and Daniel Ochy.
The case stems from a story published in La Prensa newspaper on lucrative contracts awarded by the Ministry of Public Works to the construction company Transcaribe Trading. On August 2, 2012, trucks owned by Transcaribe Trading surrounded the newspaper’s facilities in a clear attempt to prevent the newspaper from circulating the following day.
In July 2015, the Court of Appeals and Consultations of the First Judicial Circuit of Panama dismissed the case against the construction company’s employees for blocking and impeding the newspaper’s circulation.
David and Daniel Ochy claimed that the published news items were “false, brazen, insulting and denigrating,” but at no time did they refute the information in question.
The ruling ignores an extensive body of case law from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and orders disproportionate monetary compensation for the alleged “moral harm,” which could jeopardize the existence of a media outlet.
This ruling has been appealed, and it is now up to the First Superior Court to decide whether the ruling will stand or be modified.
In January, the Civil Chamber of the Supreme Court upheld the ruling that ordered the newspaper Panamá América and journalists Gustavo Aparicio and Jean Marcel Chéry to pay US$25,000 in damages to a former minister. The ruling was widely condemned by journalists’ unions and media outlets, mainly because it sets a terrible precedent regarding the right of the press to serve as a watchdog over government officials. The newspaper and the two journalists were sued after reporting on the use of government resources via the Social Investment Fund to build a highway that allegedly benefitted a private estate owned by then-Minister Winston Spadafora.
In November, during the opening of regular sessions at the Panama-based Latin American Parliament, Social Development Minister Alcibíades Vásquez stated that social media and new technologies should be regulated through legislation. Rubén De León, chairman of the Chamber of Deputies, then made a similar statement, although he said that he had been misinterpreted and that no proposal was pending before the chamber.
In January, the Electoral Court levied a fine on the KW Continente radio station under a provision in the Electoral Code regarding a registry of propaganda of government agencies in electoral processes. The National Journalism Council stated that it “respects the rule of law and we promote strict compliance with electoral law, without exception, but at the same time we rely on a fair exchange of information between the parties, so as to avoid misunderstandings regarding the use of legal methods to influence the editorial line of any media outlet.”
On March 9, journalist Álvaro Alvarado filed a criminal complaint with the Office of the Attorney General against those responsible for defaming him. Alvarado said that messages claiming that he had committed crimes had circulated through instant messaging media and software (WhatsApp). He stated through his Twitter account that the National Security Council had attempted to intimidate him.
In March, journalist Ana Sierra of the newspaper Metro Libre said that she did not intend to violate the confidentiality to which hospital patients are entitled when she interviewed and photographed some patients. Nonetheless, she was forced, under intimidation, by the chief of security to delete the photographs she had taken.
Citing a provision in the Electoral Code requiring polling agencies to register with the Electoral Court whenever their poll results are to be disclosed by a media outlet, the Electoral Court opened an administrative proceeding against Editora Panamá América and the CB24 television network for content published and aired on October 27, 2015, and February 15, 2016. The media companies have presented their defense, and a decision in the case is pending.
Still pending before the Latin American Parliament (Parlatino) is a proposal submitted by Ecuadorian legislator Octavio Villacreces that would create a Framework Law on Communications for Parlatino’s member countries “on the right to free access to communication” and would establish mechanisms for the government to “monitor, caution and promote” with regard to media content.
A proposed set of electoral reforms has been submitted by the Electoral Court to the Panamanian Congress. These reforms would adversely affect freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and free enterprise.
Some of the provisions are aimed at restricting freedom of expression and press freedom by regulating the content of electoral propaganda, establishing broad, highly subjective categories of “noncompliance,” creating conditions conducive to self-censorship, regulating editorial content, and providing for fines and even the possibility of “immediate closure” of media outlets. This presumably would entail summary proceedings with no right to a defense.
Other provisions would require media outlets to register in order to gain access to political propaganda, control the allocation and distribution of government advertising, regulate the media plans of political parties and the participation of advertising agencies, prohibit certain types of advertising content, and set rates.
It must be stated that the proposal calls for all spending on electoral propaganda in the upcoming campaign to be publicly financed.
During a consultation period in the legislative committee, the media were able to raise the issue, and both the judges on the Electoral Court and the legislators acknowledged the possibility of amending the proposal.
The National Journalism Council and the Journalists Forum held a conference with international speakers at which the restrictions on press freedom were discussed.
Also on April 5 journalist Alvarado complained on his Twitter account that he had been informed that the “Social Security Registry (CSS) is asking the Journalists Guild to punish me for divulging complaints by users and criticizing the CSS.” As recently as April 7 another journalist, José Miguel Guerra, the CSS Public Relations Director, submitted his resignation and declared that he was doing so because of attacks received by journalist colleagues.
We confirm that journalist Julio Miller, whose case we reported on at the Charleston General Assembly, continues to be subject to a precautionary measure prohibiting him from leaving the country.
Journalist Carmen Boyd who had been the victim of the theft and vandalism of her vehicle and said the National Security Council was responsible for what could happen considering that the robbery was the consequence of the denunciations presented against the current administration. These denunciations are related to a labor lawsuit against the government.
The Panamanian Chamber of Commerce supported the media’s position and initiated a meeting with the judges of the Electoral Court. At this meeting it was agreed that that the media would propose specific amendments to safeguard freedom of expression. They stated their opposition to eliminating the provision that would authorize the Electoral Court to order the “immediate closure of a media outlet” (Article 409).
The media outlets, the National Journalism Council, and the Journalists Forum submitted to the Electoral Court a document containing the suggested amendments. The judges of the Electoral Court and the chairman of the legislative committee have agreed to submit the amendments at the first legislative debate. Amendments were also suggested for the second set of provisions, but these amendments have not been accepted yet.
The legislative session is set to end on April 30, and no date has been set for the opening of the first debate.
The Grupo EPASA group which publishes the newspapers Panamá América, Crítica and Día y Día has made public at this meeting that since early in 2015 the Economy and Finance Ministry’s Revenue Office has filed three lawsuits concerning taxes.
The first one was taken out against the publishing company and the second against the company that owns the plant, printing presses, equipment and machinery. In both cases the group’s executives presented their appeals for reconsideration, without receiving a response in more than a year.
Then a third lawsuit is filed against the group’s shareholding partnership, which only acts as the shareholder of the group and does not engage in any operations, without so far there being any resolution of the matter.
The publishing company regards these lawsuits as an “act of abuse of power that seeks to curtail freedom of expression and the right to information.”