Report to the 72nd General Assembly

Mexico City, Mexico

October 13 – 17, 2016


During the past six months the free exercise of journalism and compliance with access to public information have remained stable.

There continue in legal limbo proceedings related to the annulment of 2014 election results due to the illegal use of public resources to favor candidates allied to government parties. Despite the opinion of the Attorney General that the competent party is the Supreme Court there has been no progress; the majority of these lawsuits were initiated as a result of information being made known through the news media.

There continues to be delayed the decision in the trial of former National Security Council Executive Secretary Alejandro Garuz and others on a charge of aggression and impeding the filming by the secretary general of the Journalists Union, Filemón Medina, with his cel phone of an incident in which he was impeding the free practice of journalism of two reporters of television channel TVN.

In July there was submitted in the National Assembly a bill related to the so-called "right to be forgotten" under terms of which Internet users could demand of news portals the elimination of information that they regard as affecting their image. The proposal had an effect on freedom of expression and set limits on the practice of journalism. After a short public debate proponent Congressman Meliton Arrocha withdrew the bill.

Also in July, during an event that took place at the Panama University in which there was given a presentation by Amparo Medina, who was identified as a former United Nations consultant on issues of sexual education, there occurred an incident in which journalists Mauricio Valenzuela (freelance) and Hugo Vera (of Telesur) were attacked as they were doing their journalistic work; they filed a formal complaint with the authorities that is now under investigation.

Without any significant advance but continuing to be pending legislative action in the Latin American Parliament (Parlatino) based in Panama is the bill submitted by Ecuadorean Assembly member Octavio Villacreces that seeks enactment of a Communications Law for the countries belonging to the Parlatino "on the right to free access to communication" and to establish mechanisms of control by the government to "monitor and warn" concerning media content.

From August to October there have been recurring declarations made by President Juan Carlos Varela that refer to the performance of news media and social networks. In a public event with business owners he criticized television channels, declaring that "they eight times showed on their two-hour news broadcasts issues of delinquency" that were announced in 12 different headlines. He has also expressed his annoyance, saying that "insecurity is part of the country's life ... but there are some news media obsessed with creating a chaotic perception." In Boca del Toto province on August 12 he strongly complained about those that criticize his administration using social media.

The EPASA editorial group (which publishes the newspapers El Panamá-América, Crítica and Día a Día) has described as intimidating statements made by the President and members of the government. These caused EPASA to present to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) requests for precautionary measures to avoid the shutdown of its newspapers and to guarantee the personal protection of 15 journalists. Still pending is a response from the Migration authorities in answer to the IAPA requests about the retention in May this year of journalist Santiago Fascetto at the international airport by officials of the State Security Council. Also there have been received unjustified threats to cut off service by the institute that provides drinking water. In addition it has made public that there had been four tax liabilities in two years, with orders to pay sums amounting to $1.7 million for alleged errors in the financial reports presented by the company. Additionally, it faced administrative proceedings by the Electoral Tribunal that could end up in a fine of at least $50,000 for having published an extract of a public opinion poll.

We confirm that on October 12 there was taken in, investigated and placed in preventive detention by the Attorney General's Office the president of the Digital Television Company (CDT) that broadcasts the frequency of Canal NexTv channel, Riccardo Francolini. The information made public says that the objective of the legal investigation has to do with his role as chairman of the board of directors of a state bank during the past government administration. However, we hope that these actions do not restrict that media outlet's exercise of press freedom.

In another development the GESE editorial group (which publishes the newspapers El Siglo and La Estrella de Panamá) is facing a serious situation that could imply the final shutdown of the newspapers. In May the Office of Control of Foreign Shares (OFAC) of the United States Treasury placed on the so-called Clinton List the main shareholder of the newspapers. Although there was issued a General License" that seeks to not affect the newspapers and that U.S. Ambassador John Feely declared on Canal Telemetro television on June 3, 2016, that "the newspapers are not involved in money-laundering" the fact is that the situation of the newspapers has been seriously compromised in regards to their operation, loss of customers and advertising, a deterioration in the relationship with providers, a strangling of the financial and banking system and effects on human resources, having to reduce their levels of staff (including journalists) by 20%, and to this there has to be added the working stress produced by the uncertainty as to whether they will be able to continue publishing. The "General License" has an expiration date of January 6, 2017, but the reality is that it becomes a sword of Damocles that directly affects the prevention of advertising in 2017 (economic suffocation) and the free practice of journalism, becoming an attack upon freedom of the press and of expression, the product of an extraterritorial step taken by the United States government. The greatest number of sectors of national life, private associations, academics, labor unions, international press organizations (including the IAPA), news media and others of all kinds have shown their concern at the possible shutdown of the newspapers El Siglo and La Estrella de Panamá.

There continues pending a debate in the National Assembly on the Electoral Reforms Bill submitted by the Electoral Tribunal that contains norms that would affect freedom of expression, the free practice of news media and dispositions that could restrict freedom to do business.

The following amendments that are currently in the legislative process and that the speaker of the National Assembly has publicly stated that will continue in January 2017 are:

The limits on private financing of electoral campaigns, the establishment by law of obligatory fixed discounts to news media by reason of advertising in electoral campaigns, and the requirement to obtain on the part of news media the authorization of the Electoral Tribunal to disseminate political propaganda. It is thought that this charge should be that of the advertising agencies and not the media.

In the National Assembly there is also under discussion a bill to regulate the publication of classifieds and short messages in newspapers, which could restrict freedom of expression.

On the morning of October 17, in a similar situation to the one involving the president of Compañía Digital de Televisión, journalist Fernando Correa Joly, while preparing to appear on a television news program, was escorted away to satisfy a subpoena by the Judicial Investigation Administration (DIJ). Correa Joly was also a member of the board of directors of Banco Estatal Caja de Ahorros during the previous administration. In a statement, the attorney general's office said it is "pursuing an investigation into alleged offenses against the public administration in connection with a loan approved by Caja de Ahorros". Although this case is not related to freedom of expression, we are concerned by the manner in which the journalist was taken into custody. We hope that freedom of expression and freedom of the press are not adversely affected.

Ricardo Chanis, president of Grupo EPASA, has been told that the authorities — he does not know from which agency — appeared at his home to execute a similar order that he be taken into custody to satisfy a subpoena. Chanis served on the board of directors of Caja de Ahorros from 2009 to 2014.