IAPA Midyear Meeting 2017

Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala

March 31 – April 3


Panama's Supreme Court made no progress during this period in the cases stemming from the annulment of the 2014 election results due to the illegal use of public money to favor candidates with ties to the ruling parties. Most of these allegations began with news articles disseminated through the media.

In the trial of Alejandro Garuz, former secretary of the National Security Council, for inflicting bodily harm on Filemón Medina, secretary general of the Journalists Union, the 10th Criminal Court handed down a five-year prison sentence, marking the end of a prosecution that began in June 2013.

The past six months have seen troubling developments affecting the freedom to practice journalism and the fulfillment of legal requirements related to freedom of information.

On October, the National Journalists Association (CONAPE) and the Panamanian Journalists Union condemned statements made by Luis Eduardo Camacho, spokesman of the Democratic Change political party, in which he accused media outlets and journalists (whom he called "pro-government") of covering his party's protests in order to forward the images to the State Security Council.

In November, at an event in the Azuero region that featured the participation of President Juan Carlos Varela, officials with the Ministry of the Presidency prevented journalists from performing their work while a group of retirees was attempting to deliver a document to the president.

The Interior Ministry proposed a set of regulations to implement a law aimed at preventing violence against women. These regulations would grant the Office for Freedom of Expression powers to regulate media outlets, their editorial content, and hence freedom of expression and the right to information, including the granting of powers to an administrative authority to levy fines against media outlets. After multiple meetings between the media and Interior Minister Milton Henríquez, the minister agreed to make clear that, in the event that a media outlet commits discrimination or violence against women, the aggrieved parties should resort to the ordinary civil court system. The bill includes the elimination of a provision setting forth sanctions by the Interior Ministry against media outlets.

The Chamber of Deputies is debating electoral reforms. The proposed reforms include changes ranging from the election system itself to electoral campaign financing, as well as provisions that could harm the media and freedom of expression. Included are measures providing for a percentage-based discount off regular advertising rates, the possibility that the Electoral Court could get involved in the campaign strategies or media plans of political parties or candidates, the regulation of commissions paid by media outlets to advertising agencies, the requirement that media outlets not disseminate propaganda that hasn't been previously authorized by the Electoral Court, a broad definition of "dirty propaganda," hefty daily fines levied on media outlets, an extension of the ban on publishing election poll results from 8 to 20 days, and the possibility of regulating "dirty" campaigns on social media. It is not yet clear how the final vote on these proposed reforms will turn out.

In February, Noriel Salerno, a legislator with the Democratic Change party, submitted a bill that would require television, radio, and print media outlets to provide space or airtime for promotional campaigns to be approved by a committee consisting of government entities. This constituted a clear act of interference in media content, as this was not about paid advertising, but rather free space or airtime that must be yielded for this purpose on an ongoing basis.Media and journalistic guilds launched a campaign called #TuLibertad that along with actions of other media and organizations resulted in the rejection of the project.

Another legislative proposal of the Ministry of Health on "sexually transmitted infections and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)" would require media outlets to disseminate information related to these topics on a ongoing basis. The Ministry of the Presidency, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and the Public Services Authority are in charge of regulating the duties of media outlets.

Grupo Editorial GESE (which publishes the newspapers El Siglo and La Estrella de Panamá) faces a measure imposed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the United States Treasury Department, which named the newspapers' leading shareholder on the so-called Clinton List, after an intensive campaign in late 2016 in which the newspapers complained that they might have to shut down as a result of this measure by the U.S. government. On this topic, the U.S. ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, said that "the newspapers are not involved in money laundering." On Janaury 5, just hours before the previous "general license" was set to expire, the Treasury Department issued an extension valid until July 13, 2017. The grave effects on El Siglo and La Estrella de Panamá, which were described in the previous report, remain in place, and the newspapers' normal operations will be jeopardized if a definitive solution is not found. In January, during the IAPA's mission to Washington, DC, this issue was raised with high-level members of Congress and the State Department.

In March, journalist Álvaro Alvarado of the Telemetro network reported that he was the victim of a "dirty campaign" by the government, which has been putting out the story that he has a large amount of net wealth, which could make him a "target for kidnapping."

In February, Jorge Arrocha, a legislator from the ruling party, requested that the Office of the Attorney General open an investigation into the purchase of the newspapers Panamá América, Crítica, and Día a Día, which are published by Editora Panamá América (EPASA). He made reference to alleged companies, business owners, and bank loan operations and stated that he had "evidence." These developments come after EPASA's newspapers ran articles on alleged corruption by officials in the current administration. The IAPA has spoken out on this topic, pointing out that "these repeated statements, shielded by parliamentary immunity and without the corresponding judicial complaint and submission of evidence to the courts, appear to be aimed solely at raising suspicions in order to carry out a subtle form of intimidation and censorship."

In March government party Congressman Adolfo Valderrama published several tweets against the Grupo EPASA group, one of these referring to a journalist belonging to its investigations unit: "They tell me that R. Berrocal is writing notes against me, but asks others to sign them and they tell him NO, in the end he puts Newsroom. Sign the note!" Valderrama's tweet came after the publication of notes about his role as speaker of the House of Representatives.

No response has been received to the letter sent more than six months ago by the IAPA to the general director of the National Migration Service, in which the IAPA requested an explanation of the arrest of journalist Santiago Fascetto, of the newspaper Panamá América, at the airport.

Grupo Editorial EPASA has denounced an intimidation campaign by the government, which has featured the commissioning of attack campaigns via social media; the intimidation of EPASA's journalists on social media; and the continuing lack of a resolution to four tax assessments against EPASA for more than US$1.7 million, which could increase to ten times that amount with the addition of fees, interest, and fines (and thereby jeopardize EPASA's operations). EPASA has also denounced multiple attacks targeting its online platforms, including the hacking of their social media accounts; in particular, the Twitter account of Crítica newspaper was shut down as a result of anonymous attacks.

On February 1, EPASA president Ricardo Chanis submitted a second request for a precautionary measure to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights based on what he considers government attacks on EPASA's newspapers. The IAPA requested that the Panamanian government resolve this case as efficiently as possible and in accordance with due process.

Since his participation in the Mexico General Assembly Chanis, who was informed that the authorities went to his residence to ask for him, has not returned to Panama. In the case of journalist Fernando Correa of NexTV after being cited by the Attorney General's Office on October 17 he is free due to an appeal presented by his lawyer. The two continue facing trial concerning their work as members of the board of directors of the Caja de Ahorros bank during the 2009-2014 administration.

Compañía Digital de Televisión, S.A. (Nextv), has publicly denounced that the arrest of its president, Ricardo Francolini — who is under investigation by the public prosecutor's office for his actions as chairman of the board of directors of a state-owned bank during the 2009-2014 administration — is a form of intimidation directed at the news outlet.

Still pending before the Panama-based Latin American Parliament (Parlatino) is the proposal submitted by Ecuadorean member Octavio Villacreces, which aims to establish a framework communications law for Paralatino's member countries "on the right to free access to communication" and to establish mechanisms for government control in order to "monitor, warn, and promote" on media content. The provisions of this proposed measure would severely undermine press freedom and freedom of expression.