Report to the 75th General Assembly of the IAPA

October 4 – 7, 2019

Coral Gables, Florida


In May, the country went through its general election process for the renewal of the executive and legislative branches; it concluded smoothly, and last July the new authorities took office.

With the electoral process over, next year will begin the revision of the electoral rules. A relevant issue will be the limitation imposed on the placement of billboards promoting the No to re-election - because the Electoral Tribunal considered it violated the period of "blackout". This decision affects the right to freedom of expression.

The denunciations filed for the arrest and 24-hour detention of journalist Ligia Arreaga last January have not been answered. The arrest was ordered by Judge Ulzana Valdez Jurado. The Public Defender's Office keeps the case open.

Since March, the newspaper La Prensa and its journalists have been sued 10 times by former president Ricardo Martinelli for alleged crimes against honor. Eight suits were admitted by the Public Prosecutor's Office and two were rejected - and the ones pending civil action seek claims for approximately US$10 million. In total, Corprensa has been the target of 20 criminal suits and 13 civil suits - with claims totaling 89 million dollars and including 11 executives and 30 journalists.

The lawsuits against the authors of two opinion articles published in the newspapers El Siglo and La Estrella de Panamá - one by Mariano Mena and the other by journalist Alberto Velásquez - are still pending; the same occurs with journalists Mariela Ledezma and Annette Planells - for alleged crimes against honor. More recently, a lawsuit was filed against Sabrina Bacal, Vice-president of Informative Affairs of TVN Media - for libel and slander. All filed by former President Ricardo Martinelli.

Article 195 of the Criminal Code keeps the classification of libel and slander involving the media, and although it has been decriminalized when the "alleged victim" is an official with national power and jurisdiction, it remains in force for individuals, the rest of the officials and ex-officials. It is worth mentioning that the Criminal Code penalizes these crimes with a prison sentence ranging from six to 18 months, or the equivalent in penalty days. It is necessary to decriminalize the crimes of libel and slander so that the corresponding claims can be dealt with by the civil jurisdiction and, at the same time, to establish limits on the sums allowed in civil lawsuits, so that these processes do not end up becoming tools to intimidate journalists and close media outlets.

The EPASA Group has repeatedly stated that it is under pressure from the Public Prosecutor's Office and denounced that said institution is carrying out an information blockade by denying access to public information. In particular, recently, they denounced that they had received information that their facilities would be raided by a group of prosecutors. They have publicly questioned the failure of the Public Prosecutor's Office to respond to their requests for information. After publication of the denunciation, the Public Prosecutor's Office issued a statement denying the raid and accusing EPASA of disinforming in order to damage the image of the institution.

The journalistic and media guilds issued a statement saying they considered "the approach of the Public Prosecutor's Office to be correct" in denying the search, and that "freedom of expression and information is an inalienable right of every human being, and they will always be vigilant so that nothing or no one attempts or violates this right."

In August, prosecutor Ricaurte González publicly reprimanded journalist Luis Ávila - from the daily Panamá-América - with whom he has had previous incidents. Ávila asked the prosecutor to respect the work he was doing and received a public rebuke from one of the assistants of the official who complained about the editorial line of the media. Also, he has been denied interviews on the basis of: "I know where you come from."

We reported that at the beginning of September there was a meeting of representatives of media and journalistic guilds with the new president, Laurentino Cortizo, where various issues related to freedom of the press and expression were considered. The tone of the meeting was positive and he committed himself to comply with the principles established in the Chapultepec Declaration.

The project that seeks to enact a Communications Framework Law for the countries of the region "on the right to free access to communication" and to establish control mechanisms by the State to "monitor, warn, and promote" on the contents of the media is still pending at the Latin American Parliament (Parlatino) - based in Panama - and its proposals will have serious implications for the freedom of the press and expression.