Report to the IAPA 76 General Assembly
October 21-23, 2020

During this period, an increase in legal actions against the media, journalists, and opinion makers or influencers was observed - as a tool of intimidation and to promote self-censorship.

In early September, the Electoral Tribunal handed the National Commission on Electoral Reforms (CNRE) a bill to reform the Electoral Code that defines as electoral misconduct the dissemination of false news and misinformation during the electoral process or the services provided by the Electoral Tribunal. It proposes fines for the diffusion of electoral propaganda in publications with editorial content, promoting a candidate, pre-candidate, candidate or party; the improper use of digital media and the violation of fee discounts by radio or television stations. The initiative must be presented to the National Assembly in January 2021.

Congressman Javier Sucre presented a bill that seeks to punish those who "film videos, take pictures of calamities, catastrophes, accidents, fights or any incident that occurs, affecting third parties and that are published in social networks."

In May, the National Council of Journalism and the Forum of Journalists issued statements to reject "the publication of ads paid by the State and signed by the Secretary of Strategic Communications to refute journalistic publications."

Thirty-eight (38) journalists, directors and directors of the newspapers La Prensa and Mi Diario, have been sued by former President Ricardo Martinelli, for alleged crimes against honor. Of the 16 lawsuits filed by the former president, 11 have been admitted, whose civil claims total more than 46 million dollars. Since the March report, Martinelli has filed an additional complaint against Mi Diario.

Justice Elkis Martínez Agrazal ordered a ban on capturing images or photographs of attorney Jaime Lescure. The lawyer had sued the newspaper La Prensa for the publication of audios, in which he offered services to a client which included the payment of bribes to judges and magistrates. The Superior Court of Justice ratified the decision.

In July, the Fifteenth Civil Circuit Court in charge of Judge Lina Castro de León, ordered the seizure of bank accounts and assets of La Prensa in the amount of US$1.13 million as a result of a lawsuit by former president, Ernesto Pérez Balladares - for alleged damages to his reputation and honor. The process dates back to 2012, but has not yet reached a first instance ruling.

In civil law, the legislation allows that in a lawsuit for damages the claimant - even without a favorable ruling - can request the freezing of assets. There is a rule that prohibits the issuance of precautionary measures against radio and TV stations' property and assets, but not for print and digital media.

Eleven organizations asked the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to express his opinion on the "actions of judicial harassment" against La Prensa.

In October, the digital platform Foco requested protection measures from the IACHR due to "telephone threats, cyber harassment, lawsuits and criminal complaints."

Article 195 of the Criminal Code on insult and libel through the media remains in force. Although it was decriminalized in cases involving officials with national jurisdiction, it has not been decriminalized in cases involving other officials, and former officials and by individuals. The Criminal Code punishes these crimes with prison terms of 6 to 18 months or the equivalent of days' fines. In civil matters, there is concern about large claims, and trials that intimidate journalists and compromise the operation of the media.

Three years after the beginning of the process, the Public Ministry continues with the investigation of the "New Business" case regarding information sent by the National Assembly on the way in which the EPASA group – publisher of the newspapers Panama-America and Crítica - was acquired. The group considers the case to be a reprisal for the cases of corruption it has published.

The Supreme Court of Justice did not admit a habeas data action requesting information on the use of public funds during the pandemic. Due to this decision, the media entities expressed their concern about the lack of compliance with the Transparency Law, and about the performance of the National Authority of Transparency and Access to Information (ANTAI).

The pandemic has had serious consequences for the sustainability of the media, forcing major adjustments. The State of National Emergency was decreed by the Cabinet Council on March 13 with mobility restrictions. It has been relaxed since September, although a curfew is maintained from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM, Monday through Friday, and mobility is prohibited on Sundays.

The bill for the Communications Framework Law - presented by Ecuadorian legislator Octavio Villacreces - is still being considered by the Latin American Parliament. The initiative establishes state control mechanisms to "monitor, warn and promote" on the contents of the media.