2021 Report to the Midyear Meeting
April 20-23, 2021

During this period, lawsuits against the media and journalists continued to be used as a tool to intimidate - and violence by the National Police against journalists during public protests increased.

In February, the Electoral Tribunal submitted a bill on Electoral Reforms to the National Assembly to modify the Electoral Code. It establishes norms that define as electoral misconduct the dissemination of fake news and disinformation that may be detrimental to the electoral process or to the services provided by the Electoral Tribunal. It proposes fines for the dissemination of electoral propaganda in publications with editorial content, when promoting a hopeful, pre-candidate, candidate or party, as well as for the improper use of digital media and the violation of discounted rates by radio or television stations.

The bill is pending legislative procedure.

The bill submitted by congressman Javier Sucre, that seeks to punish people who "record videos, take pictures of calamities, catastrophes, accidents, fights or any incident that may occur, affecting third parties, and are published on social networks" has not had any legislative consideration so far.

Still pending are complaints and lawsuits filed against Corporación La Prensa by former President Ricardo Martinelli, for possible crimes against honor - affecting a total of 38 journalists, directors and executives of the publisher - and claims for up to US$46.1 million.

A process is still pending at the Fifteenth Civil Circuit Court of Panama, in charge of Judge Lina Castro de León, who ordered the seizure of bank accounts and assets of Corporación La Prensa for US$1.13 million, as part of a lawsuit filed by the former president, Ernesto Pérez Balladares, for alleged damages to his reputation and honor in a case that dates back to 2012.

In the civil sphere, the legislation allows the plaintiff in a lawsuit for damages to seek the freezing of assets of the defendant, even if no ruling has been passed in his favor - which could jeopardize the operation of the sued media company.

In a lawsuit that dates back more than 10 years - filed by the judge of the Judicial Branch, Geneva Ladrón de Guevara, against the newspaper La Estrella de Panamá and journalist Linett Lynch for alleged moral damages - the judge of the Sixteenth Judicial Circuit, Guimara Aparicio, ordered the seizure of assets of journalist Lynch - in an affront to the free practice of journalism. The publication being sued had to do with a report on influence peddling to obtain rulings in the court governed by Judge Ladrón de Guevara.

The action filed sets a disastrous precedent for the practice of journalism, as the personal assets of journalists can be seized for disproportionate amounts - thus becoming a way of promoting self-censorship.

The increase in the use of legal actions against the media, journalists and opinion makers (influencers) as a tool to intimidate and to promote self-censorship, is a matter of concern.

Article 195 of the Criminal Code maintains in force the criminalization of Libel and Slander, when committed via the media, and although it has been decriminalized when the "alleged victim" is an official with national authority and jurisdiction, it can be invoked by individuals, other officials and former officials. The Criminal Code punishes these crimes with prison terms ranging from 6 to 18 months - or their equivalent in days' fines.

In recent months there has been an increase in police actions to repress citizen protests - which hinder their free and peaceful progress. In October, journalist Juan Cajar - from La Estrella de Panamá - was arrested for "disturbing the public order" while he was covering a protest, duly identified. EFE photojournalist Bienvenido Velasco was also assaulted by the National Police while covering a citizen protest in December.

The Public Prosecutor's Office sent to the corresponding court the so-called "New Business" case, which investigated - based on information submitted by the National Assembly - the manner of acquisition of the publishing group EPASA by its current owners - publishers of the newspapers Panamá-América and Crítica. The Public Prosecutor's Office has requested trial summons for 25 individuals under investigation for the alleged crime of money laundering. It was surprising to learn that the investigation was able to recover US$ 9.2 million in shares (representing 30% of the group), which were transferred to the National Treasury. At this point - after more than four years of investigation - a speedy process is expected that will clarify the investigation and safeguard the free practice of journalism of this editorial group.

Several pending requests for information on the use of public funds during the pandemic, reiterate the need to improve awareness on the Transparency Law among officials and institutions by the National Authority for Transparency and Access to Information (ANTAI).

The National State of Emergency declared by the Cabinet Council since March 13 - due to the Covid-19 pandemic - is still in force in Panama, with movement restrictions that have been recently varied and relaxed - although a curfew remains in force from 12:00 midnight to 4:00 a.m.