Report to the IAPA 77 General Assembly Virtual
October 19-22, 2021

During this period, the use of legal actions against the media, journalists and opinion makers has increased - as a tool of intimidation and to promote self-censorship.

The lack of access to information on the use of public funds during the pandemic also continued - ignoring the obligations demanded from officials and institutions under the Transparency Law of the National Authority for Transparency and Access to Information (ANTAI). In August, the Ministry of the Presidency approved Resolution 71 - which declares the minutes, notes, files and other records of discussions or activities of the Cabinet Council, the president or vice-president as restricted information. These documents may not be disclosed for a period of 10 years.

During this period the debates continue in the National Assembly on the Electoral Reforms presented by the Electoral Tribunal last February, which, in view of the complaints from journalistic associations and protests from citizens, removed regulations that affected the exercise of journalism and freedom of expression.

On October 13, Castalia Pascual - journalist from TVN Channel 2 - denounced that President Ricardo Martinelli blackmailed her in 2012 so that she would not investigate his sons - now imprisoned in Guatemala and pending extradition to the U.S. She stated that one of her relatives had been transferred from a prisoner rehabilitation farm to a maximum-security prison - with no information on his whereabouts. She said that, pressured by Martinelli - who told her "don't mess with my children and I won't mess with your family" - she agreed not to investigate and her relative was transferred back to the rehabilitation farm.

On July 8, La Prensa published an investigation that exposed an illegal vaccination network. The following day, journalist Flor Mizrachi - author of the investigation - received death threats through anonymous calls and Facebook threats of kidnapping and rape - and that they knew her and her family's movements.

On September 1, the Public Prosecutor's Office charged journalist Mauricio Valenzuela - from the Foco Panamá digital media - after, earlier this year, ruling party congresswoman Zulay Rodríguez sued him for "gender violence," for publishing about the public questioning of the congresswoman in her practice as a lawyer.

Of the 16 complaints and lawsuits filed by former president Martinelli against Corporación La Prensa, its journalists and directors, 14 have been provisionally closed - in which he claimed US$ 41 million in compensation for his honor. In the two remaining cases, the request for compensation is US$ 5 million.

The lawsuit filed by former president Ernesto Pérez Balladares - for alleged damages to his reputation and honor - against bank accounts and assets of La Prensa for more than US$1 million, has been pending since 2012.

The actions by the officials ignore the fact that the laws do not allow them to sue the media and journalists for slander and libel. In the civil area, the legislation allows the plaintiff in a lawsuit for damages to seek the freezing of the assets of the sued media - even if no ruling has been issued in the plaintiff's favor. The experts point out that limits must be established to the millionaire compensation amounts because they are used to intimidate and silence media and journalists.

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 EPASA publishing group. According to the former president of the publishing group, Ricardo Chanis, former president Martinelli and close associates are the owners of EPASA - which publishes the newspapers Panamá-América and Crítica. The Public Prosecutor's Office summoned Martinelli and 25 other individuals under investigation to trial for the alleged crime of money laundering. During the investigation, US$ 9.2 million in shares -30% of the company- were recovered and transferred to the National Treasury. After four years of investigation, a speedy process is expected to clarify responsibilities and protect this publishing group.

As in the rest of the continent, the Panamanian media have been forced to adjust in order to weather the sustainability crisis made worse by the pandemic.