Judicial harassment stood out in this period as the main threat to press freedom in the country.
On February 8, a court ordered the seizure of up to $236.090 worth of the assets of the digital media outlet Foco and two of its members, journalist Mauricio Valenzuela and one of the founders of the media outlet, Annette Planells. The judicial kidnapping occurred under the umbrella of a civil lawsuit for alleged damages for slander and libel filed by former President Ricardo Martinelli, which had not yet been admitted as of the date of the kidnapping order. The court order was not executed since Annette Planells' residence is not her property, and, in the case of Mauricio Valenzuela, there was an address where she had not lived for five years. Nevertheless, she was seized from a bank account with 4,500 dollars.
As the claim has not been admitted, the defendants cannot defend themselves. In the civil field, the legislation allows that before a process for damages and damages, the plaintiff, without a sentence being handed down in his favor, can promote the freezing of media assets or intervene in their administration.
In view of the kidnapping measure against Foco, journalistic and related unions once again warned of using the judicial system to silence critics, as a mechanism to block justice itself and threaten fundamental freedoms. They stressed that it is not the first time that a former president of the Republic sued and asked to kidnap the assets of the media, journalists, or people linked to the practice of journalism. In this regard, a civil proceeding for alleged damages filed by former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares in 2012 against Corporación La Prensa (Corprensa), the publisher of La Prensa and Mi Diario, is pending a decision in the first instance. Due to this process, the kidnapping of their bank accounts and assets for 1.13 million US dollars weighs on the media.
There are 11 civil lawsuits against Corprensa for alleged damages for slander and libel, with claims of up to 44.5 million dollars.
In another civil lawsuit, but not for slander and libel, a court of second instance confirmed a sentence against Corprensa for $505.000 for the alleged violation of image rights in a publication of a collectible album, free insert inside the newspaper, with content biography of boxer Roberto "Mano de Piedra" Durán. However, the sentence amount was considered disproportionate to the project amount, which barely had advertising revenue of $20.000 and cost $70.000.
The court's interpretation could lead to public figures being questioned by the media and journalists suing for using their image for profit. Former President Martinelli even published this interpretation in a tweet: "I congratulate Roberto Duran (sic) for having won a lawsuit against a disinformation outlet that used his image to maintain circulation and profit. However, my lawyers tell me (sic) I must do the same since some cannot live without me (sic), and they lack a hearing if they do not attack me. So be careful; I'm going to (sic) above."
There are 12 open criminal cases against Foco and two civil lawsuits seeking up to $746.000.
On the positive side, the definitive dismissal in favor of the journalist Mauricio Valenzuela came into force in response to a complaint of gender violence by Deputy Zulay Rodríguez.
Representative Gabriel Silva presented a bill on March 13 to establish protections against judicial and procedural harassment in matters of freedom of expression. The proposal decriminalizes slander and libel and incorporates the concept of actual malice as crucial evidence to determine civil liability. It also creates the "protection against procedural harassment" as a protection mechanism by the alleged victim of an administrative or jurisdictional action.
On March 30, the National Journalism Council (CNP) organized a forum on press freedom. It was denounced that a judicial kidnapping order of 121,000 dollars is maintained against radio journalist Ronald Acosta, who deputy Benicio Robinson sued. There is also a $32,000 sentence against journalist Linett Lynch, confirmed by the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) in 2019, because a publication about alleged corruption in a court of law in 2010. The lawsuit, which initially sought two million, was filed by the now-former judge Geneva Ladrón de Guevara, who was the court's magistrate on which the publication dealt. The journalist suffered an attempted kidnapping of her home, but the creditor bank interceded to protect her right when it was mortgaged.
The CNP event closed with the announcement of the reactivation of the Ethics Committee and the signing of the Declaration of Ethical Principles by 11 media outlets in the country and related organizations. The Ethics Committee is an autonomous body to which anyone affected by a publication may appeal. In addition, the committee can issue resolutions that the signatory media must abide by.
In February, the Institutional Protection Service (SPI) interrupted the live broadcast of the radio program Panama En Directo and the media outlets La Prensa and Mi Diario, which were covering a political event of the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).
Several media outlets continue to denounce the inequitable distribution of official advertising by the national government and various autonomous state institutions, such as the Social Security Fund or the National Bank of Panama.
There are severe difficulties in accessing information of public interest, although the transparency law governs since 2002. Several state agencies and institutions have refused to provide the information requested and refuse to answer questions from journalists. On April 18, the Executive announced that it would present a reform to the transparency law. However, the content of the proposal is still unknown.
The National Authority for Transparency and Access to Information (ANTAI) fined the newspaper La Prensa $5,000 for allegedly violating a new data protection law by publishing, without its express authorization, the photograph of the legislator and president of the ruling PRD party, Benicio Robinson. In the ruling, the state agency also questions whether the data on the holders of selective transportation quotas is information of public interest, even though these are State concessions granted to private individuals. Another sanction imposed by ANTAI on the digital media laverdadpanama.com and journalist Amanda Alvarado remains suspended.
On October 10, the National Bar Association and the National Association of Journalists (Conape), with the support of the CNP and the Journalists' Forum, proposed reforming the Data Protection Law, which seeks greater protections for exercising journalism and using public documents, data, or information of public interest. The proposal has not yet been accepted for debate.
A court summoned 21 people to trial, including former President Ricardo Martinelli in the New Business case, over the acquisition by its current owners of the Epasa group, which publishes the newspapers Panamá América, Crítica and Día a Día. The publishing house is not part of the cause.
The Latin American Parliament (Parlatino) has not yet dismissed the project presented in 2017 by Ecuadorian assemblyman Octavio Villacreces on a Communications Framework Law that establishes control mechanisms by the State over media content.