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Panama30 June 2004

Reporters Without Borders challenges the president-elect on gagging laws

(JPEG) Mr. Martin Torrijos Espino
President-elect of the Republic
Of Panama
Panama City
Panama

Paris, 30 June 2004

Dear Mr President-elect,*

Reporters Without Borders is astonished at the draft constitutional reform proposed by your party that will leave untouched all the anti-freedom measures in Article 33.

According to our sources, the parliamentary commission on justice and constitutional affairs of the legislative assembly began on 24 June 2004 examining a constitutional reform package proposed by the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) of which you are secretary-general. This reform includes rewriting Article 33 in relation to insult to public officials and also deals with obedience towards members of the security forces and seamen to their superiors.

As formulated, the draft article maintains the offence of insult and the power of wronged officials to order the imprisonment of the offender without trial. The only change is that the period of imprisonment would not exceed 24 hours while the Constitution currently allows it to be unlimited. Penalties are laid down in Articles 202 and 386 of the legal procedural code and Article 827 of the administrative code and allow imprisonment from three days to two months according to the standing of the elected figure or public official involved.

So although Article 33 of the Constitution is an unbelievable collection of press freedom violations, your party is not proposing to abolish a single anti-freedom measure. The offence of insult is maintained, in contradiction of Article 11 of the Declaration of Principles on freedom of expression of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission that says: "Laws that penalise offensive expressions directed at public officials restrict freedom of expression and the right to information." This article also says that it is normal in a democracy that they should be subject to "greater scrutiny by society".

The draft also plans to keep imprisonment as punishment of an expression of opinion. This despite the fact that in January 2000, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression clearly stated that "imprisonment as punishment for the peaceful expression of an opinion constitutes a serious violation of human rights."

Thus in contradiction with all legal principles, this draft reform continues to give a legal façade to unfair imprisonment without trial. Putting respect owed by citizens and journalist to public officials on the same footing as obedience of soldiers and sailors to their superiors reveals, at the very least, an authoritarian view of democracy.

Article 33 is anachronistic and unworthy of Panama. We call on you as secretary-general of the PRD to revise this draft in removing all reference from paragraph 1 of the current Article 33 that establishes the offence of insult to officials.

We urge you as president-elect to undertake in the first 100 days of your presidency to abolish prison sentences for press offences as set out in the criminal code.

Such decisions will demonstrate your commitment as president to respect press freedom and your willingness to change Panama’s image.

Your country’s legislation is viewed internationally as reactionary. Some 80 journalists are currently facing legal action for "insulting" public officials or "defamation" and are at risk of being imprisoned for what they have written.

We trust you will give this matter your careful consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Ménard Secretary-general

*Elected on 2 May, Martín Torrijos Espino takes over as president on 1st September 2004, succeeding Mireya Moscoso (1999-2004).



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