More than 70 lawsuits for defamation or "harming reputation" were brought against journalists in Panama. This was especially serious because such offences carry a prison term of up to two years. A law against insulting public officials enabled the mayor of a town in western Panama to summarily jail (without any trial) Luis Gaitán Villareal for two days. During a visit to Panama in June, the president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Claudio Grossman, warned that "penalising criticism of public officials or of private individuals voluntarily involved in public affairs is excessive in view of the importance of freedom of expression and information under a democratic regime."
Press freedom was also set back with the departure of one of its most ardent defenders, ombudsman Italo Isaac Antinori Bolaños, when his term ended. The first remarks to journalists of his successor, Juan Antonio Tejada, were ominous. Panamanian journalists were not persecuted in any way, he said, stressing that the laws against "insults" were needed to ensure that citizens respected the authorities. This matched the view of state prosecutor José Antonio Sossa, who stepped up legal action against journalists. The IACHR’s Grossman denounced what he called Sossa’s "systematic campaign" against the media, which he said was at odds with "the neutrality and impartiality his important job requires."
Through lawsuits, attacks on journalists and proposed laws restricting freedoms, interior and justice minister Winston Spadafora was also busy increasing pressure on journalists and obstructing their work. President Mireya Moscoso said on May 3 she was considering an amnesty for journalists being prosecuted for defamation, but a month later she instructed state prosecutor Sossa to ensure that journalists exposing corruption had proof of their allegations. "We cannot allow it to be said that we in the government are corrupt," she said.
Seven journalists arrested
Ubaldo Davis and Herbert Rattry, who run the satirical weekly La Cáscara News, were arrested on 19 September 2001. The next day, Joel Díaz, another senior staff member, was picked up and the paper banned for violating the law (no. 11, of 10 February 1978) on the procedure for setting up a new publication. The three men were prosecuted for libel by President Mireya Moscoso and interior and justice minister Winston Spadafora. In its first issue a few days earlier, the paper had carried a satirical article about an alleged affair between the president and her former health minister, José Terán, and with Spadafora. It also published two photo-montages of the president in the arms of her ministers. Cartoonist Delmiro Quiroga and journalist Ramón Boutrich, were also detained for several hours on 20 September and questioned about their work on the paper. A sixth journalist, Samid Botello, a cameraman for the Canal 13 TV station, was arrested during scuffles between police and journalists in front of the police station where two of La Cáscara News’ staff were being held. Davis, Rattry and Díaz were freed on 21 September. By year-end, only Davis was still being prosecuted for libel by the president and minister Spadafora.
The mayor of the western town of David, Evelia Apricio de Esquivel, on 5 December ordered the summary jailing for two days of Luis Gaitán Villareal, correspondent of the daily El Siglo and the TV station Televisora Nacional (TVN), claiming he had been disrespectful to her. Article 386 of the judicial procedure code says "public officials can impose fines or imprison those who disobey them or show them disrespect." The mayor accused the journalist of insulting her and leaving a session of the town council despite her order to stay. Gaitán was held briefly on 6 December before being freed by the sixth judge of the Chiriquí district, who granted his appeal against imprisonment, saying the mayor had provided no proof of her allegations against the journalist. In recent articles in El Siglo, Gaitán had criticised the mayor’s administration.
Three journalists attacked
While trying to get President Mireya Moscoso through a crowd on 9 September 2001, interior and justice minister Winston Spadafora physically attacked Justino González, of the TVN television station, and Carlos Raúl López, of RPC Radio. Shortly afterwards, he attacked a photographer of the daily El Siglo, Carlos Navarro, damaging his equipment.
Pressure and obstruction
A libel suit by state prosecutor José Antonio Sossa against Gustavo Gorritti, Mónica Palm, Mirén Gutiérrez and Rolando Rodríguez, all of the daily La Prensa, was dismissed by a court on 11 January 2001. The four reporters had written that Sossa was blocking an investigation into an American businessman suspected of drug-smuggling. The court ruled that Sossa had not sued within the legal time limit.
Interior and justice minister Winston Spadafora brought a libel suit on 12 March against Octavio Amat, managing editor of the daily El Panamá América, and three of his journalists, John Railey, Jean Marcel Chéry and Gustavo Aparicio, after the paper criticised the government for building a road that mainly benefited Spadafora and Alvín Weeden, head of the state auditing board. The suits against Amat and Railey were dismissed, but Chéry and Aparicio risk up to two years in prison if convicted.
Rainer Tuñón, a former journalist on the daily Crítica Libre, and Juan Díaz, of El Panamá América, were sentenced on 14 March to 18 months imprisonment or a fine of $400 (440 euros) and banned from public employment for six months. They had reported in their papers the remarks of a judge, Manuel Sucari, who had announced in June 1997 that he was investigating a dozen people suspected of practising as doctors with false qualifications. Dr Samuel Osorio Caicedo, one of those named by the judge but whose qualifications proved genuine, had lodged a complaint for "damaging his reputation" against the journalists, who appealed against their conviction.
Vladimir Rodríguez, a former journalist with Crítica Libre, was sentenced to a year in prison on 28 March for libel and banned from public employment for a year. He has appealed against the decision. In 1998, he had written that a poor person, Rafael González, had starved to death. An autopsy revealed however that he died of pneumonia and the paper printed a correction in the next day’s issue. But González’ family stuck to their complaint and sued Crítica Libre for $100,000 (111,000 euros) in damages.
The trial of Miguel Antonio Bernal, who works for the daily El Siglo, was suspended on 16 May after he petitioned for an end to legal action against him because of procedural errors. A few weeks later, his request was refused and he appealed against that decision. He was sued for libel on 5 February 1998 by the then police chief, José Luis Sossa, three days after accusing the police, in a interview with a publicly-owned TV station, of bearing responsibility for the beheading of four prisoners by fellow inmates on Coiba Island on 27 June that year and calling for an official enquiry. Bernal risks up to 18 months in prison and a ban on public employment for two years.
A bill presented to parliament on 16 May would allow anyone who considered "their person, their privacy or their reputation" harmed by publication of "erroneous, defamatory, insulting or offensive material" to demand a right of reply or to have a correction published. Under the Munich Charter, journalists have a duty to "rectify any information" only when it is "found to be inaccurate." The charter, adopted in 1971 by several journalists’ organisations, lists rights and duties of journalists. By the end of the year, parliament had not yet voted on the bill.
Marcelino Rodríguez, a journalist formerly with El Siglo, was sentenced on 23 May to 16 months in prison or a fine of $1,000 (1,130 euros) for libel and banned from public employment for the same period. He had been sued by state attorney Alma Montenegro de Fletcher, who he had wrongly stated in articles on 1 and 3 August 1998 that she owned a house in the formerly US-administered Panama Canal Zone. In a correction, the journalist said the Canal Zone authorities had refused to confirm or deny the report. The prosecutor said she considered the articles "damaged her reputation." The initial examining magistrate had said that since there was no malice involved, the suit against Rodríguez should de dismissed. On 7 June 2001, he was pardoned by President Mireya Moscoso at the request of Montenegro de Fletcher.
At the end of May, a bill drafted by interior and justice minister Winston Spadafora to regulate journalistic practice was made public. Its article 7 would limit press accreditation to those with a journalism diploma. Foreign journalists would only be allowed to work in the media if a job could not be filled by a Panamanian and then only for one year. Article 11 says "jobs that involve a legal responsibility" can only be held by Panamanian journalists. Article 22 provides for a press code of conduct that would include the right not to reveal sources as long as the journalist had not been "tricked or manipulated." The proposed
law would also ban journalists from publishing confidential material or accepting documents concerning illegal activities. They would have to obey court orders to reveal their sources if the facts reported involved crimes. The bill provides for a high council of journalism that would grant accreditations and punish violations of the code of conduct and include a representative of the interior and justice ministry. By the end of the year, parliament had not yet voted on the bill.
Julio Enrique Briceño, a cartoonist with the daily La Prensa, was banned by a judge on 4 July from leaving the country and ordered to report every two weeks to a judge’s office to sign a register. He was being sued for "offensive behaviour" by Ricardo Arias Calderón, former president of the Christian Democratic Party, after a cartoon of him appeared in La Prensa in 2000. On 19 July, a court declared the ban on Briceño leaving the country "invalid and illegal." He is still being sued for "damaging a reputation" and risks two years in jail.
The Elektra Noreste electricity company cut off power to Radio Soberana Civilista on 8 September just as the station was broadcasting news about an electoral fraud allegedly organised by government officials. The radio owed the firm $3,000 but had already agreed to repay it by instalment. The station’s owner, Alonso Pinzón, noted that President Moscoso’s government had "enough power and influence" to get the company to cut off electricity to the station.