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Panama18 August 2005

Court sets worrying precedent by sequestering salary of journalist in libel suit

Reporters Without Borders wrote today to Panama’s minister of government and justice, Héctor Alemán, voicing concern about a 9 August court order sequestering the property and salary of La Prensa reporter Jean Marcel Chéry to the value of 18,753 dollars (about 15,000 euros) in payment of libel damages to supreme court judge Winston Spadafora.

"We hold that the sentence is disproportionate and is a step backwards in a country that has just finally repealed laws that were especially unfavourable to press freedom," the organisation said. "We fear that it sets a dangerous precedent and will encourage journalists to censor themselves."

Judge Spadafora sued Chéry over a report claiming that Spadafora turned a blind eye to a two-million-dollar debt which one of his friends, Jean Figali, owed a government entity, the Interoceanic Regional Authority (ARI). Chéry was notified of the court order on 16 August, the same day La Prensa ran a story accusing Spadafora of being a poor supreme court judge.

A year ago, on 7 August 2003, Spadafora sued Chéry, fellow journalist Gustavo Aparicio and the El Panamá América daily newspaper over a report accusing Spadafora of mismanaging public funds as interior minister. Chéry and Aparicio were sentenced to 12 months in prison for libel but were pardoned later in the year by President Mireya Moscoso.

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