Reporters Without Borders voiced deep concern today about a proposed amendment to the Panamanian criminal code that would significantly increase prison sentences and other penalties for journalists convicted of defamation, insult or damage to a person’s reputation. Around 100 members of the press demonstrated in the centre of Panama City yesterday to demand the bill’s withdrawal.
“A disproportion between offence and penalty has an inhibiting effect on journalists and violates their right to inform and society’s right to be informed,” the press freedom organisation said. “We condemn this bill, which runs counter to the progress Panama has made in press freedom and free expression, especially by signing the Declaration of Chapultepec in June 1994 and repealing the gag laws in December 1999.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We appeal to President Martin Torrijos’ government and the national assembly to reject this amendment and to make the decriminalization of press offences their priority. And we extend our support to the journalists currently staging protests.”
The prison terms for defamation and insult are doubled under the proposed amendment. They would be two to three years in prison (or a daily fine) for defamation and one to two years in prison for insult.
Gonzalo Marroquín, the chairman of the Inter-American Press Association’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, said the bill would run counter to the principles of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the prevailing tendency in Latin America to decriminalize press offences.
Presidential chief of staff Ubaldino Real said it would be desirable for journalists to be part of the commission that will examine the bill, which will probably be submitted to parliament in September.