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Panama8 September 2008

Seizure of weekly’s property and bank accounts slammed as a form of “Indirect censorship”

Reporters Without Borders today reacted with alarm to a court order seizing property and bank accounts of a weekly newspaper at the instigation of a property dealer, which it condemned as “a form of indirect censorship”.

A civil court in Panama ordered the seizure against El Periódico on 4 September, at the request of Herman Bern, who is regularly quoted in the press and whom the weekly had just alleged was being investigated for making a false tax statement.

Editor, Omar Wong, said the step had been taken to silence El Periódico, which he called “a violation of freedom of expression”. Bern had to put up 250,000 dollars as security to obtain the order.

“If Herman Bern is so sure of his rights, why does not he sue El Periódico for defamation in the usual way, as the law allows?” the worldwide press freedom organisation asked.

“For a complainant to obtain a freeze in the newspaper’s financial resources in exchange for a payment looks like a way of silencing journalists and is therefore a form of indirect censorship”, it said.

“Would the media have faced the same sanction if Herman Bern had been a simple citizen without support or influence?” the organisation wondered, adding, “We hope that this decision will be cancelled on appeal”.

El Periódico crossed swords with Herman Bern as a result of revealing that the property dealer and state contractor for major public works, had under-estimated his statement of property and income. The newspaper said its information had been confirmed by the state body responsible for tax and financial audit, the Comptroller General’s Office. Herman Bern’s name had also been splashed on the front pages of Panama newspapers in connection with alleged cronyism in the awarding of public procurement contracts. He is reportedly close to the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) of President Martin Torrijos and has a son working for a prospective candidate in the forthcoming presidential election.

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