The national ombudsman’s special freedom of expression representative, Ricardo Lombana, said in a report on 15 December that judicial harassment of the media was continuing, with 90 lawsuits for alleged defamation over the past six years, including 17 in 2002.
A total of 78 journalists were targeted, he said, a "disgraceful" figure when compared with other Latin American countries. Over half the suits were filed by government officials and politicians, including six by former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares (1994-99). Fifty cases were still being heard.
The report said the law that provided for up to two years in prison for defamation was "an anachronism" used to intimidate the media and called for its urgent reform and the decriminalisation of press offences. Its absurdity was shown during the year with the sentencing of a journalist to 14 months in prison or a fine for publishing a photo-montage.
Pressure and obstruction
Miguel Antonio Bernal, a presenter on Radio Exitosa, went on trial for defamation on 14 May 2002. In a TV interview he gave in February 1998, he had accused police of bearing responsibility for the beheading of four prisoners by fellow inmates on Coiba Island. The then police chief, José Luis Sossa, sued him and he faced up to two years in jail. He was acquitted on 23 May, which was confirmed on appeal on 25 October.
Cartoonist Victor Ramos, of the daily La Prensa, was sued on 31 May by former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares for supposedly damaging his reputation in a cartoon on 9 April referring to scandals and corruption during his time in office (1994-1999). He faces up to two years in prison if convicted.
The former editor of the daily El Siglo, Michelle Lescure, and the paper’s former owner, Jaime Padilla Béliz, were sentenced on 4 June to 18 months in prison or a fine of 500 balboas (500 euros) for "damaging the reputation" of a sports commentator in articles in February and March 1999 about his life-style. A columnist on the paper, Carmen Boyd Marciaq, was sentenced to a year in prison or a fine of 200 balboas (200 euros) in the same case. Lescure said she was no longer editor when the articles were published (which was confirmed by the paper). She appealed against the sentence and refused to pay the fine, thus risking jail.
Ubaldo Davis, editor of the satirical weekly La Cáscara News, was sentenced on 1 July to 14 months in jail and a year’s loss of civil rights, with an alternative of a fine of 1,500 balboas (1,500 euros), for allegedly libelling President Mireya Moscoso and former interior minister Winston Spadafora by publishing in its first issue in September 2001 a photo-montage of the president in Spadafora’s arms. Davis appealed against the sentence.
La Prensa journalists Rolando Rodríguez and Gustavo Goritti were charged by a court on 9 September with libelling José Antonio Sossa (now prosecutor-general) in a 1996 article accusing him of receiving money during the 1994 parliamentary election campaign from a businessman being investigated for drug smuggling. The journalists said Sossa himself had urged them to run the article. The cheque later turned out to be a dud. The judge adjourned the case indefintely because Goritti was not at the court hearing.