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Panama11 August 2003

Two journalists get one-year sentences for "insulting" interior minister

Reporters Without Borders protested today against sentences of 12 months in prison, commutable to a fine of 600 dollars, passed on journalists Marcel Chéry and Gustavo Aparicio of the daily El Panamá América on 8 August for a 2001 report that allegedly "insulted" then interior and justice minister Winston Spadafora.

In a letter to supreme court president Adan Arnulfo Arjona, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said no prison sentence should be imposed when the case comes before an appeal court. "Prison sentences for press offences should be done away with altogether because they force journalists to practice self-censorship," Ménard said.

He pointed out that the UN special rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression had established in January 2000 that the imposition of a prison sentence for the peaceful expression of opinion constituted "a serious violation of human rights."

The 2001 report by Chéry and Aparicio was about the use of a social investment fund (the Fondo de Inversión Social) in the building of a road to Iturralde, 40 km west of the capital. They said the road led solely to a private property owned by Spadafora, who is now a supreme court judge.

The newspaper’s editor, Octavio Amat, said the two reporters had not accused Spadafora of any crime and had limited themselves to noting that the road just led to his property. Spadafora maintained that the report was inaccurate and was an affront to his honour and dignity.

During the trial, the journalists questioned the independence of the presiding judge, Secundino Mendieta, on the grounds that Spadafora is now his superior in the judicial hierarchy.

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