Reporters Without Borders expressed deep concern after the founder of the daily La Prensa Roberto Eisenmann Jr. was forcibly brought before a judge for defamation by the Prosecutor-General of the Republic José Antonio Sossa.
"Legal harassment is the most serious threat to press freedom in Panama," the international press freedom organisation said. "To get at journalists who criticise them, elected representatives and officials, in particular José Antonio Sossa, make use of legislation that still provides for prison sentences for press offences. "
Reporters Without Borders has been lobbying for the abolition of these so-called "gagging laws" for several years.
President Mireya Moscoso has failed to reform these laws despite speaking against them in December 1999, saying, "There should be no law or acts in Panama that restrict the freedom of the press."
Judicial police officers went to Eisenmann’s office on 24 March 2004 with a summons to take him to the office of judge, who was handling a defamation complaint against him.
It related to an article published on 30 January 2004 in which Eisenmann denounced Sossa’s handling of corruption cases. "He devotes himself to protecting delinquents and making complaints against journalists," he charged.
Sossa immediately brought a complaint against Eisenmann who was also legally banned from leaving the country on 15 February, a ban which should be lifted, Reporters Without Borders said.
Summonsed on three occasions, Eisenmann, chairman of a citizens’ rights organisation, each time refused to comply, contending that the official had no moral right to take action against him. After his forced appearance on 24 March, he remains banned from going abroad and is at risk of two years in prison.
A report released on 15 December 2002 by the freedom of expression and people’s rights ombudsman denounced the legal harassment of the press. At the time there were 90 outstanding complains for "defamation" the report said. More than half of them had been laid by officials or elected representatives, including the prosecutor-general of the Republic. A total of 78 journalists were involved.