Last Updated: Friday, 24 October 2014, 15:39 GMT

Freedom of the Press 2008 - Panama

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 29 April 2008
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom of the Press 2008 - Panama, 29 April 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4871f625c.html [accessed 25 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Status: Partly Free
Legal Environment: 18 (of 30)
Political Environment: 17 (of 40)
Economic Environment: 9 (of 30)
Total Score: 44 (of 100)
(Lower scores = freer)

Panama is notable for its harsh legal environment for journalists, and events in 2007 did very little to improve the situation. President Martin Torrijos had ratified the repeal of the country's "gag laws," enacted under military rule more than 30 years ago; however, President Torrijos signed into law new penal code amendments that threaten press freedom. The two articles, which have been strongly criticized by the Panamanian media, are part of a package of 448 amendments to the criminal code which the national assembly approved in a plenary session on March 6.

The controversial articles could limit the watchdog role of the media. Article 164 states that "anyone legitimately coming into possession of private or personal mail, recordings or documents – not intended for publication, even if addressed to that person – who makes them public without the required permission and which results in harm, will be punished by 200 to 500 days of fines [of the value of the minimum daily wage] or weekend imprisonment." Article 422, meanwhile, says that "anyone guilty of revealing secrets which they hold as a result of their office within a government body or government contract or of allowing others access to them, will be punished with a sentence of six months to one year in prison or its equivalent in daily fines or weekend imprisonment."

Several cases against journalists under this law are pending in the courts, including that of Jean Marcel Chery, a former reporter with the daily El Panama America, who was accused of libel by Supreme Court judge Winston Spadafora. Chery had written about a Supreme Court decision that canceled Spadafora's US$2 million debt to a government canal agency known as the Interoceanic Regional Authority. In another case, Spadafora filed a civil lawsuit that sought US$2 million in damages from the publisher of El Panama America for a 2001 story that allegedly "insulted" him when he was minister of government and justice. According to the Interamerican Press Association, thirty-four journalists are currently facing charges of injuria (insulting or offensive words or actions) and calumnia (false accusations of a crime), and most of these cases were brought by government officials. Such legal tensions cause many journalists to practice self-censorship.

While journalists in Panama usually report freely, in November four journalists were detained for six hours while trying to cover events at La Joya Prison (Complejo Penitenciario La Joya). According to the Committee for the Defense of Journalists of the Journalists' Association of Panama, the detained reporters were Hellen Concepción and Mizael Castro, both from TVN Channel 2; and from Editora Panama America (EPASA), reporter Rocio Martins, photojournalist Omar Batista, and the driver, Everton Lemon. The journalists were taken to the office of the Minister of Government and Justice, Daniel Delgado Diamante, who accused the journalists of "trespassing" and recommended that they not report on issues that could jeopardize the prison's security, reported the Committee for the Defense of Journalists.

Access to public information still remains limited because government officials are not held accountable for refusing to release information and public institutions still lack an effective mechanism for expediting information requests despite the fact that there is a transparency law which has been barely used. There were no physical attacks on the media in Panama in 2007.

Independent media are very active and express diverse views. The media often reflect the polarized political scene, with different outlets openly supporting various factions. All Panamanian media outlets are privately owned with the exception of one state-owned television network. The law prohibits cross-ownership, but there is considerable concentration of media ownership by relatives and associates of former president Ernesto Perez Balladares, whose party President Torrijos now leads. Poor salaries encourage corruption among some journalists. A number of domestic journalists and press freedom advocacy groups allege that the government manipulates the "free flow of information" by buying advertising space from organizations that report positively on the government while withdrawing funding from organizations that do not. A bill to standardize government advertising and reduce this was under consideration but not acted upon before the end of the year. There are no government restrictions on the internet, which was accessed by around 8 percent of the population during 2007.

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