Panama is known for its institutionalized system of legal harassment against the press. Journalists there confront antiquated media laws that impose prison terms for defamation, criminalize criticism of public officials, and permit prior censorship.

In July, Eduardo Bertoni, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' special rapporteur for freedom of expression, visited Panama and recommended that the government eliminate all desacato (disrespect) provisions and repeal criminal defamation statutes. President Mireya Moscoso responded by assuring that her administration would lift such laws before the end of her term in August 2004. But by the end of 2003, authorities had taken no steps in that direction, and public officials continued to use the country's infamous "gag laws" to stifle critical voices and intimidate independent journalists with the threat of jail time.

On August 1, three weeks after President Moscoso promised to repeal criminal provisions for press offenses, Jean Marcel Chéry and Gustavo Aparicio, reporters with the Panama City-based daily newspapers La Prensa and El Panamá América, respectively, were each sentenced to one year in prison. Their sentences were later commuted to fines of US$600 each. They were prosecuted for a 2001 report that allegedly "insulted" then Minister of Government and Justice Winston Spadafora. The article claimed that public money was used to finance the construction of a road leading to private property owned by Spadafora, who is now a Supreme Court judge, and Comptroller Alvin Weeden.

On April 14, Chéry and three colleagues from La Prensa – reporters Alcibíades Cortés and Julio Aizprúa and photographer Bernardino Freire – were detained for allegedly breaching the security perimeter around President Moscoso's beach house in Punta Mala. The journalists were reporting on the president's house there, which has raised public concern because of high remodeling and maintenance costs. The men were released after being held for 26 hours, and a municipal judge later dismissed all charges.

Media ownership concentration, particularly in television, limits the range of opinions that Panamanians can access, according to some journalists. For example, supporters of one of the two leading presidential candidates in elections scheduled for May 2004, former President Guillermo Endara, are regularly excluded from one nationwide morning talk show.

The Medcom Corporation operates the country's two most popular networks (RPC Canal 4 and Telemetro Canal 13), it has 75 percent of the viewing audience, and it also owns the cable station Cableonda and several radio stations. There is only one state-owned network, Televisón Educativa Canal 11, which is run by the Education Ministry.

Limited access to government information is also a problem for local journalists. In January 2002, President Moscoso approved a transparency law expanding access, but in June that year, the government issued a decree that essentially neutralized the law by attaching regulations that, among other things, exempt officials' salaries, benefits, bonuses, and travel expenses. The regulations also require that those seeking information have some direct or personal relationship to it – in effect barring the press and the public from taking advantage of the law. The People's Ombudsman Office challenged the decree in the Supreme Court, which had not ruled on the matter by the end of 2003.

On October 27, a Panamanian court barred renowned Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti – in the country to attend a conference about corruption – from leaving Panama and ordered him to stand trial on criminal defamation charges. The case stemmed from a July 1996 article by Gorriti in La Prensa reporting that current Panamanian Attorney General José Antonio Sossa, who was then running for re-election to the legislature, had received campaign funds from a company that was allegedly a front for drug traffickers. Sossa filed a suit against Gorriti, who at the time was associate director of La Prensa. On October 29, the court order holding Gorriti in the country for trial was overturned, and the journalist was allowed to leave Panama.

2003 Documented Cases – Panama

JANUARY 18, 2003

Robert Young Pelton, National Geographic Adventure

Pelton, a 47-year-old freelance journalist with American and Canadian citizenship, was kidnapped by right-wing paramilitary fighters from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in Panama's Darién Gap, near the border with Colombia.

Pelton was researching a story for the New York­based National Geographic Adventure magazine when he was abducted along with two American traveling companions, Megan Smaker and Mark Wedeven, sometime on or shortly after January 18. Pelton is the author of The World's Most Dangerous Places travel book and gained the first interview of American Taliban suspect John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan for CNN in 2001.

The lack of security forces in Panama's Darién Gap, where the three were abducted, provides a haven for both Colombian rebels and rival paramilitary fighters, who reportedly use the area to smuggle drugs and guns.

On January 21, AUC leader Carlos Castaño sent an e-mail to Reuters news agency saying that his forces had taken Pelton and his companions into custody to protect them from leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Castaño added that the three would soon be released to Catholic Church representatives.

Pelton and his traveling companions were freed on the evening of January 23, when they were turned over to a priest and human rights officials in Colombia's remote Chocó Department, just south of the Panamanian border, a police official from neighboring Antioquia Department told CPJ.

Pelton returned to his home in Redondo Beach, California, on January 26, according to National Geographic Adventure. In a January 27 interview with the magazine, he recounted how he and his companions were trekking through the Darién Gap when they heard automatic gunfire for about three minutes coming from half a mile away. Concerned that they could be shot if they hid or ran away, they walked into the direction of the gunfire, talking loudly in English to let people know they were coming. AUC forces who had just attacked several villages, apparently because they suspected FARC fighters were using the villages as staging areas, then captured Pelton and his companions and took them to Colombia.

Pelton said he and his companions were treated well, apparently because AUC fighters did not want to jeopardize peace talks they were holding with the Colombian government at that time.

FEBRUARY 19, 2003

Carlos Zavala, RCM Televisión

Zavala, a lawyer and investigative journalist with RCM Televisión, was ordered to serve six days in jail by a judge who was offended by the journalist's reports on corruption allegations against him.

Zavala, who hosts the weekly talk show "Cuentas Claras" (Clear Accounts) on RCM Televisión, in the capital, Panama City, told CPJ that he has been denouncing corruption in the Panamanian judiciary for more than a year. He claims that several judges have engaged in misconduct and favoritism in several bankruptcy cases. During the February 7 and 14 editions of his show, Zavala accused Civil Judge Jorge Isaac Escobar, of the 17th Circuit Court of the 1st Judicial Circuit of Panama, of bias and of violating due process.

Judge Escobar subsequently ordered that disciplinary proceedings be initiated against Zavala and on February 19 issued a judicial resolution, a copy of which was obtained by CPJ, that sentenced Zavala to the maximum six-day sentence for "disrespecting" the judge's office. Zavala received the resolution the next day.

Judge Escobar's decision was based on Article 33 of the Panamanian Constitution, as well as several articles of Panama's Judicial Code, including Article 161.7, which allows circuit judges to "punish with a fine of up to 15 balboas [US$15] or detention up to six days, those who disobey or disrespect them while they are exercising their functions or by reason thereof."

The only recourse for those subjected to these proceedings is to file an appeal for reconsideration (recurso de reconsideración) with the same judge, according to Guillermo Morales, one of Zavala's lawyers.

On February 20, within the three-day period provided by law before the detention order became effective, Zavala's lawyers filed an appeal, contending that there were no grounds for the punishment because Article 161.7 refers only to court hearings and other judicial procedures, and because Zavala, not being a third party involved in any legal proceedings, enjoys a constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression.

Judge Escobar rejected the appeal, and Zavala's lawyers countered by filing several documents in support of the appeal, which awaits another ruling by Judge Escobar.

On February 21, Zavala went to police headquarters to find out if an arrest warrant had been issued for him but was told that it had not yet been submitted to the police. In another attempt to forestall the journalist's detention, Zavala's lawyers have filed a writ of habeas corpus with the 2nd Superior Tribunal of the 1st Judicial District of Panama. If the appeal for reconsideration fails, Zavala's lawyers will file another writ of habeas corpus.

On February 26, Zavala told CPJ that he did not know whether the detention order had been issued, but that his arrest could come at any time.

OCTOBER 27, 2003

Gustavo Gorriti, freelance

Gorriti, a renowned Peruvian freelance journalist, was barred from leaving Panama and ordered to stand trial on defamation charges filed against him there in 1996.

The journalist was in Panama for a conference on corruption. Just before he was to begin a presentation at the conference, officials from the Tenth Criminal Court arrived and gave the journalist a court order. Court officials told Gorriti that he was barred from leaving Panama and ordered him to stand trial before Judge Anselmo Vidal on December 1.

The decision stemmed from a July 1996 article by Gorriti published in the Panama City­based daily La Prensa reporting that a company that was allegedly a front for drug traffickers in Panama had contributed US$5,000 to current Panamanian Attorney General José Antonio Sossa, who was then campaigning for re-election to the legislature. Sossa filed a libel suit against Gorriti, who at the time was associate director of La Prensa.

A Panamanian court later overturned the ruling.

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