Status: Partly Free
Legal Environment: 17
Political Influences: 17
Economic Pressures: 10
Total Score: 44

Population: n/a
GNI/capita: n/a
Life Expectancy: 74
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (85 percent), Protestant (15 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Mestizo (70 percent), West Indian (14 percent), European (10 percent), Amerindian (6 percent)
Capital: Panama City

Panama is notable for its harsh legal environment for journalists. The country's "gag laws," enacted under military rule more than 30 years ago, include severe penalties for criminal defamation. In March, police detained Roberto Eisenmann Jr., founder of the country's most popular daily, La Prensa, and charged him with criminal libel for a critical column he had written about Panama's attorney general. With a change of administration in May, some of the tensions between the state and journalists subsided; however, legislation to change the legal environment stalled. Outgoing president Mireya Moscoso had promised to repeal restrictive gag laws, and the legislative assembly took steps to repeal some provisions of the laws; however, the effort came too late before a new assembly took office in September. Before she left office in May, Moscoso did pardon more than 80 journalists who had been accused of criminal libel. The new president, Martin Torrijos, removed restrictions on the Law on Transparency (imposed by the Moscoso administration) that kept reporters from using the freedom of information statute.

Independent media are very active in Panama and express diverse views. However, journalists often practice self-censorship because of the poor legal environment, and media often reflect the polarized political scene, with different outlets openly supporting various factions. During the elections, former president Endara, who unsuccessfully opposed Torrijos, was excluded from various popular television programs on networks aligned with Torrijos. Since Torrijos came to power, several influential journalists have been hired to work for his administration, leading to speculation of a decline in independence of the media.

All of Panama's media outlets are privately owned with the exception of one state-owned television network. President Moscoso had faced criticism for directing large amounts of government advertising to media outlets supportive of her party despite their poor circulation or ratings. A bill to standardize government advertising and reduce official abuse of the practice was under consideration at the end of the year. Poor salaries encourage corruption among some journalists. 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 Torrijos now leads.

This 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.