2013 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.5
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 1


President Ricardo Martinelli confronted serious challenges from opposition parties while attempting to pass electoral reforms in October 2012. In September, security forces clashed violently with protesters opposing the proposed sale of state land to private companies.

Panama was part of Colombia until 1903, when a U.S.-supported revolt resulted in the proclamation of an independent republic. A period of weak civilian rule ended with a 1968 military coup that brought General Omar Torrijos to power. After signing the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty with the United States, under which the canal was gradually transferred to Panamanian control by 1999, Torrijos promised democratization.

After Torrijos's death in 1981, General Manuel Noriega emerged as Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) chief. He rigged the 1984 elections to bring the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), then the PDF's political arm, to power. The Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition (ADOC) won the 1989 elections, but Noriega annulled the vote and declared himself head of state. He was removed during a U.S. military invasion later that year, and ADOC's Guillermo Endara became president.

Presidential and legislative elections in 2004 returned the PRD to power, with Martín Torrijos, son of the former strongman, winning the presidency. In the 2009 elections, Ricardo Martinelli of the center-right, business-oriented Democratic Change (CD) party won the presidency as part of the Alliance for Change coalition with the Panameñista Party (PP), capturing 60 percent of the vote.

The CD's alliance with the PP collapsed in August 2011 when Martinelli announced plans to hold a referendum on proposed electoral reforms, which included allowing consecutive terms in office for the president. In September 2012, the government passed an electoral law that would eliminate voting by party lists and establish primaries six months before elections, in which independent candidates would have to collect at least 2 percent of the total number of valid votes from the previous elections in order to compete. Opposition parties argued that the reforms violated the constitution and could allow Martinelli to seek re-election in 2014.

In September 2012, the legislature passed a law allowing commerce officials to fine offenders accused of copyright infringement by up to $100,000 without a trial. Opponents argued that the law could curtail free speech, though the government said that it was necessary to bring Panama into compliance with its free trade agreement with the United States, which went into effect on October 31, 2012.

In October, the government canceled plans to sell state-owned land in the duty-free zone in Colón following massive protests from local residents, who feared the sale of the land would result in job losses. Three people were killed, at least six were injured, and over two hundred were arrested in violent clashes between protesters and security forces. After canceling the plan, the government announced that it would instead increase commercial rents and reinvest money in the impoverished and crime-ridden area.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Panama is an electoral democracy. The 2009 national elections were considered free and fair by international observers. The president and deputies of the 71-seat unicameral National Assembly are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. Presidents may not seek consecutive terms and must wait two terms before running again.

Corruption remains widespread, and electoral reforms have been criticized for failing to improve the transparency of campaign financing. Panama and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime signed an agreement in June 2011 to establish a regional anticorruption academy. After serving 20 years in a U.S. jail for drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering and a term in France on money laundering charges, former dictator Manuel Noriega was extradited in December 2011 to Panama to serve a 20-year sentence related to human rights violations. In September 2012, Vice President Juan Carlos Varela accused officials associated with President Ricardo Martinelli of accepting bribes when signing a $250 million contract to buy helicopters and other equipment from Italy. In October, a criminal complaint was filed against the secretary general of the ruling CD, alleging that he misused government funds. A new shield law went into effect in November, making it more difficult to file charges against public officials by requiring evidence of guilt before a complaint may be filed. Panama was ranked 83 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The country's media outlets are privately owned, with the exceptions of the state-owned television network and a network operated by the Roman Catholic Church. However, media ownership is generally concentrated among relatives and associates of former president Ernesto Pérez Balladares (1994-99) of the PRD. Panama maintains a harsh legal environment for journalists. The legislature considered a bill to make it illegal to criticize the country's president and other top officials, but it abandoned the proposal in January 2011 amid international and national pressure. Darío Fernández Jaén, owner of radio station Radio Mi Favorita and an outspoken critic of Martinelli, was murdered in November 2011; one of the suspects arrested allegedly confessed to being hired to commit the crime. There were several instances in 2012 of public officials striking journalists during interviews, increasing pressure on the media. President Martinelli publicly berated a journalist who was a recovering drug addict. Journalists have also been the subject of government attack ads. Internet access is unrestricted.

Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is generally honored.

Freedom of assembly is recognized, and nongovernmental organizations are free to operate. In March 2011, public protests forced the government to repeal Law 8, which had imposed controversial reforms to the Mining Code; this was regarded as a victory for environmental and indigenous groups. Congress' voting on the 2012 electoral reforms was disrupted by protesters who on one occasion forced their way into the building. Although only about 10 percent of the labor force is organized, unions are cohesive and powerful.

The judicial system remains overburdened, inefficient, politicized, and prone to corruption. Panama's Accusatory Penal System became operational on September 2, 2011 and is gradually being introduced throughout the country. The new system is intended to reduce congestion in the courts by resolving complaints more efficiently while reducing the number of people held in detention without conviction. The prison system is marked by violent disturbances in decrepit, overcrowded facilities. As of September 2012, the prison system held more than 6,000 inmates than it was designed to.

The police and other security forces are poorly disciplined and corrupt. Security decrees issued by the Torrijos government in 2008 included the creation of a national aero-naval service, a border service, a council for public security and national defense, and a national intelligence service. Opponents warned of a return to Panama's military past and said the changes lacked safeguards against abuse of power. In September 2012, Jaime Abad of the now defunct Judicial Technical Police asserted that Panama's security forces must be depoliticized. Panama's growing importance as a regional transport center makes it appealing to drug traffickers and money launderers.

Refugees from Colombia have faced difficulty obtaining work permits and other forms of legal recognition. The Martinelli administration had suggested measures to normalize the status of thousands of undocumented Colombians living in Panama without official refugee status, but minimal progress had been made on these measures. New immigration rules that took effect in 2008 tightened controls on foreigners, but other legislation grants recognized refugees who have lived in Panama for more than 10 years the right to apply for permanent residency.

Discrimination against darker-skinned Panamanians is widespread. The country's Asian, Middle Eastern, and indigenous populations are similarly singled out. Indigenous communities enjoy a degree of autonomy and self-government, but some 90 percent of the indigenous population lives in extreme poverty. Since 1993, indigenous groups have protested the encroachment of illegal settlers on their lands and government delays in formal land demarcations. In January 2012, protestors opposing the building of hydroelectric dams on their land blocked the Interamericana road linking Panama to other Central American countries. In March, two people were killed – Plantares community leader Arquilio Opúa and a logger – in fights over illegal logging in Wounaan communities in the country's east. In September, indigenous Naso in the Bocas del Toro province blocked access for several days to the Bonyic Hydroelectric project, protesting the construction of a road they feared would cut through an ancient archeological site; fifteen were arrested before a dialogue was brokered to protect burial grounds at the site.

Violence against women and children is widespread and common. Panama is a source, destination, and transit country for human trafficking. The government has worked with the International Labour Organization on information campaigns addressing the issue, and it has created a special unit to investigate cases of trafficking for the purpose of prostitution. However, law enforcement is weak, the penal code does not prohibit trafficking for forced labor, and the government provides inadequate assistance to victims.

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