Punishment of press offences is still the main threat to the right to inform the public in Panama. The offence of "insulting" state employees is an anachronism the government refuses to abolish despite pressure from international organisations.

Those who run the country remain sensitive about being criticised and the government still refuses to repeal laws banning insults and criminalizing press offences. The situation was deplored once again, in July 2003, by the Organisation of American States special rapporteur for freedom of expression, Eduardo Bertoni.

These laws enable government officials to have a journalist imprisoned without trial for showing them disrespect. TV journalist Carlos Adán Zavala Escobar narrowly escaped being jailed for six days. The sentence was not carried out and the judge who imposed it was then investigated for "irregularities" in his work.

The sentencing of two journalists of the daily El Panamá América to a year in prison, or a fine, for "harming the reputation" of a former minister also showed how antiquated the law is. Bertoni said people should be allowed to criticise officials without the risk of being jailed.

He also urged President Mireya Moscoso to amend a decree implementing a 2002 law giving people more access to government information, including financial matters, "so as to respect the spirit" of the law. The decree effectively cancels the measure out.

Four journalists arrested

Jean Marcel Chéry, Julio Aizprúa, Alcibiades Cortés and Bernardino Freire, of the daily La Prensa, were arrested on 14 April 2003 while allegedly on the grounds of President Moscoso's country home in Punta Mala (Los Santos province). The journalists, who were investigating work done of the property, denied this and said they were arrested off the premises. They were accused of an "affront to the legal representative of the state" and held for 26 hours. They were freed after a Los Santos court ruled there was no legal reason to detain them.

Five journalists physically attacked

Eric Montenegro, of the daily El Panamá América, Alexis Graell, of the daily El Siglo, Raul Vega, of Mi Diario and the radio stations RPC and Estereo Oeste, and Urania Molina, of the daily La Prensa, were attacked on 11 April 2003 by Gaspar Arosemena, husband of La Chorrera mayoress Yolanda Vila de Arosemena, as they were reporting on a meeting of the town council to discuss garbage collection. He accused them of suggesting there was corruption behind the inefficiency of the service.

Kathryn Cook, of the US news agency Associated Press (AP), was grazed on the leg by a police bullet while covering a demonstration on 30 October against privatising the social security system. Police, who were dispersing the protest, took her to hospital.

A journalist threatened

Carmen Boyd, of the daily El Siglo, was visited on 23 May 2003 at the paper's offices by a stranger who warned her that "something might happen" to her. She had recently written articles about the San Cristobal land development company using information obtained by a Dutch journalist, Okke Ornstein.

Harassment and obstruction

On 19 February 2003, Judge Jorge Isaac Escobar ordered Carlos Adán Zavala Escobar, presenter of the "Cuentas Claras" programme on the station RCM Televisión, to go to prison for six days for "disrespecting" him, as allowed under article 386 of the code of criminal procedure. He said the journalist had accused him of extortion, bribery and blackmail. Zavala Escobar's lawyers sought a writ of habeas corpus to prevent his jailing. In early March, the supreme court ordered an investigation of Judge Escobar for "irregularities" in his work.

Police prevented photojournalist Rafael Pérez Jaramillo and another photographer from taking pictures on 20 June of the ship Pacific Swan as it passed through the Panama Canal with a cargo of nuclear waste. He said the police cited "national security" as a reason and threatened to arrest them.

Journalists Jean Marcel Chéry and Gustavo Aparicio, of the daily El Panamá América, were sentenced to a year in prison, or a $600 (530 euros) fine on 7 August for "harming the dignity and honour" of supreme court justice and former interior and justice minister Winston Spadafora in a 2001 article about the use of public money to build a road to Iturralde (40 km west of the capital), which led almost exclusively to Spadafora's private estate.

A court on 28 October banned Gustavo Gorriti, the Peruvian former managing editor of the daily La Prensa, from leaving the country until 1 December, the date of his next court appearance in a libel suit against him by prosecutor-general José Antonio Sossa, for a 1996 article saying Sossa had taken money during the 1994 parliamentary election campaign (when he was a candidate) from a businessman being investigated for drug smuggling. He had arrived in Panama for a conference on 26 October. He was allowed to leave on 30 October after a court cancelled the ban.


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