Press Freedom Threatened in El Salvador, Panama

February 12, 2010

SAN SALVADOR – Efforts to restrict press freedoms in El Salvador and Panama are being met with very different responses by the region’s two newest presidents.

While El Salvador’s left-wing President Mauricio Funes, himself a former journalist, is blasting the initiative as a blow to press freedom, in Panama the ruling party of right-wing President Ricardo Martinelli is behind the initiative to censure the media.

As El Salvador’s Supreme Court opened debate this week on whether to overturn an article in the penal code protecting press free-dom, President Funes defended the media’s right to exercise critical journalism without fear of criminal sanctions.

Funes, who was a journalist for 20 years before becoming president, said penalizing press criticism would be a “serious blow” to the free press and the practice of professional journalism. The president defended critical journalism as a form of “contributing to the consolidation of democracy and, above all else, making El Salvador a better society.”

The Supreme Court is debating whether to overturn Article 191 of El Salvador’s Penal Code, which protects journalists from facing criminal charges for exercising critical journalism. The Supreme Court debate is in response to a motion filed in 2007 by businessman Roberto Bukele.

El Salvador’s Human Rights’ Ombudsman, press organizations and artist groups have all come out in defense of a free press and against the possibility of overturning Article 191.

“Beyond any analysis by the Supreme Court and the opinions of different sectors in El Salvador, I have my own personal opinion that is based on my experience working as a journalist for more than 20 years,” President Funes said.

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) has expressed its concern over the possible modification to Article 191.

The free-press watchdog group also expressed shock and concern this week about a similar legal initiative in Panama, where lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Change party are seeking to reestablish an old, dictatorial-era government news agency to regulate the media, following a series of critical media attacks against President Martinelli.

Chairman of the IAPA Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Robert Rivard, declared that “government infringement into journalistic ethics” is simply “a step backwards for press freedom.”

–EFE & Nica Times

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