Journalists Decry Authoritarianism in Panama

May 28, 2010

PANAMA CITY, Panama – An attempt earlier this year by President Ricardo Martinelli to push a bill through congress calling for greater government controls over media content was the first step in what some see as increasing intolerance toward freedom of expression in Panama.

The controversial bill, which called for the reactivation of the government Censorship Board that existed during the dictatorship of the 1980s, has since “died in its crib” due to lack of support, according to Aurelia Marín, president of Panama’s Journalist Board.

But other threats to the free press have emerged in its wake.

In just the past month, a newspaper photographer was beaten by police for snapping photos of the Prosecutor General in public, the director of the daily El Siglo denounced threats and harassment from the secretary of government communication, and the daily La Prensa was fined $300,000 in a defamation lawsuit for reporting on corruption by an ex-public prosecutor.

Then, on May 11, police arrested and incarcerated environmental activist and radio commentator Olmedo Carrasquilla, who had been critical of the government’s efforts to pass a new mining law. On his program on Radio Temblor, Carrasquilla had denounced the government’s increasingly authoritarian style of government, and criticized the administration for limiting freedom of expression by ignoring the voices of environmentalists.

According to witness reports, Carrasquilla was arrested soon after by police, allegedly for “suspicious behavior” while eating in a cafeteria in Panama City. He was brought to jail and locked up without charges. But he was released hours later when activists and journalists gathered outside the jail demanding explanations.

On May 13, the National Council of Journalists published an ad in the major dailies criticizing the government’s “authoritarianism that is limiting constitutional guarantees, starting with the freedom of the press.”

The council – made up of journalists, media owners and journalism professors – raised particular concern about the recent defamation ruling against La Prensa.

Fernando Berguido, president and director of La Prensa, told The Tico Times that he “has no proof” that President Martinelli was behind the recent judicial ruling against his newspaper. But he notes that the timing of the ruling – which happened within days of other government moves against journalists – was a bit curious.

Not only was the timing odd, but so too was the ruling. The civil court found La Prensa guilty of “moral damages” against prosecutor Argentina Barrera, who was fired by the attorney general for “a lack of ethics,” in the words of a press release from the attorney general himself.

The La Prensa articles, therefore, simply reported what the attorney general’s official press release said. But according to the court, that was sufficient grounds to find the newspaper guilty of defamation.

Alejandro Aguirre, president of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), called the court ruling “highly surprising.” He added, “The risk here is that a dangerous legal precedent is being set which makes the news media and journalists responsible for official information that originates from government sources.”

Aguirre said, “This is a restriction and a message of censorship not only to the press and official sources but to the right that every citizen has to access official information.”

La Prensa’s Berguido also thinks the government is crossing the line from press censorship into full-fledged restrictions on freedom of expression.

“Regarding the behavior of the  (president) and his officials, we are worried about the growing intolerance that the administration is showing towards journalists and media criticism but also  towards civil society,” the newspaper’s president told The Tico Times.

Berguido said La Prensa is appealing the defamation case.

Martinelli, meanwhile, has called for a national dialogue. Journalists hope the dialogue, scheduled to start this week, will be an opportunity to address concerns regarding free press and freedom of expression.

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