Panama

Vulnerable
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
Notable
32 85
Local Resilience & Response
Low
30 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

Report by: Angeli Datt and Anonymous

 

  • Steady influence efforts: Beijing’s media influence efforts in Panama stayed the same during the coverage period (2019–21), particularly after the flurry of activity in 2017-8 following the switch in diplomatic relations. Chinese state-produced content was widely available in local media and Chinese diplomats active on social media.
  • Growing public distrust: Public opinion surveys suggest that distrust toward the Chinese government has increased since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Panama and China in 2017 (see Impact)
  • State media narratives tout economic benefits: Chinese state media and diplomats promote narratives that China is a strategic and natural partner for Panama, and that the newly established diplomatic relationship will translate into trade and economic opportunities (see Propaganda)
  • Reaching consumers through content sharing and advertorials: A variety of Chinese state-linked entities—the local embassy, Xinhua news agency, and the Radio and Television Administration of China—have content-sharing or paid-insert agreements with mainstream Spanish-language media, including La Estrella de Panamá, the oldest newspaper in the country, and SERTV, the public broadcaster. As a result, a significant amount of Chinese state-produced content reaches local news consumers (see Propaganda)
  • Public diplomacy features mis- and disinformation: Chinese diplomats in Panama are active on Twitter, and regularly give media interviews and publish editorial pieces in local media. Researchers have found that they sometimes amplify information from fake accounts on social media, and this content, while often on seemingly innocuous topics, has found its way into local media (see Propaganda, Disinformation campaigns)
  • Subsidized press trips: Dozens of journalists from across the political and geographic spectrum of Panamanian media have traveled to China for trips or trainings at the expense of the Chinese government or Huawei since 2018. These trips typically carry an expectation that participating journalists publish positive news stories about China or the company upon their return (see Propaganda)
  • Heavy influence in diaspora media: The Chinese Communist Party’s footprint is heaviest in Chinese-language media that serves what is Central America’s largest Chinese diaspora. There is essentially no independent Chinese-language media available in Panama; local Chinese-language outlets regularly publish pro-Beijing content produced by state media and avoid coverage of issues sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party. There do not appear to be any local Chinese-language publications pursing reporting or analysis independent from Beijing (see Chinese diaspora media)
  • Significant market share for Huawei: Huawei, a China-based company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and a record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad, has a 30 percent share of the mobile phone market (see Control over content infrastructure)
  • Safeguards in Panamanian media, civil society, laws: Press freedom groups, laws restricting foreign ownership, and investigative journalism—including on the circumstances surrounding Panama’s 2017 diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China—provide some foundation for resilience to problematic Chinese Communist Party influence. However, almost no initiatives for monitoring or responding to covert or coercive influence from Beijing exist (see Resilience and response)
  • Vulnerabilities due to gaps in legal, regulatory environment and lack of China expertise: There is a lack of transparency surrounding the precise ownership and holdings of many media outlets, and no laws prohibit ownership by a political party. Panama lacks laws limiting strategic lawsuits against public participation (anti-SLAPP laws) and journalists and media owners are regularly targeted with libel and defamation lawsuits. There is limited in-country expertise on China and media organizations often go to Chinese state-linked entities to obtain commentary on China-related and other news stories (see Resilience and response)

header2 Background

Panama has a status of Free in Freedom in the World 2022, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual study of political rights and civil liberties.1 Panama’s political institutions are democratic, the country has relatively competitive elections and orderly rotations of power, and freedoms of expression and association are generally respected.

However, Panama’s traditional media sector, particularly print newspapers, are vulnerable to influence from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) due to economic and political pressure, and a culture of self-censorship among journalists. While press freedom is for the most part upheld and news consumers have access to a variety of editorial viewpoints, harassment and libel suits from government officials and others in response to critical coverage2 has encouraged self-censorship, as has the ownership structure of the media sector: most outlets are owned by politically connected families or individuals. Traditional media also face financial difficulties; for example, a 2016 incident involving US sanctions nearly caused two newspapers, including Panama’s oldest paper, to close.3 Lawsuits and threats of lawsuits can also be effective in silencing coverage.

Diplomatic relations between Panama and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were established on June 13, 2017.4 The unexpected switch from Taiwan caught Panama’s traditional ally the United States by surprise.5 U.S. policy towards Latin America, and Panama, over the past decade, although more pronounced between 2016-2020, was inconsistent, not strategic, and secondary, which created a vacuum that the Chinese government stepped into. In December 2018, Xi Jinping visited Panama, becoming the first Chinese leader to ever visit the country. The visit had the atmosphere of a diplomatic honeymoon. Xi and his Panamanian counterpart at the time, President Juan Carlos Varela, signed 19 deals on trade, tourism, judicial cooperation, and infrastructure projects.6 Talks also began on a free trade agreement (FTA).7 Panama joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2017, becoming the first Latin American country to join, and is also a member of the Forum of China and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (the China-CELAC Forum).8 Despite the recent flurry of political and economic deals, Panama maintains an FTA with Taiwan.9 Relations between Panama and China are still relatively new, and Panama has a long history of maintaining friendly relationships with its partners abroad—including those that have significant disputes with one another—in order to facilitate steady trade through the Panama Canal.

Panama’s Chinese expatriate and diaspora population is the largest in Central America. Approximately 5 percent of the population identifies as Chinese, around 200,000 people, and nearly a third claim some form of Chinese ancestry.10 Chinese migration began in the 1850s during the construction of the Panama Canal, though more recent arrivals came in the 1980s and 1990s, and Chinese migration ticked up once again after the normalization of diplomatic relations in 2017.

In the May 2019 election, opposition candidate Laurentino Cortizo won the presidency and immediately indicated his government would pursue close relations with the United States.11 The Cortizo administration cancelled or scaled back many of the Varela administration’s economic pacts with China—some of which had involved nontransparent backroom deals, including a controversial $4 billion high-speed rail project, a fourth bridge over the Panama Canal, and a port in the city of Colón.12 No talks on the FTA have been held since April 2019. Despite the new administration’s disinclination toward some infrastructure deals signed by Varela, Cortizo in 2021 renewed the Panama Canal port concessions granted to a Hong Kong–based company with close links to the Chinese government.13

header3 Beijing’s media influence efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key narratives

During the coverage period, Chinese state media and diplomatic officials promoted a narrative of “historic” opportunities for Chinese-Panamanian cooperation.1 CCP messaging cited the economic opportunities now available to Panama following the 2017 diplomatic switch and in light of Panama joining the Belt and Road Initiative, often declaring that China is a strategic and “natural partner for cooperation.”2 As in other countries, Chinese state media strongly promoted the benefits of bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation as a path toward “win-win” development. One narrative commonly used by diplomats involves promotion of the slogan “Pro Mutuo Beneficio,” (For Mutual Benefit), a play on Panama’s motto of “Pro Mundi Beneficio” (For the Benefit of the World)—in line with the common CCP talking point of “mutual benefit.”3 Diplomatic messaging also focuses on domestic Chinese “achievements” such as the CCP’s poverty alleviation campaign, or the superiority of China’s political system, especially during the CCP’s 100th anniversary in July 2021.4

Another key narrative since early 2020 has focused on the Chinese government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and China’s support for Panama and other countries. In addition to promoting the CCP as a responsible international power, these narratives seek to shift blame for its mishandling of the initial coronavirus outbreak. The embassy has published timelines and defended China’s handling of the outbreak while attacking Western politicians and media as pushing “one-sided or false reports” about China.5 On social media, diplomats have posted videos set to soaring music that depict the Chinese ambassador signing donation certificates, or donating supplies.6 The Chinese embassy launched a virtual exhibition in December 2020 showcasing more than 200 photos of China’s fight against the pandemic, and its support for other countries.7 China donated masks, tests, and other materials to Panama during the pandemic, and Panama authorized for emergency use China’s Sinovac vaccine—though it has not received or purchased any doses.8 Donations have generally been well-received; there was an outcry after the Cortizo government turned down a donation from the Chinese government to build a hospital to treat coronavirus patients.9

Several negative CCP narratives relate to the United States, which has a longstanding relationship with Panama. China’s ambassador has attacked US and other Western media and politicians for sponsoring “fake news, fake intelligence, fake accusation, [and] fake morality” over reporting on China’s response to the pandemic.10 The ambassador in 2019 also published an article on the embassy’s website on the US-China trade war.11

Not unexpectedly, there has also been strong messaging from the Chinese government on Taiwan following Panama’s diplomatic split with the country.12 In response to Panamanian media reports in 2019 about a potential bribe from China being the reason for then-President Varela deciding to switch diplomatic relations (see Resilience and response), the embassy responded angrily and repeated CCP talking points on its “one China” policy.13

Key avenues of content dissemination

Chinese state media is available in Panama on cable television, radio, and online Spanish-language webpages, but does not seem to be a major source of content for news consumers.14 An estimated 25 percent of Panamanians have access to cable television, though specific viewership data for Chinese state media channels is not available. The official Xinhua news agency has a bureau in Panama City, and a local correspondent based in the country who reportedly coordinates closely with the Chinese embassy on coverage.15 Xinhua publishes content in Spanish about Panama, its economy, sports, culture, bilateral relations, and China.16 It is difficult to measure Xinhua’s readership in Panama. The main sources of news for Panamanians are newspapers, broadcast television, and social media, especially WhatsApp and Twitter, though Panamanians over the age of 50 tend to rely on traditional media more.17

In practice, the most common avenues through which Chinese state media content appears to reach local news audiences are the social media accounts of diplomatic officials, paid inserts or content sharing agreements between local media and Chinese state media, and subsidized trips to China for Panamanian journalists.

Chinese ambassador and state media on Twitter: Chinese diplomats in Panama have a strong Spanish-language presence on Twitter. However, Facebook and Instagram are more popular platforms in Panama, and the Chinese embassy or individual diplomats do not have a presence on either of those platforms.18 China’s ambassador to Panama, Wei Qiang, is reportedly the most active Twitter user of all Chinese officials based in Latin America, and has over 18,000 followers as of March 2022.19 He was one of the first Chinese diplomats to tweet in Spanish.20 Other current and former Chinese diplomats in Panama have Twitter accounts with followings ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 accounts.21 The embassy itself opened an account in November 2021 and has a small but growing presence, with 500 followers as of December of that year.22 At the time of writing, none of these accounts had been labelled by Twitter as being run by government officials. China Global Television Network (CGTN) Español, Xinhua Español, and CCTV Español also all have large followings on Twitter and Facebook, though it’s unclear how many of their followers are from Panama and many may be inauthentic. CGTN Español bought 19 ads on Facebook targeting users in Panama between October and December 2019. Though data on impressions is not yet available, the outlet has doubled the number of ads its run starting January 2022.23

On Twitter, Ambassador Wei Qiang engages with opinion leaders, journalists, and ordinary users in fluent Spanish, answering cultural or historical questions about China. He also promotes cultural events and occasionally retweets apolitical human-interest videos, such as of babies engaging in cute behavior. He has generally not adopted the “wolf warrior” approach of attacking critics with slurs and undiplomatic language but has promoted anti-US narratives from the Chinese foreign ministry and denounced the US and western media.24 A consistent message among his tweets is that China helps its allies. He also promotes the narrative that Beijing is not engaged in “checkbook diplomacy,” probably in response to such accusations raised in Panamanian media regarding circumstances of the diplomatic switch in 2017 (See Resilience and response). This is a theme that resonates due to Panamanian’s historical sensitivity to foreign policy that places a heavy priority on economic investment to gain favor.

There is some evidence of China-based social media influencers who work for state media targeting Panamanians. The Spanish-speaking state media journalist Jimena a tu clic, who has 215,000 followers on Facebook and regularly posts about food or lifestyle issues, was featured on a local Chinese-language Radio Chinavision in September 2020. 25 (More about the outlet in Chinese diaspora media section).

Public diplomacy outreach: Chinese officials and local diplomats regularly engage with local media. In 2018, La Estrella de Panamá published an op-ed from Chinese leader Xi Jinping ahead of his visit.26 Ambassador Wei’s public diplomacy activities extend into active engagement with local media as well. During the coverage period, he published at least four op-eds in the local newspaper La Estrella de Panamá,27 seven op-eds in La Prensa,28 as well as in other outlets,29 and has given over a dozen interviews to local outlets. Wang Jian “Paco”, the former Economic and Commercial Counselor to the embassy in Panama, was also an influential diplomat. He was posted to the country from 2011 until early 2021 and has 10,000 followers on Twitter, including former president Juan Carlos Varela, but appears to have not tweeted since his departure.30 In 2020, Wang Jian published an op-ed in La Estrella de Panamá on China’s COVID-19 measures while also attacking Western politicians and media.31 Other diplomats at the embassy have also had op-eds published in mainstream media.32

Paid content or news exchanges in local media: State-produced content placed in local Panamanian media is a primary avenue for CCP influence in Panama. Two of Panama’s major newspaper groups with circulations of tens of thousands have distributed paid inserts from the Chinese embassy or Chinese commercial office: La Prensa (which publishes La Prensa33 and Mi Diario34 ), and Grupo Gese (which publishes La Estrella de Panamá35 and El Siglo36 ). These paid inserts are generally found in printed magazine or newspaper editions and are framed as magazine content and not explicitly labelled as state-produced. The inserts frequently promote flattering views of China and its government, including through positive narratives about China’s role in the world, and about the CCP’s poverty alleviation campaign. They have also published material about commercial opportunities and Chinese culture.

Grupo Gese also has a content-sharing agreement with Xinhua. La Estrella de Panamá, the country’s oldest daily newspaper, labels inserts as coming from “Xinhua,” or “sponsored content” if it comes from Huawei.37 Its sister tabloid, El Siglo, frequently published Xinhua content on a range of regional and global news topics, including coronavirus updates for other countries, though it did not publish any Xinhua content between August 2021 and March 2022.38 La Estrella de Panamá also regularly publishes content critical of the Chinese government from local reporters and commentators, or from wire services.39 Another publication, La Prensa, published Xinhua content which was labelled with a Xinhua byline, though no Xinhua content has appeared since December 2017, and the majority of the inserts ran in 2016. Xinhua also reportedly shares subscriptions to its news wire content for free.40

During Xi Jinping’s landmark visit to Panama in December 2018, Panama’s public broadcaster SERTV signed a memorandum of understanding with the Radio and Television Administration of China (NRTA) to promote coproductions and increase distribution of television and radio content.41 SERTV held an event celebrating the “Presentation of Chinese Content in Panama” on December 4, 2018, with the Chinese embassy, China International Television Corp., a subsidiary of CCTV, and the Panamanian-registered company Constantii, SA.42 The event marked the launch of a partnership in which SERTV broadcasts films, documentaries, soap operas, and other programming about China produced by Chinese state media. SERTV also declared itself the official broadcaster of the events surrounding Xi Jinping’s visit in 2018.43 In September 2019, SERTV signed a partnership agreement with the Chinese state-owned Fujian Television. The memorandum of understanding calls for training of SERTV staff, broadcasting rights for programs, and coproductions.44

These partnerships have resulted in Chinese state-produced content being broadcast on Panamanian television. The content is labeled with the logo of the outlet throughout the program. In one example from September 2021, a ballet performance celebrating the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China was broadcast on SERTV; it also gained nearly 1,000 views on their Facebook page.45 Various other programs produced by the Chinese embassy or state offices have been broadcast on SERTV.46

Panamanian broadcaster TVN is also part of a content sharing partnership with the China Media Group (CMG). TVN is a member of the Latin America Informative Alliance (AIL) which signed a deal with CMG in August 2020 to launch a “special cooperation program for news.”47 The deal was touted as an alliance to “to guarantee accurate information during the COVID-19 pandemic.”48 An extension of this deal called the "China-LAC Media Action" Initiative was launched by CMG and over 30 media outlets and AIL in December 2021.49 The initiative will include online forums, coproductions of documentaries, the CGTN China-LAC Film and Television Tour, a youth opinion program “Café con CGTN,” and public service short film relay campaigns.

Subsidized press trips: A growing form of influence, before the travel disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, was Panamanian journalists travelling to China on trips paid for by the Chinese government, with the apparent expectation that the journalists produce positive content about the Chinese government during or after the trip. At least one of the trips, in July 2017, was organized by the Panamanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) after the Chinese Trade Development Office extended an invitation.50 This arrangement was considered unusual by analysts as the journalists selected by the foreign ministry tended to be from outlets that took a pro-government stance and were thus unlikely to be especially critical of China during the diplomatic honeymoon. Twenty journalists went to China through the MFA trip, and since then around 25 more—from mainstream outlets La Prensa, La Estrella de Panamá, Panamá América, Telemetro, TVN, and digital outlets Noticias de Panama and Capital Financiero, among others—have traveled to China upon invitation by the embassy or by Huawei.51 At least two additional trips occurred in November and December 2018.52 At least one Panamanian journalist took part in a pan-Latin American trip, in July 2019, during which the cohort met with senior Chinese foreign ministry officials.53 Trips have stalled since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

According to a journalist who went on one of the trips, who wished to remain anonymous, the aim of the trip was clearly to promote a positive image of China.54 The goal of the program, broadly, was to change the perception of China abroad, the journalist said, and the organizers tried to showcase an image of an emerging, technologically advanced China that is ready to cooperate with other countries. “They only talked about the good stuff,” the journalist said.55 A Panamanian photojournalist who traveled to China said they were impressed “with the advance of the country,” something they had not expected. “They obviously expected us to share that impression when we came back to our countries,” the photojournalist added.56 While some journalists who returned from such trips wrote stories about cultural issues in China, it is unknown if such participants wrote positive reports about China after these trips.57

Huawei has also organized trips. Journalists, including editors from two of the biggest broadsheets, La Prensa and La Estrella de Panamá, traveled to China at the invitation of the company in 2019 and later wrote positively about Huawei after visiting its headquarters.58

Role of prominent local actors: Panamanian commercial groups have boosted Chinese government narratives by writing in the media or online about the commercial benefits of a strong partnership with China on local economic projects. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, the Industries and Agriculture Chamber of Commerce of Panama has vocally expressed support for potential benefits of commercial agreements between Panama and China.59 Libelula Group, an unofficial think tank formed by academics, diplomats, and commentators, operates a Twitter account that promotes Sino-Panamanian business relations. The account frequently retweets content from Chinese state media and foreign ministry officials that is critical of the United States, or which promotes CCP narratives on issues like Taiwan.60 The influential Panamanian Association of Business Executives (APEDE), a more traditional and conservative business association that drives public opinion, took part in free trade negotiations with the Chinese government and continued to push for one even after negotiations stopped.61 Overall, it has taken a more conservative approach, calling for Panama to “take advantage of relations with China” while also “taking care of our interests, and strengthening our institutions."62

Disinformation campaigns

During the coverage period—from January 2019 to December 2021—at least one disinformation campaign reached news consumers in Panama. For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the purposeful dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—via fake accounts, for example—on global social media platforms.

A Graphika report found that by early 2021, users in Panama had begun to engage with a network of fake Twitter accounts sending out pro-Beijing content.63 The researchers found Chinese ambassador Wei Qiang had retweeted content from a fake account claiming to be operated by a woman called He Jinrun, which has since been suspended. On one occasion, he boosted a video purportedly showing a parade for COVID-19 workers in China posted by the “He Jinrun” account. The Panamanian television channel TVN Noticias then shared the same video to its 800,000 followers on Twitter, tagging Wei and the fake account. While the video itself was harmless, it demonstrates the potential reach and influence of false information from a state-backed network of social media accounts. Wei’s engagement with the fake account marked the beginning of a trend that has seen diplomats picking up material from fake accounts; previously they had existed mostly in a closed ecosystem of fake accounts tweeting material from other fake accounts. The fake account also repeatedly retweeted Wei’s tweets. The ambassador’s promotion of the content likely gave it a veneer of credibility among Panamanians users who viewed his tweets. The researchers said there was no evidence the diplomats knew they were boosting fake accounts.

Censorship and intimidation

No incidents of direct censorship were documented during the coverage period. However, self-censorship is a significant problem in Panamanian journalism. This phenomenon has some relevance to China-related coverage: self-censorship could explain in part some outlets’ reluctance to closely examine circumstances leading to the 2017 diplomatic switch, or further investigate the Sino-Panamanian economic projects signed in reported backroom deals. Much of this self-censorship is tied to economic vulnerabilities. The financial weakness of the Panamanian media market makes it vulnerable to pressure from advertisers and to influence from outside actors.

Following the 2017 diplomatic switch and ahead of Xi Jinping’s 2018 visit to Panama, journalists at some outlets were encouraged by their editors to avoid covering topics that might upset advertisers like Huawei or local businesses who appeared likely to benefit from Chinese economic investment.64 One journalist said, “I was told at the time [2018-19] to be less harsh on reporting because there is a danger they will pull advertising. This came from upper management.”65 Additionally, powerful companies involved in local projects have been known to hire aggressive public relations firms that place pressure on outlets’ boards and executive management when their journalists write stories unfavorable to the company. For example, the Cobre Panama mine, operated by Canadian company First Quantum, received significant investment from the Chinese company Jiangxi Mining in 2019 and 2020. During this period, the company hired an aggressive public relations firm, Corporate Diplomacy, which pressured media management over unfavorable media coverage by calling up senior executives to complain.66 Due to the common use of defamation lawsuits against journalists in Panama, outlets are likely to bend to such pressure out of fear of being sued.

Control over content-distribution infrastructure

Chinese state-run or government-linked companies do not own any traditional forms of content dissemination infrastructure, such as television or radio broadcasting channels, due to a Panamanian law that limits foreign media ownership.67 Huawei controlled approximately 30 percent of the mobile phone market by late 2021.68 While Panama is not currently considering 5G technology, Huawei hosted a conference in Panama in February 2020 that promoted itself as a key provider for 5G in Latin America.69 Huawei also has an economic footprint outside of telecoms through a 2018 donation by the Chinese government of security cameras that were installed in a heavily trafficked commercial area in the Colón Free Trade Zone.70 Huawei and another Chinese surveillance tech company, Infinova, supply facial-recognition and smart-policing technology to Panama, as well as “smart city” components, which can include, among other elements, a closed-circuit television (CCTV) network with artificial intelligence-driven facial recognition capabilities, and integration with social media platforms.71 In August 2021, Huawei established its second Information and Communications Academy at the Technological University of Panama with the purpose of developing Panama into a “digital hub.” The first is hosted by the University of Panama in Panama City.72

In 2021, TikTok, a global subsidiary of the PRC-based social media company ByteDance, was the seventh most downloaded app in Panama.73 There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.74 A media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding data privacy of US users were false, and more broadly called into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.75 Panama’s president uses TikTok to reach Spanish-speaking constituents and to boost his public reach. Local politicians do not appear to use TikTok or the Chinese social media platform WeChat to reach the Chinese diaspora community in Chinese-language messages. Recent Chinese immigrants rely on WeChat for news, cultural activities, community networking, and other activities. WeChat is owned by PRC-based technology company Tencent, which has close ties to the CCP.

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

There is little evidence that Panamanian authorities are adopting the CCP’s restrictive and state-driven approach to media control. There is, however, a growing effort by the Chinese government to train journalists in Panama as a part of a wider such policy spanning Latin American and the Caribbean.

Following the establishment of diplomatic relations, several Panamanian journalists travelled to China in 2017 and 2018. While described as “trainings,” these trips are often also free propaganda tours that promote the CCP’s agenda, image, and media governance mode.76 Panamanian journalists have been trained in China as part of the China-Latin America Media Exchange Center project. The center, announced by Xi Jinping in 2016, invites journalists to China to work and study and cited a goal of training 500 journalists in five years.77 Travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the program, and the number of journalists trained is unclear. In 2018, the Chinese embassy hosted a summit of think tanks and media at the headquarters of the Latin American Parliament (Parlatino) in Panama City, a building which was also constructed with financial support from the Chinese government, in another effort to promote the CCP agenda to local journalists.78

In late 2020, the Chinese embassy donated technical equipment from Huawei to journalism students at the University of Panama.79 These donations are generally beneficial to students. Whether they herald future efforts by the embassy to encourage journalism that favors the Chinese government or promotes its views, or to discourage independent journalism, remains to be seen.

Chinese diaspora media

Chinese-language media in Panama is dominated by pro-Beijing content and the country’s large Chinese community has been a target of the CCP’s United Front Work Department, which is responsible for coordinating influence operations.80 The country has 21 overseas Chinese associations, several of which have links to the Chinese government.81 Local diaspora outlets like El Expreso (拉美快报), Diario Chino (拉美侨声), Radio Chinavision (巴拿马中文广播电台) have explicit content partnerships with Chinese state media,82 and journalists and editors from the three outlets attended the 2019 World Chinese Media Forum, jointly organized by the State Council Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the Hebei Provincial People’s Government, and China News Service, a state news agency.83 The summit included Chinese-language press groups from around the world, and aimed to take advantage of the journalists’ integration into foreign countries to more effectively “tell China’s story.”84 The chairman of Diario Chino, Zhou Jian (周健), who spoke at the summit, has said that cooperation with mainland media groups was integral for the paper to stay competitive in the new media environment, and that he runs the paper in part to follow Xi Jinping’s directive to “tell China’s story well.”85

Chinese-language papers based in Panama are also distributed regionally, primarily in Costa Rica. Diario Chino, which claims to be the only daily Chinese-language paper in Panama, has also participated in Chinese embassy events.86 El Expreso is estimated to have the largest circulation of any Chinese-language paper in Central America, and the second-largest in the Latin America and Caribbean region.87 The largest is the Brazil-based publication South America Overseas Chinese News (南美侨报).88

Web forums, such as China 507 (巴拿马中讯网) and Hola666 also republish significant amounts of state media content, but more broadly focus on local crime reporting, business-related news, food, entertainment, and human interest stories. Chinese-speakers in Panama also have access to Xinhua, CCTV on cable television, and China Radio International (CRI) programming. Since 2001, CRI has had a partnership with Radio Chinavision to broadcast 10 hours of its programming per day.89

In a content analysis of Chinese-language media in Panama, Freedom House found an apparent reluctance to publish material about issues the CCP deems off-limits. The three most popular outlets, Diario Chino, ChinaTV, and Radio Chinavision did not cover major stories that otherwise received coverage globally, including human rights violations in Xinjiang, prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong, the implementation of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, or scrutiny of the Chinese government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the chairman of Diario Chino, the paper is staunchly in favor of the unification of China and Taiwan and has published 73 articles on the topic as of 2019.90

The forum Hola666, which also runs a WeChat channel, has occasionally published human interest stories on Xinjiang—for example, about local cuisine, and the effects of earthquakes—as well as about travel and business in Hong Kong. It is evident that the outlets are practicing self-censorship at minimum; others openly state they publish Chinese government propaganda.

WeChat is popular for recent arrivals and students, with many groups set up to help overseas Chinese connect with those with similar interests or to learn Spanish.91 The web portal China 507 operates an official WeChat account, and regularly posts content from other major diaspora media outlets and translations of mainstream local news. The local embassy, Confucius Institute of the University of Panama (巴拿马大学孔子学院), and Panama Chinese Enterprise Chamber of Commerce (巴拿马中资企业商会) all run WeChat accounts which publish pro-Beijing content. These accounts are registered as official accounts in China and are thus subject to Chinese censorship restrictions. Researchers have found that WeChat users outside of China have been surveilled by WeChat as part of an effort to “train” political censorship systems inside China,92 and that accounts and posts of outspoken Chinese users outside China have been restricted.93

header4 Resilience + Response

Underlying media resilience

 

  • Investigative journalism and civil society: The major broadsheets La Prensa Panamá and La Estrella de Panamá have investigative units, and La Prensa participates in the Trust Project, a news network with a mission “To amplify journalism’s commitment to transparency, accuracy, inclusion and fairness so that the public can make informed news choices.”1 However, investigative reporting is generally weak in the country, and tabloids enjoy higher readership and profits. Panama has independent press bodies, made up of journalists, media owners, and other relevant stakeholders.2 It also has press and internet freedom groups, such as Ipandetec, whose activities include training journalists, government officials, and civil society actors on cybersecurity.3
  • Regulatory provisions, including some limits on foreign ownership: Panama’s constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression and press freedom. Law No. 24, issued in June 1999, limits foreign ownership of radio and television frequencies, but does not apply to print media.4 No Chinese state media have a license granted by the government to operate a local television or radio station. Enforcement of the law is generally weak. Law No. 129, passed in March 2020, and Law No. 254, in November 2021, relate to final beneficiary ownership over media, and have not been implemented yet.5 These laws were adopted as a response to the “Panama Papers,” a global media investigation, which exposed how a Panamanian law firm enabled corruption and money laundering by establishing offshore companies to shelter wealth.6 Law No. 254’s transparency requirements, if applied to the media, could help trace the true ownership of some entities, an issue in Panama where ownership of local outlets has been shrouded in secrecy.7 A state regulatory body exists for television and radio, but does not cover print media.8 It has operated with relative independence but sits within the executive branch and is thus could be vulnerable to pressure from the government.
  • Initiatives to counter domestic disinformation: Panama’s Electoral Tribunal, a judicial body, has paid close attention to disinformation related to elections. Panama is the first country in Latin America to have a “Digital Ethical Pact,” or a signed pact between users of social media platforms to not “use dirty campaigns as elements of false debate; do not use automated bots to manipulate the electorate; and denounce fake news to avoid the damage they cause.”9 These tactics were generally supported by users, though some complained about false information coming from third parties not subject to the pact. The Electoral Tribunal has also collaborated with international organizations and other countries on combating election-related disinformation.10 Some measures have been criticized as being overly stringent, however. In October 2020, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) included Panama as among a list of countries where there was a risk that measures meant to combat disinformation could be used to criminalize free expression. The body cited proposed legislation in Panama that penalizes mis- and disinformation, and another that punishes users for online speech found to be slanderous.11

China-specific resilience

  • Critical coverage of CCP and Chinese government activities in Panama: While local expertise on China is fairly limited, during the coverage period major media outlets like La Prensa, La Estrella de Panamá, El Capital Financiero, and Diario Crítica produced reporting critical of the CCP; such criticism appeared in articles about events that took place both in Panama and in China. Outlets also republished critical articles from independent wire services. Such coverage included reporting on the human rights violations against Uyghurs, and the nonviability of Chinese government-backed infrastructure projects signed in 2017–18 which were later cancelled.12 There has also been negative coverage in different Panamanian media outlets about the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins in China, with content from local reporters and wire services. The content of the articles covered Chinese state disinformation pushing debunked conspiracy theories linking the origins of COVID-19 to the United States, and information controls by Chinese authorities to suppress information about the outbreak in Wuhan.13 In 2018, Panamanian media reported that then-President Varela had given land to China for an embassy at the mouth of the Panama Canal, sparking outrage and local protests that the deal compromised Panamanian sovereignty.14 Several outlets that publish Xinhua content or paid inserts have also published critical reports. When voicing criticism of Beijing, political leaders and media make an effort to distinguish between Chinese nationals and the Chinese government. This understanding is likely due in part to the long-standing presence of a Chinese diaspora community in Panama.
  • Investigative reporting on 2017 diplomatic change: Widespread coverage in November 2019 of leaked WhatsApp messages from former president Juan Carlos Varela drew public attention across the country.15 The leaked messages appeared to show that Varela and a government official had discussed a 1 billion renminbi ($143 million) donation from the Chinese government to Panama in 2017, and that the official had warned Varela not to mention the donation because “it may give the impression that it was the price for the break with Taiwan.”16 While Varela admitted the messages were from his phone, he claimed they were distorted.17 The Chinese embassy denied the claim and described it as normal for countries to carry out “nonreimbursable cooperation projects.”18 Panama’s attorney general resigned as a result of the leaks, suggesting that their content was authentic and not altered as Varela had claimed.19

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Legal and regulatory gaps: There is a lack of transparency surrounding the precise ownership and holdings of many media outlets, with some purchases in recent years being shrouded in secrecy or subject to allegations of corruption. 1 There are no laws on partisan media or ownership by a political party, though ownership is restricted if an individual has been convicted of a crime. There are no laws limiting strategic lawsuits against public participation (anti-SLAPP laws), and journalists and media owners are regularly targeted with libel and defamation lawsuits. There are no investment screening mechanisms, and the judiciary is plagued by corruption and inefficiency.
  • Gaps in China expertise: Panama has limited in-country expertise on China and media organizations often go to Chinese state-linked entities to obtain commentary on China-related and other news stories, such as the Chinese ambassador or Confucius Institute staff. None of the press councils have offered guidance on Chinese party-state media engagement, and at least one, the National College of Journalists (CNP) has taken part in Chinese embassy–related events as recently as July 2021.2 There are no major instances of journalists or editors speaking out about content-sharing agreements with Chinese state-owned media, or otherwise publicly pushing back on the distribution of Chinese propaganda in Panamanian press; nor have there been major instances of pushback against the co-opting of journalists via the practice of subsidized trips to China that carry an expectation that the journalists will eventually produce positive coverage. There do not appear to be any local Chinese-language publications pursing reporting or analysis independent from Beijing.
  • Limited debate on foreign policy towards China: Both Varela or Cortizo had vocally declared their openness to foreign investment, and neither had openly criticized coercive or covert measures from the Chinese government. There is little policy debate in Panama on CCP media influence. Although the current Cortizo government has been more hesitant towards Chinese investment than its predecessor, political ties between the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party of Panama (PRD)—of which Cortizo is a member—and the CCP have continued. For example, in October 2020 a “study group” between CCP cadres and PRD members was held.3

header6 Impact and public opinion

The impact of Beijing’s influence on the media in Panama appears to be limited. For the most part, Panama’s media, despite self-censorship and economic and legal pressure, continues to report independently on issues related to China. However, the growing reach of Chinese propaganda published through content-sharing agreements and in embassy-sponsored, paid inserts, as well as the economic weakness of the media sector, leaves the industry vulnerable to the more covert, coercive, and corruptive elements of CCP media influence. Huawei, with its strong footprint in the country, is positioned to influence media reporting through its subsidized trips for journalists to China, its information and technology academies hosted by universities, and position as a major advertiser in media. The situation of Chinese-language media is more worrisome: the CCP dominates the Chinese-language media in Panama, and little to no independent media coverage is available to the local diaspora members who consume news primarily in Chinese.

Opinion polls suggest that public sentiment toward the Chinese government soured somewhat in 2018, shortly after diplomatic ties were established. In 2016, 2018, and 2021, Americas Barometer posed the following question to Panamanians: “The government of China: In your opinion, is it very trustworthy, somewhat trustworthy, not very trustworthy, or not at all trustworthy; or no opinion.” In 2018 and 2021, approximately 68 percent of respondents found the Chinese government to be “untrustworthy” or “not very trustworthy.” This is a large increase from 2016—a year before diplomatic relations were established—when only 48 percent of respondents found the Chinese government untrustworthy.1 In the 2018/2019 round of the survey, Panama had the lowest trust in the Chinese government of all countries in Latin America.2

The increase in mistrust may be related to economic relations. In general, foreign investment is not transparent in Panama, and Chinese investment during the Varela years was viewed with suspicion by many Panamanians because deals were negotiated and signed in the absence of public consultation. While a common narrative disseminated by Chinese state media and diplomats is that closer relations with China brings greater economic opportunity to Panama, a wide range of foreign partners contribute to the local economy due to global commerce that flow through the Panama Canal.

header7 Future Trajectory

The following are key areas researchers, media experts, and Panamanian officials and journalists should watch for related to Beijing’s media influence in Panama in the coming years.

  • More problematic state-media content being shared widely: Evidence that Chinese state media content channeled into Panamanian mainstream media is evolving, and if it is impacting public views about China, the United States, or local Panamanian politics.
  • Increased economic ties to struggling local outlets: Evidence that economically struggling local media outlets may have been acquired by Chinese state-owned companies, or private companies or individuals with links to the Chinese government. Panama’s opaque ownerships laws make it possible for the buyer of a local media outlet to hide their identity, and Panamanian journalists and media outlets may be willing to exchange positive coverage for cash.
  • Role of Huawei in content infrastructure debates: Any emergent public debate on 5G network providers in Panama, and any attempts by Huawei or Chinese officials to influence the discussion covertly, including through the deployment of paid inserts, subsidized journalist trips, or abuse of Huawei’s dominant mobile phone market share—such as manipulation of the media market via selective service interruptions, or censorship on Huawei devices or in Huawei services.
  • Increase in self-censorship: Any increase in reports of self-censorship among journalists reporting about Chinese investment (current and new) in the country, potentially due to pressure from media owners with economic stakes in Chinese-linked projects and the fear of defamation lawsuits.

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