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)
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
- 1Freedom House, “Panama,” in Freedom in the World 2022, February 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/country/panama/freedom-world/2022.
- 2For example, one former president filed 16 lawsuits against 38 journalists and editors as of October 2020. Inter American Press Association (IAPA), “Panama” in Report to the IAPA 76 General Assembly, October 21-23, 2020, https://en.sipiapa.org/notas/1214155-panama.
- 3The US Treasury put them on a sanctions list in 2016 because the owner was accused of crimes unrelated to the publications. They were removed in 2017, but there is lingering resentment in the country towards the so-called “Clinton List” (OFAC sanctions). “El diario La Estrella de Panamá reduce 35% su personal y elimina ediciones de fin de semana” [The newspaper La Estrella de Panamá reduces its staff by 35% and eliminates weekend editions], La Jornada, July 25, 2017, https://www.jornada.com.mx/2017/07/25/mundo/021n1mun; Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “US Treasury Department decision risks future of two Panama newspapers,” October 4, 2017, https://cpj.org/2017/10/us-treasury-department-decision-risks-future-of…; The Associated Press (AP), “US lifts restrictions on 2 Panama newspapers,” Seattle Times, October 23, 2017, https://www.seattletimes.com/business/us-lifts-restrictions-on-2-panama…; “US ends sanctions against 2 Panamanian dailies,” Agencia EFE, October 24, 2017, https://www.efe.com/efe/english/life/us-ends-sanctions-against-2-panama….
- 4Li Xiaokun and Mo Jingxi, “China and Panama establish diplomatic relations,” China Daily, June 13, 2017, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2017-06/13/content_29721903.htm (https://archive.ph/lCJOx).
- 5Panama’s then-President Juan Carlos Varela’s announcement was the first of three countries in quick succession in Central America and the Caribbean to switch relations from Taiwan, the other two being the Dominican Republic in May 2018 and El Salvador in August 2018. Austin Ramzy, “Taiwan’s Diplomatic Isolation Increases as Dominican Republic Recognizes China,” New York Times, May 01, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/01/world/asia/taiwan-dominican-republic…; Chris Horton, “El Salvador Recognizes China in Blow to Taiwan,” New York Times, August 21, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/world/asia/taiwan-el-salvador-diplom….
- 6Elida Moreno, “Panama, China sign accords on Xi visit after diplomatic ties,” Reuters, December 4, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-panama-china/panama-china-sign-accor….
- 7“China-Panama FTA,” Ministry of Commerce People’s Republic of China, accessed April 12, 2022, http://fta.mofcom.gov.cn/list/chinapanamaen/chinapanamaennews/1/encatei… (https://archive.ph/1cIsE).
- 8Jennifer Hillman and David Sacks, “Countries in China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Who’s In And Who’s Out,” Asia Unbound (blog), Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), May 24, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/blog/countries-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-whos…; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, “Basic Information About China-Celac Forum”, April 2016, http://www.chinacelacforum.org/eng/ltjj_1/201612/P020210828094665781093….
- 9“TLC Panamá / China (Taiwan)” [FTA Panama / China (Taiwan)], Autoridad Nacional de Aduanas, accessed April 12, 2022, https://www.ana.gob.pa/w_ana/index.php/manuales-y-procedimientos/tlc-pa….
- 10Minority Rights Group (MRG), “Chinese Panamanians,” in World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, https://minorityrights.org/minorities/chinese-panamanians/; José María Torrijos Legazpi, “Chinos en Panamá: una mayoría desconocida”[Chinese in Panama: an unknown majority], La Estrella de Panamá, March 30, 2014, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/nacional/140330/chinos-panama-mayoria-des…
- 11Stefanie Eschenbacher and Elida Moreno, “Panama's next president loves Texas football, seeks better U.S. relations,” Reuters, May 06, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-panama-election-winner-newsmaker/pan…
- 12Mat Youkee, “¿Ha terminado la buena racha de China en Panamá?” [Has China's good run in Panama come to an end?], Diálogo Chino, March 25, 2020, https://dialogochino.net/es/comercio-y-inversiones-es/34472-ha-terminad…; Evan Ellis, “China’s advance in Panama: An update,” Global Americans, April 14, 2021, https://theglobalamericans.org/2021/04/chinas-advance-in-panama-an-upda….
- 13“Panamá acuerda renovar contrato portuario a PPC por 25 años” [Panama agrees to renew port contract with PPC for 25 years], Agencia de Noticias Panamá, June 24, 2021, https://anpanama.com/11095-Panama-acuerda-renovar-contrato-portuario-a-…; Daniel F. Runde, “Key Decision Point Coming for the Panama Canal,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), May 21, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/key-decision-point-coming-panama-canal.
Propaganda and promotion of favored 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
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
- 1“Palabras del Embajador Wei Qiang en el Cóctel Co- Ofrecida por la Presidencia de la República de Panamá y la Embajada de la República Popular China en Panamá con Motivo del II Aniversario de las Relaciones Diplomáticas entre Ambos Países” [Remarks by Ambassador Wei Qiang at the Co-Cocktail Reception hosted by the Presidency of the Republic of Panama and the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Panama on the occasion of the 2nd Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations between the two countries], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, June 18, 2019, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/201906/t20190618_4051035.htm (https://archive.ph/44Dq4).
- 2“Palabras en la Inauguración de la Nueva Oficina del Banco de China Panamá” [Remarks at the Inauguration of the New Office of the Bank of China Panama], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, March 10, 2019, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/201904/t20190410_4050969.htm (https://archive.ph/cOtnU) ; “Palabras del Embajador Wei Qiang en el Taller sobre la Iniciativa Franja y Ruta y Relaciones Chino-Panameñas” [Remarks by Ambassador Wei Qiang at the Workshop on the Belt and Road Initiative and Sino-Panamanian Relations], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, May 16, 2019, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/201905/t20190516_4051022.htm (https://archive.ph/rIsBY) ; “Sí a la Unidad y Solidaridad No a la División y Conflicto” [Yes to Unity and Solidarity No to Division and Conflict], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, October 05, 2021, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/202110/t20211005_9589148.htm (https://archive.ph/HE6QJ).
- 3For example, a Chinese diplomat uses this slogan in his Twitter bio. Hola_Dani (@China_Panama), “Agregado Comercial 🇨🇳 @ 🇵🇦 Pro Mutuo Beneficio” [Commercial Attaché 🇨🇳 @ 🇵🇦 For Mutual Benefit], Twitter, May 2019, https://twitter.com/China_Panama.
- 4“Comunidad china en Panamá resalta apoyo de su patria” [Chinese community in Panama highlights support from the homeland], Xinhua, October 03, 2021, http://spanish.peopledaily.com.cn/n3/2021/1003/c31621-9903672.html (https://archive.ph/ZKfPe) ; Wei Qiang, “En el Combate a la Pobreza se Narra el Mejor Relato Chino de Los Derechos Humanos” [Fighting Poverty Tells China's Best Human Rights Story], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, April 18, 2019, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/adlo/201904/t20190418_4051331.htm (https://archive.ph/2SeRj).
- 5“Timeline of China releasing information on COVID-19 and advancing international cooperation on epidemic response,” Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, April 07, 2020, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/202004/t20200407_4051078.htm (https://archive.ph/NWt99) ; Hola_Dani (@China_Panama), “Embajador chino @weiasecas subraya solidaridad en entrega de donaciones para enfrentar COVID-19 en Panamá Haga clic aquí👉🏼” [Chinese Ambassador @weiasecas underlines solidarity in handing over donations to face COVID-19 in Panama Click here👉🏼], Twitter, April 03, 2020, https://twitter.com/China_Panama/status/1246060498510139399 ; “王建参赞就中国防疫物资出口在巴拿马主流媒体发表署名文章” [Counsellor Wang Jian published an op-ed in Panamanian mainstream media on the export of supplies from China in support of the fight against the pandemic], Ministry of Commerce People’s Republic of China, June 18, 2020, http://panama.mofcom.gov.cn/article/sqfb/202006/20200602975085.shtml (https://archive.ph/HnM1D).
- 6Jiang Wei (@juliojiangwei), “El Embajador @weiasecas entrega a @CancilleriaPma donaciones de suministros médicos para el personal médico, quienes se encuentran luchando en la primera línea.” [Ambassador @weiasecas delivers to @CancilleriaPma donations of medical supplies for medical personnel, who are fighting on the frontline.], Twitter, April 22, 2020, https://twitter.com/juliojiangwei/status/1252994331201482753. Chinese-linked media also highlighted the boxes of donations from the Chinese embassy which showed the flags of Panama and China and two hands clasped with the text “long live Chinese-Panamanian friendship!” “魏强大使与费雷尔外长共同出席中国援巴抗疫物资视频交接仪式” [Ambassador Wei Qiang and Foreign Minister Ferrer attend the video handover ceremony of Chinese aid to Panama in support of the fight against the pandemic], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, April 03, 2020, http://pa.china-embassy.org/dbcxx/202004/t20200403_4008990.htm (https://archive.ph/tVUc9) ; Jiang Wei (@juliojiangwei), “China realiza donaciones de 100000 mascarillas, 10080 kits de prueba y 5 ventiladores al gobierno panameño con una ceremonia de entrega virtual @weiasecas” [China donates 100000 face masks, 10080 test kits and 5 ventilators to Panamanian government with virtual handover ceremony @weiasecas], Twitter, April 03, 2020, https://twitter.com/juliojiangwei/status/1245846153163350016?s=20&t=NBS…; Julio Jiang, Facebook photo, April 08, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=573814783483028&set=a.2453207529991….
- 7“Palabras del Embajador Wei Qiang en la Inauguración de la Exposición Virtual "Prevención y Control de la Epidemia de Neumonía por Nuevo Coronavirus-Caso China"” [Remarks by Ambassador Wei Qiang at the Opening of the Virtual Exhibition "Prevention and Control of the New Coronavirus Pneumonia Epidemic - China Case"], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, December 05, 2020, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/202012/t20201205_4051090.htm (https://archive.ph/LXSti).
- 8“Panama approves use of China's Sinovac vaccine against COVID-19,” Reuters, April 09, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-panama-vaccine/panam… ; Chase Harrison , Luisa Horwitz and Carin Zissis, “Timeline: Tracking Latin America's Road to Vaccination,” Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA), March 28, 2022, https://www.as-coa.org/articles/timeline-tracking-latin-americas-road-v….
- 9“Chinese ambassador confirmed hospital donation by China Construction America,” Pana Times, April 07, 2020, https://panatimes.com/chinese-ambassador-confirmed-hospital-donation-by… ; “MOP justifica rechazo a donación de empresa china para construir hospital modular” [MOP justifies rejection of donation from Chinese company to build modular hospital], TVN (Televisora Nacional) Noticias, May 16, 2020, https://www.tvn-2.com/nacionales/Hospital-Modular-Ministerio-Obras-Publ….
- 10Wei Qiang, “Noticia falsa, inteligencia falsa, acusación falsa, moralidad falsa” [Fake news, fake intelligence, fake accusation, fake morality], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, September 07, 2021, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/202109/t20210907_10258475.htm (https://archive.ph/oylSX). The article was also published in La Prensa under a slightly modified headline. Wie Qiang, “Noticias, inteligencia, acusación y moralidad falsa” [News, intelligence, accusation and false morality], La Prensa, August 30, 2021, https://corprensa-la-prensa-prod.cdn.arcpublishing.com/impresa/opinion/….
- 11Wei Qiang, “¿Quién Incumplió?” [Who defaulted?], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, June 13, 2019, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/201907/t20190731_4051031.htm (https://archive.ph/sIZVJ).
- 12Wei Qiang, “El Principio de Una Sola China-Base Política Inamovible de las Relaciones Diplomáticas Chinas” [The One-China Principle - Immovable Political Basis of Chinese Diplomatic Relations], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, October 22, 2022, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/202010/t20201022_4051087.htm (https://archive.ph/YCipf).
- 13“Declaración de la Embajada China” [Statement by the Chinese Embassy], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, November 30, 2019, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/201911/t20191130_4051064.htm (https://archive.ph/FnpRG).
- 14China Global Television (CGTN) Español is broadcast on cable television, Xinhua Español is distributed in partnership with cable news services and local newspapers, and China Central Television (CCTV) is available in Chinese on cable television. Pueblo en Linea (People’s Daily Spanish) is available online, and CRI Español, the Spanish version of China Radio International, is aired on local station Radio Chinavision and available online.
- 15“派驻国 (境) 外分支机构” [Branches in foreign countries], Xinhua News Agency, accessed October 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/xhsld/2021-02/09/c_1211019859.htm (https://archive.ph/c1N7B); International Republican Institute (IRI), “Panama,” in A World Safe For The Party, China’s Authoritarian Influence And The Democratic Response, pg.43, 2021, https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/bridge-ii_fullreport-r7-021221….
- 16“Canal de Panamá propone de modificación a la estructura de peajes para buques de pasajeros” [Panama Canal proposes modification of toll structure for passenger vessels], Xinhua, September 02, 2021, http://spanish.news.cn/americadelnorte/2021-09/02/c_1310163546.htm (https://archive.ph/tJTtk) ; “Panamá coloca 2.450 millones de dólares en bonos globales para financiarse” [Panama places US$2.45 billion in global bonds to finance itself], Xinhua, January 22, 2021, http://spanish.xinhuanet.com/2021-01/22/c_139687975.htm (https://archive.ph/nMEtw); “Panamá y China expresan optimismo en cuarto aniversario de relaciones diplomáticas” [Panama and China express optimism on fourth anniversary of diplomatic relations], Xinhua, June 16, 2021, http://spanish.xinhuanet.com/2021-06/16/c_1310010806.htm (https://archive.ph/txSJv).
- 17Mediático and Centro Internacional de Estudios Políticos y Sociales AIP-Panamá (CIEPS), “Primera encuesta Media Scan Panamá” [First Media Scan Panama survey], p. 7, June 2021, https://cieps.org.pa/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/informe_mediascan2021.p…
- 18Panama has 2 million Facebook users, 2 million Instagram users, and 406,400 Twitter users, out of a total population of 4.35 million. Yi Min Shum, “Situación digital, Internet y redes sociales Panamá 2021” [Digital situation, Internet and social networks Panama 2021] February 21, 2021, https://yiminshum.com/redes-sociales-panama-2021/.
- 19Wei Qiang (@weiasecas), Twitter, https://twitter.com/weiasecas.
- 20Mat Youkee, “Chinese ambassadors in Latin America take to Twitter,” Diálogo Chino, March 29, 2020, https://dialogochino.net/en/trade-investment/35646-chinese-ambassadors-… ; Lijian Zao (@zij517), “3. Wei Qiang, the Chinese Ambassador to Panama, joined Twitter in October 2017 and posts in Spanish. The two countries forged diplomatic ties in June 2017,” Twitter, November 02, 2019, https://twitter.com/zlj517/status/1190551268726464512.
- 21As of July 2022. Hola_Dani (@China_Panama), Twitter, https://twitter.com/China_Panama; Jiang Wei (@juliojiangwei), https://mobile.twitter.com/juliojiangwei/.
- 22As of Dec 17. Embajada de China en Panamá (@EmbChinaPa) https://twitter.com/EmbChinaPa.
- 23Freedom House search of Facebook Ads Library, May 5, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/?active_status=all&ad_type=all&cou….
- 24Wei Qiang (@weiasecas), “China's Foreign Ministry: 24 lies coming out of U.S. over COVID-19 … via @cgtnofficial,” Twitter, May 15, 2020, https://twitter.com/weiasecas/status/1261122805141291009.
- 25Jimena a tu clic, https://www.facebook.com/JimenaAtuClic; Radio Chinavision, “En una hora y media, Jimena a tu clic te invita a participar la fiesta de cumpleaños colectivos en la Base de Wolong” [In an hour and a half, Jimena at your click invites you to participate in the collective birthday party at the Wolong Base], September 16, 2020, https://chinavision1180am.com/en-una-hora-y-media-jimena-a-tu-clic-te-i… (https://archive.ph/N8bFf#selection-235.5-235.121)
- 26“Xi Jinping publicó un artículo firmado en La Estrella de Panamá” [Xi Jinping published a signed article in La Estrella de Panamá], CGTN, November 30, 2018, https://espanol.cgtn.com/news/3d3d774d66686a4d7a637a6333566d54/p.html (https://archive.ph/o4vCn).
- 27Wei Qiang, “Sí a la unidad y solidaridad, no a la división y conflicto”[Yes to unity and solidarity, no to division and conflict], La Estrella de Panamá, October 03, 2021, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/opinion/columnistas/211003/unidad-solidar… ; Wei Qiang, “En celebración de un nuevo aniversario”[In celebration of a new anniversary], La Estrella de Panamá, June 14, 2021, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/nacional/210614/celebracion-nuevo-anivers…; Wei Qiang, “Problema de la deuda de Sri Lanka: ¿culpa de China?” [Sri Lanka's debt problem: China's fault?], La Estrella de Panamá, May 18, 2019, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/opinion/columnistas/190518/sri-deuda-lank….; Wei Qiang, “¿Quién incumplió?” [Who breached?], La Estrella de Panamá, June 13, 2019, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/opinion/columnistas/190613/incumplio.
- 28“Autor: Wie Qiang” [Author: Wei Qiang], La Prensa, accessed April 13, 2022, https://corprensa-la-prensa-prod.cdn.arcpublishing.com/autor/Wei%20Qian….
- 29Wei Qiang, “Perspectivas de las relaciones económicas entre China y Panamá” [Perspectives of economic relations between China and Panama], El Capital Financiero, December 17, 2021 https://elcapitalfinanciero.com/perspectivas-de-las-relaciones-economic….
- 30Wang Jian (@WangJianPaco), Twitter, https://twitter.com/WangJianPaco ; “Palabras del Embajador Wei Qiang en la Recepción Virtual en Honor de los Consejeros Económicos y Comerciales Wang Jian y Zhou Quan” [Remarks by Ambassador Wei Qiang at the Virtual Reception in Honor of Economic and Commercial Counselors Wang Jian and Zhou Quan], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, April 01, 2021, http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/202104/t20210401_9026320.htm (https://archive.ph/hhUmx).
- 31“王建参赞就中国防疫物资出口在巴拿马主流媒体发表署名文章” [Counsellor Wang Jian published an op-ed in Panamanian mainstream media on the export of supplies from China in support of the fight against the pandemic], Ministry of Commerce People’s Republic of China, June 18, 2020, http://panama.mofcom.gov.cn/article/sqfb/202006/20200602975085.shtml (https://archive.ph/HnM1D).
- 32Jin Liang, “Estudiantes extranjeros en China” [Foreign students in China], La Prensa Panamá, February 28, 2020, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/opinion/estudiantes-extranjeros-en-china/.
- 33Circulation approx. 42,000. Mediabuzz, “Periódicos de Panamá – Diarios de Panamá” [Newspapers of Panama - Panama Newspapers], accessed April 13, 2022, https://www.mediabuzz.org/periodicos/panama/.
- 34Circulation approx. 48,000 in 2010. Mediabuzz, “Periódicos de Panamá – Diarios de Panamá” [Newspapers of Panama - Panama Newspapers], accessed April 13, 2022, https://www.mediabuzz.org/periodicos/panama/.
- 35Circulation approx. 38,000 in 2014. “Diarios "La Estrella de Panamá" y "El Siglo" lanzan innovaciones en su diseño” [Newspapers "La Estrella de Panamá" and "El Siglo" launch design innovations], La Información, March 18, 2014, https://www.lainformacion.com/economia-negocios-y-finanzas/diarios-la-e….
- 36Circulation approx. 60,000 in 2014. “Diarios "La Estrella de Panamá" y "El Siglo" lanzan innovaciones en su diseño” [Newspapers "La Estrella de Panamá" and "El Siglo" launch design innovations], La Información, March 18, 2014, https://www.lainformacion.com/economia-negocios-y-finanzas/diarios-la-e….
- 37“Huawei realiza con éxito la primera Cumbre Panameña de Innovación Educativa 2021” [Huawei successfully holds the first Panamanian Educational Innovation Summit 2021], La Estrella de Panamá, November 12, 2021, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/cafe-estrella/tecnologia/211112/huawei-re…
- 38“Xinhua,” El Siglo, accessed April 13, 2022, http://elsiglo.com.pa/busqueda?q=xinhua
- 39See for example, “La tenista china Peng Shuai acusa de abusos a exvicepresidente chino” [Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai accuses former Chinese vice-president of abuse], La Estrella de Panamá, November 04, 2021, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/deportes/tenis/211104/tenista-china-peng-… ; Demetrio Olaciregui Q., “Tiananmen y el terror del Partido Comunista chino a perder hegemonía” [Tiananmen and the Chinese Communist Party's terror of losing hegemony], La Estrella de Panamá, June 09, 2019, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/internacional/mundo/190609/terror-partido… ; Irene Acosta, “El origen de la covid-19, un misterio sin resolver en medio de la crisis” [The origin of covid-19, an unsolved mystery in the midst of the crisis], La Estrella de Panamá, February 16, 2021, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/cafe-estrella/salud/210216/origen-covid-1….
- 40International Republican Institute (IRI), “Panama,” in A World Safe For The Party, China’s Authoritarian Influence And The Democratic Response, pg.43, 2021, https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/bridge-ii_fullreport-r7-021221….
- 41“Memorando De Entendimiento Sobre Cooperación De Radio Y Televisión Entre El Sistema Estatal De Radio Y Televisión (SERTV) De La República De Panama Y La Administración Estatal De Radio Y Televisión De La República Popular China” [Memorandum of Understanding on Radio and Television Cooperation between the State Radio and Television System (SERTV) of the Republic of Panama and the State Administration of Radio and Television of the People's Republic of China], Ministero De Relaciones Exteriores República De Panamá, accessed April 13, 2022, https://mire.gob.pa/images/PDF/documentos%20y%20formularios/Acuerdoschi…)%20RADIO%20Y%20TELEVISION%20ESP.pdf; “Resumen de acuerdos entre Panamá y la República Popular China” [Summary of agreements between Panama and the People's Republic of China], SERTV, December 04, 2018, https://sertv.gob.pa/nacionalfm/resumen-de-acuerdos-entre-panama-y-la-r….
- 42“Realizan Presentación de Contenidos de China en Panamá” [China Content Presentation held in Panama], SERTV, December 04, 2018, https://sertv.gob.pa/realizan-presentacion-de-contenidos-de-china-en-pa… ; Rosalina Orocú Mojica, “Presentación de 'Contenidos de China en Panamá', a través de SERTV, podrán verlos en 2019” [Presentation of 'China Content in Panama', through SERTV, can be seen in 2019], Panamá América, December 04, 2018, https://www.panamaamerica.com.pa/presentacion-de-contenidos-de-china-en….
- 43SERTV (@SERTVPANAMA), “SERTV es la señal oficial de la transmisión de los eventos que se realizarán en Panamá durante la visita de Estado del Presidente de la República Popular de China, Xi Jinping.” [SERTV is the official broadcaster of the events to be held in Panama during the State Visit of the President of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping], Twitter, December 02, 2018, https://twitter.com/SERTVPANAMA/status/1069259338919890944 ; “SERTV señal madre durante la visita del Presidente de la República Popular China” [SERTV mother signal during visit of the President of the People's Republic of China], SERTV, December 03, 2018, https://sertv.gob.pa/sertv-senal-madre-durante-la-visita-del-presidente….
- 44“Memorando de Entendimiento sobre Cooperación Estratégica de Televisión entre SERTV y Televisora Pública de FUJIAN” [Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Television Cooperation between SERTV and FUJIAN Public Broadcasting Company], SERTV, September 11, 2019, https://sertv.gob.pa/memorando-de-entendimiento-sobre-cooperacion-estra….
- 45“"Gala de Ballet Chino" esta noche por Sertv” ["Chinese Ballet Gala" tonight on Sertv], SERTV, September 17, 2021, https://sertv.gob.pa/gala-de-ballet-chino-esta-noche-por-sertv/ ; Sertv Radio-Televisión, “#ENVIVO| Gala del Ballet Chino. En conmemoraión del 72° Aniversario de la Fundación de la República Popular China. | 中国芭蕾盛宴（巴拿马）” [#LIVE| Chinese Ballet Gala. In commemoration of the 72nd Anniversary of the Founding of the People's Republic of China. | 中国芭蕾盛宴（巴拿马）], Facebook, September 18, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/sertvpanama/videos/376631047327345/?extid=CL-U….
- 46Dirección de Relaciones Internacionales (@DRI_UTP), “Fundación de la República Popular China y la Sección Cultural y Educativa de la Embajada de la República China en Panamá, les invitan a la muestra de cine chino…” [Foundation of the People's Republic of China and the Cultural and Educational Section of the Embassy of the Republic of China in Panama, invite you to the Chinese film screening of…], Twitter, September 29, 2020, https://twitter.com/dri_utp/status/1310939371495919619.
- 47Braian Maldonado, “Alianza Informativa Latinoamericana sella acuerdo con medios chinos para informar verazmente sobre la pandemia” [Latin American Information Alliance seals agreement with Chinese media to truthfully report on the pandemic], Once Noticias, August 28, 2020, https://www.oncenoticias.hn/canal-11-y-la-alianza-informativa-latinoame….
- 48Braian Maldonado, “Alianza Informativa Latinoamericana sella acuerdo con medios chinos para informar verazmente sobre la pandemia” [Latin American Information Alliance seals agreement with Chinese media to truthfully report on the pandemic], Once Noticias, August 28, 2020, https://www.oncenoticias.hn/canal-11-y-la-alianza-informativa-latinoame….
- 49“CGTN y medios de comunicación latinoamericanos lanzan conjuntamente la iniciativa "Acción de Medios China-ALC"” [CGTN and Latin American media jointly launch "China-LAC Media Action" initiative], CGTN, December 03, 2021, https://espanol.cgtn.com/news/3d3d774d66686a4d7a637a6333566d54/p.html (https://archive.ph/pWVml).
- 50“Prensa panameña se reúne con autoridades de China para mantener intercambio de información” [Panamanian press meets with Chinese authorities to maintain exchange of information], La Estrella de Panamá, July 21, 2017, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/economia/170721/reune-china-prensa-paname….
- 51Interviews with two Panamanian journalists (A and B) who requested anonymity, September 2021.
- 52“Director-General of the Department of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs of the Foreign Ministry Zhao Bentang Meets with Visiting Media Delegation of Panama,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, November 6, 2018, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zzjg_663340/ldmzs_664952/xw…, (https://archive.ph/FTzA6) ; “Director General del Departamento Latinoamericano del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores Zhao Bentang Se Reunió con Delegación de Líderes de Opinión de Medios de Comunicación Panameños” [General Director of the Latin American Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zhao Bentang Met with Delegation of Opinion Leaders of Panamanian Media], Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, December 7, 2018, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/esp/wjb/zzjg/ldmzs/xwlb/201812/t20181210_93557… (https://archive.ph/yidrT).
- 53“Director-General of the Department of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs of the Foreign Ministry Zhao Bentang Meets with the Journalists of the Third Phase of China-Latin America Media Exchange Center of China International Press Communication Center,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, July 18, 2019, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zzjg_663340/ldmzs_664952/xw… (https://archive.ph/v2D9M).
- 54Interview with Panamanian journalist A who wished to remain anonymous, Panama, September 2021.
- 55Interview with Panamanian journalist A who wished to remain anonymous, Panama, September 2021.
- 56Interview with Panamanian journalist B who wished to remain anonymous, Panama, September 2021
- 57Telephone interivew with Panamanian journalist who wished to remain anonymous, New York, November 2021.
- 58Yolanda Sandoval, “De excursión por el planeta Huawei”[A trip to planet Huawei], La Prensa, November 26, 2019 https://www.prensa.com/impresa/economia/de-excursion-por-el-planeta-hua… ; Ivette Leonard, “Así es la casa del gigante chino: innovación que no parece quebrarse”[The home of the Chinese giant: innovation that doesn't seem to break down], La Estrella de Panama, November 19, 2019, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/cafe-estrella/tecnologia/191119/191120-ca… ; “Huawei Panamá Comparte Sus Éxitos De 2019 Con Periodistas” [Huawei Panama Shares Its 2019 Success Stories With Journalists], Chung Sir, December 20, 2019, https://chungsir.com.pa/sociales/2318-huawei-panama-comparte-sus-exitos….
- 59“China y Panamá exploran las oportunidades de negocios e inversión entre ambos países” [China and Panama explore business and investment opportunities between the two countries], Cámara De Comercio, Industrias Y Agricultura De Panamá, July 24, 2017, https://www.panacamara.com/china-panama-exploran-las-oportunidades-nego….
- 60Libelula Group🇵🇦🇨🇳🇨🇱 (@libelula_group), Twitter, https://twitter.com/libelula_group. Some posts retweeted by the group include: CGTN en Español (@cgtnenespanol), “Cualquiera de los EE. UU. que vaya a Taiwan para mostrar el llamado "apoyo" está condenado al fracaso. #Taiwan #ChinaEEUU #DM #CRI #opinión” [Anyone from the US going to Taiwan to show so-called "support" is doomed to failure. #Taiwan #ChinaU.S. #DM #CRI #opinion], Twitter, March 03, 2022, https://twitter.com/cgtnenespanol/status/1499353906148782091 ; Zhang Meifang张美芳 (@CGMeifangZhang), Twitter Photo, March 04, 2022, https://twitter.com/CGMeifangZhang/status/1499702719799607297; Jiangsu, China (@GoJiangsu), “Today marks Long Tai Tou (dragon's head rising) Festival, an auspicious day to get a haircut in the traditional Chinese almanac,” Twitter, March 04, 2022, https://twitter.com/GoJiangsu/status/1499677175812816903 ; Li Yang (@Li_Yang_China), “This is one of the consequences of US sanctions against Russia!!!,” Twitter, March 04, 2022, https://twitter.com/Li_Yang_China/status/1499625470920253444 ; CGTN (@CGTNOfficial), “China’s representative at the United Nations Human Rights Council urged some Western countries to stop using human rights as a political tool to smear others and interfering in their internal issues,” Twitter, March 03, 2022, https://twitter.com/CGTNOfficial/status/1499508143335911425.
- 61Sasha Gonzalez, “El TLC con China debe ser visto como política de Estado” [The FTA with China must be seen as State policy], APEDE, September 23, 2019, https://apede.org/el-tlc-con-china-debe-ser-visto-como-politica-de-esta….
- 62APEDE, “Panamá – China: “Esté es el momento de fortalecer nuestro product” [Panama – China: "This is the time to strengthen our product], September 29, 2017, https://apede.org/panama-china-este-es-el-momento-de-fortalecer-nuestro… .
- 63Ben Nimmo, Ira Hubert and Yang Cheng, “Chinese Spam Network Finally Starts to Gain Some Traction- Executive Summary” in Spamouflage Breakout, Graphika, February 04, 2021, https://graphika.com/reports/spamouflage-breakout/.
- 64Telephone interview with Panamanian journalist who requested anonymity, New York, November 2021.
- 65Telephone interview with Panamanian journalist who requested anonymity, New York, November 2021.
- 66Telephone interview with Panamanian journalist who requested anonymity, New York, November 2021. The Corporate Diplomacy, accessed April 14, 2022, www.thecorporatediplomacy.com.
- 67Artículo 14 “Ley 24/1999 Por la cual se regulan los servicios públicos de radio y televisión y se dictan otras disposiciones” [Article 14, Law 24/1999 Whereby public radio and television services are regulated and other provisions are enacted], República De Panamá Asamblea Legislativa Legispan Legislación De La República De Panamá, https://docs.panama.justia.com/federales/leyes/24-de-1999-jul-5-1999.pdf.
- 68Justina Alexandra Sava, “Market share held by selected Chinese smartphone brands in Panama from January 2019 to November 2021” in Panama: market share of Chinese smartphones 2019-2021, Statista, December 07, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/884586/market-share-chinese-smartph….
- 69Irene Acosta, “Huawei prepara el camino para el 5G en Panamá” [Huawei paves the way for 5G in Panama], La Estrella de Panamá, February 20, 2020, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/cafe-estrella/tecnologia/200220/huawei-pr….
- 70In 2018, the Chinese government donated a security center with over 400 Huawei surveillance cameras and other equipment located in Colón, an important commercial area, though it appears a local company took over the center in April 2021. “Zona regional de Colón con seguridad garantizada por Centro de Operaciones” [Regional zone of Colón with security guaranteed by Operations Center], Cable & Wireless Panamá, April 28, 2021, https://www.masmovilpanama.com/sala-de-prensa/centro-de-operaciones-reg… ; “Varela inaugura centro de vigilancia financiado por China”[Varela inaugurates surveillance center financed by China], Crítica, November 21, 2018, https://www.critica.com.pa/nacional/varela-inaugura-centro-de-vigilanci….
- 71Steven Feldstein, The Global Expansion of AI Surveillance, (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, September 17, 2019), https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/09/17/global-expansion-of-ai-surveil… ; David Sacks, “China's Huawei Is Winning the 5G Race. Here's What the United States Should Do To Respond,” Net Politics (blog), Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), March 29, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/blog/china-huawei-5g.
- 72“Huawei amplía con nueva Academia alcance de formación TIC en Panamá” [Huawei expands ICT training reach in Panama with new Academy], Xinhua, August 21, 2021, http://espanol.cri.cn/news/world/1018/20210821/701757.html (https://archive.ph/WpUvt).
- 73“每日排行榜: Panama – Overall” [Daily Ranking: Panama – Overall], SensorTower, accessed January 15, 2022, https://sensortower.com/android/rankings/top/phone/panama/overall?date=….
- 74Isobel Asher Hamilton, “A Senior TikTok Executive Admitted the Company Used to Censor Content Critical of China, ‘Specifically with Regard to the Uighur Situation’,” Business Insider, November 5, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/tiktok-censor-china-critical-content-ui….
- 75Emily Baker-White, “Leaked Audio From 80 Internal TikTok Meetings Shows That US User Data Has Been Repeatedly Accessed From China,” Buzzfeed, June 17, 2022, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emilybakerwhite/tiktok-tapes-us-us….
- 76Juan Pablo Cardenal, “China in Latin America: Understanding the Inventory of Influence”, National Endowment for Democracy, pg. 31, December 2017, https://www.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Chapter1-Sharp-Power-Ris….
- 77“Xi Jinping Attends Opening Ceremony of China-Latin America Media Leaders Summit,” The Consulate General of the People’s Republic China in Chiang Mai, November 23, 2016, https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/cgchiangmai/eng/zgyw/t1418647.htm (https://archive.ph/tbCIX).
- 78Mirta Rodríguez P., “China organiza 'Think Tank' entre medios” [China organizes 'Think Tank' among media], La Estrella de Panamá, October 11, 2018, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/economia/181011/tank-china-think-medios-o… ; Cecilia Fonseca S., “‘Pensadores’ chinos y panameños coinciden en que falta conocimiento para cimentar la relación” [Chinese and Panamanian 'thinkers' agree on lack of knowledge to cement relationship], La Prensa, October 16, 2018, https://www.prensa.com/mundo/China-Qiang-Parlatino-diplomacia_0_5146735… ; “Junta Directiva puso la primera palada de la obra a un costo de 12.5 millones” [Board of Directors broke ground on the 12.5 million dollar project], Parlamento Latinoamericano Y Caribeño, April 14, 2011, https://parlatino.org/news/inicia-construccion-edificio-sede-permanente….
- 79Gustavo A. Aparicio O., “Embajada de China entrega dispositivos tablet a la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Panamá” [Embassy of China delivers tablet devices to the School of Journalism of the University of Panama], La Estrella de Panamá, September 29, 2020, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/nacional/200929/embajada-china-entrega-di….
- 80International Republican Institute (IRI), “Panama,” in A World Safe For The Party, China’s Authoritarian Influence And The Democratic Response, pg.37, 2021, https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/bridge-ii_fullreport-r7-021221….
- 81Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, Ministry of Commerce of the People's Republic of China “对外投资合作国别（地区）指南 - 巴拿马” [Country (region) guide for foreign investment and cooperation – Panama], 2020, Pg. 72, http://images.sh-itc.net/202106/20210603140510509.pdf,
- 82Diario Chino拉美侨声 , accessed April 14, 2022, https://www.diariochino.net/ ; Chinavision巴拿马中文电台, accessed April 14, 2022, https://chinavision1180am.com/ ; “联盟成员-拉美侨声” [Affiliate Members- Diario Chino], 世界华文媒体合作联盟Global Chinese Media Cooperation Union, June 03, 2020, https://www.gcmcu.com/static/content/LMCY/BMZ/2020-06-03/71769809056773… (https://archive.ph/5DCkZ).
- 83“第十届世界华文传媒论坛在石家庄开幕 （附媒体嘉宾名单）”[The 10th World Chinese Media Forum opens in Shijiazhuang (with media guest list)], SanDiegoChinesePress, October 12, 2019, http://www.sandiegochinesepress.com/press/?p=1457098 (https://archive.md/TkhY9#selection-679.0-679.1); Xu Yousheng许又声, “在第十届世界华文传统媒体论坛开幕式上的致辞” [Opening speech of the 10th World Chinese Media Forum], Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council (中华人民共和国国务院侨务办公室), 2019, http://qwgzyj.gqb.gov.cn/bqch/208/3166.shtml (https://archive.ph/lIKnn).
- 84“第十届世界华文传媒论坛在石家庄开幕 （附媒体嘉宾名单）”[The 10th World Chinese Media Forum opens in Shijiazhuang (with media guest list)], SanDiegoChinesePress, October 12, 2019, http://www.sandiegochinesepress.com/press/?p=1457098 (https://archive.md/TkhY9#selection-679.0-679.1); Xu Yousheng许又声, “在第十届世界华文传统媒体论坛开幕式上的致辞” [Opening speech of the 10th World Chinese Media Forum], Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council (中华人民共和国国务院侨务办公室), 2019, http://qwgzyj.gqb.gov.cn/bqch/208/3166.shtml (https://archive.ph/lIKnn).
- 85Ma Xiuxiu, “拉美侨声》报董事长：探索华媒发展路径 坚守海外阵地” [Director of the newspaper Diario Chino: Exploring the development path of Chinese media and holding fast to the overseas positions], Chinaqw, October 08, 2019, https://oversea.huanqiu.com/article/9CaKrnKn9UQ (https://archive.ph/6OoxC).
- 86“驻巴拿马使馆同巴华文媒体共同举办旅巴侨界“迎中秋贺国庆”诗词歌赋才艺大赛” [Chinese Embassy in Panama and the Chinese media in Panama jointly held the "Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day" poetry and song contest for the overseas Chinese community], Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Republic of Panama, September 30, 2021, http://pa.china-embassy.org/dbcxx/202004/t20200403_4008990.htm (https://archive.ph/gcIfy).
- 87“联盟成员-拉美快报” [Affiliate Members- El Expreso], 世界华文媒体合作联盟Global Chinese Media Cooperation Union, June 03, 2020, https://www.gcmcu.com/static/content/LMCY/BMZ/2020-06-03/71769791506547… (https://archive.ph/IX1GZ).
- 88“联盟成员-南美侨报” [Affiliate Members- South America Overseas Chinese News], 世界华文媒体合作联盟Global Chinese Media Cooperation Union, June 03, 2020, https://www.gcmcu.com/static/content/LMCY/NMZ/2020-06-03/71769354975131… (https://archive.ph/qLN97).
- 89“联盟成员-巴拿马中文广播电台” [Affiliate Members- Radio Chinavision], 世界华文媒体合作联盟Global Chinese Media Cooperation Union, June 03, 2020, https://www.gcmcu.com/static/content/LMCY/BMZ/2020-06-03/71769831495880… (https://archive.ph/FFNob).
- 90Ma Xiuxiu, “拉美侨声》报董事长：探索华媒发展路径 坚守海外阵地” [Director of the newspaper Diario Chino: Exploring the development path of Chinese media and holding fast to the overseas positions], Chinaqw, October 08, 2019, https://oversea.huanqiu.com/article/9CaKrnKn9UQ (https://archive.ph/6OoxC).
- 91“快进吧，巴拿马21个华人微信群全开通了....这下都全了！”[Come join! 21 Chinese WeChat groups in Panama are now open .... Now we have all of them!], Tspweb.com, November 02, 2020, https://www.tspweb.com/key/%E5%9C%A3%E5%AE%89%E4%B8%9C%E5%B0%BC%E5%A5%A… (https://archive.ph/gkPru).
- 92Jeffrey Knockel et al., We Chat, They Watch , Citizen Lab, May 07, 2020, https://citizenlab.ca/2020/05/we-chat-they-watch/.
- 93Zoe Schiffer, “WeChat keeps banning Chinese Americans for talking about Hong Kong,” The Verge, November 25, 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/25/20976964/chinese-americans-censorsh….
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
- 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
- 1“News Partner- Panama,” The Trust Project, July 2021, https://network.thetrustproject.org/country/pa ; Miguel Ángel Sánchez, “La deficiencia del periodismo investigativo” [The deficiency of investigative journalism], Panamá América, May 08, 2018, https://www.panamaamerica.com.pa/opinion/la-deficiencia-del-periodismo-….
- 2Forum de Periodistas de Panamá (https://www.forumdeperiodistas.org/) , which gathers Academia, journalists and media owners, the Concejo Nacional de Periodismo (https://twitter.com/cnp_panama?lang=en), Sindicato de Periodistas (https://www.ifj.org/es/centro-de-medios/noticias/detalle/article/panama…) and Colegio Nacional de Periodistas (https://twitter.com/Conape_Panama) , both of which gather only journalists.
- 3El Instituto Panameño de Derecho y Nuevas Tecnologías [The Panamanian Institute of Law and New Technologies] (IPANDETEC), https://www.ipandetec.org/.
- 4Artículo 14 “Ley 24/1999 Por la cual se regulan los servicios públicos de radio y televisión y se dictan otras disposiciones” [Article 14, Law 24/1999 Whereby public radio and television services are regulated and other provisions are enacted], REPÚBLICA DE PANAMÁ ASAMBLEA LEGISLATIVA LEGISPAN LEGISLACIÓN DE LA REPÚBLICA DE PANAMÁ, https://docs.panama.justia.com/federales/leyes/24-de-1999-jul-5-1999.pdf.
- 5“Ley 254 de Nov. 2021, sobre el Sistema Único de Beneficiarios Finales” [Law 254 of Nov. 2021, on the Unified System of Final Beneficiaries], Mata&Pitti, November 16, 2021, https://www.matapitti.com/es/ley-254-sobre-el-sistema-unico-de-benefici… ; “Sector de Radio y Televisión” [Radio and Television Sector], ASEP, accessed April 14, 2022, https://www.asep.gob.pa/?page_id=14523.
- 6Carlos Barsallo, “Panama takes a turn towards transparency, but will it go far enough?,” Transparency International, February 4, 2020, https://www.transparency.org/en/blog/panama-takes-a-turn-towards-transp….
- 7For example, In one case, former president Ricardo Martinelli, who owns Grupo Epasa (which publishes Panamá América, Crítica, and Día a Día), was accused of using public funds to acquire the media group and later returned 30 percent of its shares to the government, but with no public explanation. The sale of Radio Panama was also shrouded in secrecy. Eliana Morales Gil, “¿Qué pasó en ‘Radio Panamá’?” [What Happened in Radio Panama?], La Prensa, July 09, 2021, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/panorama/que-paso-en-radio-panama/; Mónica Palm, “Caso New Business: Henri Mizrachi pactó acuerdo con la fiscalía” [New Business case: Henry Mizrachi reached and agreement with the DA´s Office], La Prensa, March 25, 2021, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/panorama/caso-new-business-mizrachi-pact… ; Olmedo Rodríguez Campos, “Fiscalía concluyó la investigación del caso ‘New Business’” [Prosecutor's Office concluded investigation of the 'New Business' case], La Prensa, December 03, 2020, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/panorama/fiscalia-concluyo-la-investigac… ; Olmedo Rodríguez Campos, “El Estado ahora tiene el 30% del grupo Epasa” [The State now owns 30% of the Epasa group], La Prensa, March 19, 2021, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/panorama/el-estado-ahora-tiene-el-30-del….
- 8"Comunicado"[Communiqué], National Directorate of Telecommunications under the Autoridad Nacional de los servicios públicos (ASEP), April 11, 2022, https://www.asep.gob.pa/.
- 9“Pacto Ético Digital” [Digital Ethical Pact], April 26, 2018, https://www.tribunal-electoral.gob.pa/publicaciones/pacto-etico-digital/; Stella Bin, “Qué hizo Panamá para evitar la desinformación en redes sociales durante la elección presidencial” [What Panama did to avoid disinformation on social networks during the presidential election],RED/ACCIÓN, July 09, 2019, https://www.redaccion.com.ar/que-hizo-panama-para-evitar-la-desinformac….
- 10Katherine Batista-Sánchez, “Electoral tribunals of Panama and Costa Rica work together to combat fake news and disinformation in elections,” International IDEA, September 22, 2021, https://www.idea.int/news-media/news/electoral-tribunals-panama-and-cos….
- 11Inter American Press Association (IAPA), “Urges governments to abandon decrees, laws, and administrative provisions, since it creates barriers to freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” October 26, 2020, https://en.sipiapa.org/notas/1214231-legal-restrictions-harm-freedom-of… ; Gustavo A. Aparicio O., “TE propone sancionar con cárcel la desinformación electoral” [TE proposes to punish electoral disinformation with imprisonment], La Estrella de Panamá, September 09, 2020, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/nacional/politica/200909/propone-sanciona… ; Júlio Lubianco, “11 laws and bills against disinformation in Latin America carry fines, prison and censorship,” LatAm Journalism Review, December 16, 2020, https://latamjournalismreview.org/es/articles/leyes-contra-desinformaci….
- 12“Estados Unidos acusa a China de cometer un ‘genocidio’ contra los uigures” [U.S. accuses China of committing 'genocide' against Uyghurs], La Prensa, March 25, 2021, https://www.prensa.com/mundo/estados-unidos-acusa-a-china-de-cometer-un… ; Alexis Martinez Scigliani, “Uigures: genocidio y ejercicio del poder en China” [Uyghurs: genocide and the exercise of power in China], November 23, 2020, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/opinion/uigures-genocidio-y-ejercicio-de…; “Spia advierte que la construcción del tren Panamá-Chiriquí no es viable” [SPIA warns against Panama-Chiriqui train construction], El Capital, February 08, 2018, https://elcapitalfinanciero.com/spia-advierte-que-la-construccion-del-t…; Redacción Crítica, “50 dólares costaría pasaje del frustrado tren Panamá-David”[Failed Panama-Chiriqui train ticket would have cost $50], Crítica, September 08, 2019, https://www.critica.com.pa/nacional/50-dolares-costaria-pasaje-del-frus….
- 13Demetrio Olaciregui Q., “Misterios del laboratorio de conspiraciones chinas en Wuhan” [Mysteries of the Chinese conspiracy laboratory in Wuhan], La Estrella de Panamá, April 25, 2020, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/internacional/mundo/200425/internacional-…; “China advierte de represalias por el informe sobre el origen del la Covid-19” [China warns of retaliation for report on the origin of Covid-19], La Prensa, August 21, 2021, https://www.prensa.com/mundo/china-advierte-de-represalias-por-el-infor…; “Piden la libertad de la periodista que informó del coronavirus” [Journalist who reported the coronavirus is asked to be released from jail], Crítica, December 29, 2020, https://www.critica.com.pa/mundo/piden-la-libertad-de-la-periodista-que….
- 14Adelita Coriat, “La diplomacia que se puso a prueba por un terreno para los chinos” [Diplomacy that was put to the test for a terrain for the Chinese], La Estrella de Panamá, November 18, 2019, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/nacional/191117/191119-diplomacia-puso-pr…; Adelita Coriat, “La verdad de los hechos detrás de la negociación con China” [The truth of the facts behind the negotiation with China], La Estrella de Panamá, November 06, 2018, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/nacional/181106/china-hechos-detras-negoc… ; “Ex-president leads China embassy protest,” Newsroom Panama, September 17, 2018, https://www.newsroompanama.com/news/ex-president-leads-china-embassy-pr….
- 15Outlets including Panamá América, La Estrella de Panamá, La Presna, Mi Diario, and EnSegundos.com all reported stories from the leaked messages. “Varelaleaks: venganza, negocios, y una servil procuradora” [Varelaleaks: revenge, business, and a servile attorney general], Panamá América, November 07, 2019, https://www.panamaamerica.com.pa/politica/varelaleaks-venganza-negocios….
- 16José Chacón, “'Varelaleaks': Juan Carlos Varela recibió $143 millones de China cuando Panamá rompía relaciones con Taiwán” ['Varelaleaks': Juan Carlos Varela received $ 143 million from China when Panama broke relations with Taiwan], Panamá América, November 27, 2019, https://www.panamaamerica.com.pa/politica/varelaleaks-juan-carlos-varel….
- 17Varela acknowledged the messages were real but claimed his phone had been hacked and that he had been put under surveillance by former president Ricardo Martinelli, and that some of the message were “distorted, altered and manipulated". Martinelli has been indicted for allegedly illegally wiretapping on over 150 opposition leaders and journalists and alleged to have spent millions on Pegasus spyware; he was acquitted of all charges in November 2021. Martinelli also owns Panamá América, which first reported the donation story, though several outlets received the leaked messages, which were also publicly available on the website varelaleaks.com, and reported other stories from them. Carolina de Assis, “Leaked messages allegedly show former Panamanian president tried to influence media coverage through executives,” LatAm Journalism Review, November 26, 2019, https://latamjournalismreview.org/articles/leaked-messages-allegedly-sh… ; “Panama’s ex-president gets second acquittal in phone-tapping case,” Aljazeera, November 10, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/10/panamas-ex-president-gets-sec….
- 18“Chinese Embassy denies kickbacks for Panama recognition,” Newsroom Panama, November 29, 2019, https://www.newsroompanama.com/business/chinese-embassy-denies-kickback…; Wei Qiang (@weiasecas), “Hágase la luz de la verdad! http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/t1720404.htm” [Let there be the light of truth! http://pa.china-embassy.org/esp/sgxx/t1720404.htm], Twitter, https://twitter.com/weiasecas/status/1200507731305811968.
- 19Panama’s Attorney General, Kenia Porcell resigned as a result of the leaks, leading further credibility that the messages were accurate. Elizabeth González, “Renuncia procuradora de Panamá en medio de escándalo por los "Varela leaks"” [Panama attorney resigns amid scandal over "Varela leaks"], CNN en Español, November 13, 2019, https://cnnespanol.cnn.com/2019/11/13/alerta-renuncia-procuradora-de-pa….
- 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
- 1For example, In one case, former president Ricardo Martinelli, who owns Grupo Epasa (which publishes Panamá América, Crítica, and Día a Día), was accused of using public funds to acquire the media group and later returned 30 percent of its shares to the government, but with no public explanation. The sale of Radio Panama was also shrouded in secrecy. Eliana Morales Gil, “¿Qué pasó en ‘Radio Panamá’?” [What Happened in Radio Panama?], La Prensa, July 09, 2021, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/panorama/que-paso-en-radio-panama/; Mónica Palm, “Caso New Business: Henri Mizrachi pactó acuerdo con la fiscalía” [New Business case: Henry Mizrachi reached and agreement with the DA´s Office], La Prensa, March 25, 2021, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/panorama/caso-new-business-mizrachi-pact… ; Olmedo Rodríguez Campos, “Fiscalía concluyó la investigación del caso ‘New Business’” [Prosecutor's Office concluded investigation of the 'New Business' case], La Prensa, December 03, 2020, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/panorama/fiscalia-concluyo-la-investigac… ; Olmedo Rodríguez Campos, “El Estado ahora tiene el 30% del grupo Epasa” [The State now owns 30% of the Epasa group], La Prensa, March 19, 2021, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/panorama/el-estado-ahora-tiene-el-30-del….
- 2“CONAPE y Asociación China respaldan vacunación contra COVID-19 en Chiriquí” [CONAPE and Chinese Association support vaccination against COVID-19 in Chiriquí], Puro Periodismo, July 20, 2021, https://puroperiodismopanama.com/conape-y-asociacion-china-respaldan-va…; Rekha Chandiramani, “Embajada china niega practicar diplomacia de chequera con Panamá” [Chinese Embassy denies practicing checkbook diplomacy with Panama], La Estrella de Panamá, November 29, 2019, https://www.laestrella.com.pa/nacional/191129/embajada-china-niega-prac….
- 3International Republican Institute (IRI), “Panama,” in A World Safe For The Party, China’s Authoritarian Influence And The Democratic Response, pg.42, 2021, https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/bridge-ii_fullreport-r7-021221…. “Li Jun Meets with PRD Cadre Study Group of Panama,” International Department Central Committee of CPC, December 13, 2019, http://www.idcpc.org.cn/english/news/201912/t20191218_121209.html (https://archive.ph/e5N87) ; “Ruling Parties of China and Panama Hold Webinar for Cadres,” International Department Central Committee of CPC, August 25, 2020, http://www.idcpc.org.cn/english/news/202008/t20200827_139616.html (https://archive.ph/0kiIG).
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.
- 1Navigate to the question “Foreign Relations: Trustworthiness of the Chinese government” under “Panama” in AmericasBarometer, survey years 2016, 2018, 2021, accessed April 14, 2022, https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/lapop.central/viz/LAPOPV3_1/Comb….
- 2Eric Asen, “Spotlight on Trust in the Chinese Government in Latin America and the Caribbean” AmericasBarometer, December 2020, https://www.vanderbilt.edu/lapop/spotlights/Spotlight-Asen-MIL10A-eng-f….
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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Global Freedom Score83 100 free