Freedom of the Press
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Panama is notable for its harsh legal environment for journalists, and events in 2006 did very little to improve the situation. President Martin Torrijos had ratified the repeal of the country’s “gag laws,” enacted under military rule more than 30 years ago; however, a commission of lawyers and academics, which was set up by Torrijos to examine penal code reform, in July submitted a proposal that included harsh penalties for criminal defamation. Among the amendments, Article 214 would drastically increase penalties and raise the maximum prison term for defamation to three years. More than 100 journalists took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of the draft bill, which was designed to protect the reputation of government officials.
A new bill, which still considered defamation and libel to be criminal offenses, was also being considered at the end of the year. The draft bill would make it a crime punishable by up to four years’ imprisonment to publish “confidential information involving state security.” There are also concerns about other existing provisions, including Articles 307 and 308 of the criminal code, which contain two insult laws with similar language to the desacato (disrespect) laws. Several cases against journalists under this law are pending in the courts, including that of Jean Marcel Chery, a former reporter with the daily El Panama America, who was accused of libel by the Supreme Court judge Winston Spadafora. Chery had written about a Supreme Court decision that canceled Spadafora’s US$2 million debt to a government canal agency known as the Interoceanic Regional Authority. In another case, Spadafora filed a civil lawsuit that sought US$2 million in damages from the publisher of El Panama America, for a 2001 story that allegedly “insulted” him when he was minister of government and justice. Such legal tensions cause many journalists to practice self-censorship.
Access to public information still remains limited because government officials are not held accountable for refusing to release information and public institutions still lack an effective mechanism for expediting information requests. There were no attacks on the media in Panama in 2006.
Independent media are very active and express diverse views. The media often reflect the polarized political scene, with different outlets openly supporting various factions. All Panamanian media outlets are privately owned with the exception of one state-owned television network. The law prohibits cross-ownership, but there is considerable concentration of media ownership by relatives and associates of former president Ernesto Perez Balladares, whose party President Torrijos now leads. Poor salaries encourage corruption among some journalists. A number of domestic journalists and press freedom advocacy groups allege that the government manipulates the “free flow of information” by buying advertising space from organizations that report positively on the government while withdrawing funding from organizations that do not. A bill to standardize government advertising and reduce this was under consideration but not acted upon before the end of the year. There are no government restrictions on the internet, which was accessed by nearly 7 percent of the population during 2006.