Freedom of the Press
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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 2007 did little to improve the situation. President Martin Torrijos, who ratified the repeal of the country’s desacato (insult) laws in 2005, signed into law on March 21 two new penal code amendments that restrict press freedom. The articles, which have been strongly criticized by the Panamanian media, were part of a package of 448 amendments to the criminal code, approved by the national assembly on March 6. Article 164 provides for fines or imprisonment for anyone who makes public the recordings, private or personal mail, or documents of another individual without permission, resulting in harm. Article 422 punishes anyone who reveals or provides access to government secrets with a sentence of six months to one year in prison or its equivalent in fines. Provisions in the criminal code in effect prior to the amendments, such as Articles 307 and 308, are similar to desacato laws and have been used to prosecute journalists in the past. According to the Inter American Press Association, 34 journalists were facing charges of injuria (insulting or offensive words or actions) or calumnia (false accusations of a crime); the majority of these cases were brought by government officials. In addition to the threat of legal repercussions, judicial intimidation has served as a factor promoting self-censorship. There were no developments in the case against Jean Marcel Chery, a former reporter with the daily El Panama America, who was accused of libel by Supreme Court justice Winston Spadafora in 2005. Chery had written an article questioning Spadafora’s Supreme Court decision to cancel a US$2 million debt owed by a prominent businessman with close ties to the government. A separate civil lawsuit filed by Spadafora in 2005 also continued throughout the year, this one seeking US$2 million in damages from the publisher of El Panama America for a 2001 story that allegedly “insulted” him by questioning the use of public moneys to build a highway that seemed to service only Spadafora and another government official.
Although there were no physical attacks on the media in 2007, four journalists were detained for six hours in November while trying to cover events at La Joya Prison. According to the local Committee for the Defense of Journalists, Hellen Concepcion and Mizael Castro of TVN Channel 2, Rocio Martins of Editora Panama America, photojournalist Omar Batista, and their driver were taken to the office of the minister of government and justice and accused of “trespassing.” Despite the existence of transparency legislation, access to public information remains limited. Government officials are not held accountable for refusing to release information, and public institutions still lack an effective mechanism for expediting information requests.
Independent media are active and relatively free to express diverse perspectives. 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 and one radio station. Regardless of a law that prohibits cross-ownership, there is considerable concentration of media ownership among relatives and associates of former president Ernesto Perez Balladares, whose party is now led by President Torrijos. Poor salaries encourage corruption among some journalists. Press freedom advocacy groups allege that the government manipulates the free flow of information by buying advertising space from progovernment media outlets while withdrawing funding from critical news organizations. A draft bill to standardize government advertising practices continued to be under consideration at year’s end. There are no government restrictions on the internet, which was accessed by a little over 9 percent of the population in 2007.