Freedom of the Press
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Vice President Juan Carlos Varela was elected president of Panama in May 2014, defeating a candidate selected by the party of outgoing president Ricardo Martinelli. Despite this change in leadership, there was little evidence of an immediate change in the conditions faced by the country’s news media.
Freedoms of speech and of the press are protected by the constitution, but the laws allow for the prosecution of journalists for vaguely defined offenses related to the exposure of private information, and prescribe severe penalties for leaking government information to the press.
Since 2008, imprisonment has been excluded as a punishment for libel and slander against high-ranking public officials, but they remain criminal offenses. Cases occur regularly and often take years to move through the legal system. In June 2014, five journalists and managers of the dailies La Estrella and El Siglo were found guilty of defamation and ordered to pay Lourdes Castillo, a board member of the Panama Canal Authority, thousands of dollars in compensation. Castillo claimed material damages and moral harm stemming from a series of 2011 reports in the two papers that alleged misconduct in the approval of a $1.2 million government contract with her private company. Those found guilty in the civil proceedings were set to face criminal charges as well, though an appeal was pending at year’s end.
Despite the existence of transparency legislation, access to public information remains limited. Government officials sometimes refuse to release information, especially in cases involving corruption, and updates to official websites are often late, if undertaken at all. However, in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspaper La Prensa regarding several requests for information from government agencies.
The outgoing administration of President Martinelli was known for its hostility toward the press, and Varela campaigned on a platform of increased openness. As of late 2014, it remained to be seen whether the new president would grant journalists’ greater access to official sources, interviews, and press conferences, though there were no reports of media intimidation by the government in the second half of the year. Martinelli retained his combative approach during his last weeks in office, blaming media bias for the electoral defeat of his chosen successor, José Domingo Arias.
Journalists in Panama remain fairly safe compared with colleagues in some neighboring countries. Despite the charged atmosphere of the election campaign in 2014, there were no documented instances of violence against journalists. However, some threats of violence were reported. In May, television journalist Castalia Pascual of TVN-2 reported receiving threatening phone calls, and public access to her station’s website was disrupted by a series of cyberattacks that began in April. Another television journalist, Álvaro Alvarado, received a death threat via Twitter in November. He had reported on official corruption under the Martinelli administration and believed the threat to have come from the former president’s associates, though this could not be confirmed.
Panamanian media outlets are privately owned, with the exception of one state-owned television network and one radio station. There are at least five daily papers, around 100 radio stations, and several national television networks. Cross-ownership between print and broadcast media is prohibited. However, former president Martinelli is known to own several newspapers in Panama City, along with at least one television station. In June 2013, while still in office, Martinelli announced that he had bought six radio stations in the interior of the country, a clear indicator of consolidated ownership and potential partisan bias. The government has also been accused of distributing official advertising according to political criteria.
There are no government restrictions on access to the internet, which was used by 45 percent of the population in 2014.