Freedom of the Press
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The media environment in Panama is generally stable. Conditions for press freedom have shown some signs of improvement, as the administration of President Juan Carlos Varela exhibits higher respect for journalistic independence than that of his predecessor, Ricardo Martinelli. The sharp polarization and tensions that characterized government relations with media under Martinelli seem to have eased in 2015.
- In a case decried by media advocated as politically motivated, the newspaper La Prensa received a $600,000 fine for material damage and moral harm related to its reporting on mismanagement of government contracts.
- Proposed legislation that would more strictly regulate the practice of journalism prompted a strong outcry—including from the president—and was withdrawn before advancing to a parliamentary vote.
- Hostilities between the state and domestic media eased during the year, continuing a trend of improvements since the 2014 government transition.
Legal Environment: 17 / 30
Freedoms of speech and the press are protected by the constitution, but the law allows for the prosecution of journalists for vaguely defined offenses related to the exposure of private information, and prescribes severe penalties for leaking government information to the press. This contributes to a climate of self-censorship among journalists.
Journalists are constrained by desacato (disrespect) laws that protect government officials from public criticism, although there has been official discussion about repealing such legislation. Since 2008, imprisonment has been excluded as a punishment for libel and slander against high-ranking public officials, but the offenses are nevertheless criminalized. Although there were no reports of new criminal defamation suits against journalists in 2015, several outstanding cases were ongoing during the year.
In recent years, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has decried several civil judgments in Panama related to journalistic investigations into state contracts. In June 2014, the organization criticized a court decision that found the dailies La Estrella and El Siglo guilty of causing material damage and moral harm to Panama Canal Authority member Lourdes Castillo. The charges were tied to a series of reports that the two papers published about alleged misconduct in the granting of state garbage disposal contracts. In November 2015, IAPA condemned a decision levying a $600,000 fine on the newspaper La Prensa for its reporting on suspicious state contracts.
In 2015, legislators proposed controversial legislation aiming to regulate the practice of journalism, but the bill was withdrawn without a vote following strong opposition, including from President Juan Carlos Varela. The proposed legislation required journalists to have a university degree in the field of journalism or receive certification from a special commission. The law also would have also required foreign journalists to receive a temporary license—valid for a maximum of two years—in order to operate in the country.
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 delayed, if undertaken at all.
Political Environment: 18 / 40 (↑1)
Although sharp polarization and tensions characterized government relations with media under Ricardo Martinelli, the Varela administration has exhibited more respect for journalistic independence. Varela campaigned on a platform of increased transparency and a break from the controversial policies of the Martinelli administration, and there were no reports of state intimidation of media in 2015. In December, the Supreme Court of Panama ordered Martinelli’s arrest for spying on scores of opposition supporters, including journalists; the former president had left the country months earlier, upon the initiation of investigations against him.
Media professionals in Panama work in relatively safe conditions compared with their peers in neighboring countries, and the overall level of violence facing journalists has declined since the presidential transition. Nevertheless, there are some reports of verbal and physical harassment of independent news outlets and reporters.
Economic Environment: 11 / 30 (↑2)
With the exception of one state-owned television network and one radio station, all Panamanian media outlets are privately owned. 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 2013, Martinelli announced that he had bought six radio stations in the interior of the country, exacerbating concerns about potential partisan bias and increasing concentration of ownership. Martinelli’s departure from presidential office in 2014 eased fears about the use of his outlets to disseminate progovernment information. Several new print publications, including some launched by existing newspapers, have entered local markets in recent years.
The government has been accused of distributing official advertising according to political criteria in the past, though there were no reports of such pressure in 2015. There are no government restrictions on the internet, which was accessed by more than 51 percent of the population in 2015.