Panama | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 


Panama’s political rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due to concerns that authorities were not investigating allegations of corruption against President Ricardo Martinelli and other officials, as well as verbal attacks against, and the withholding of information from, journalists who write about government corruption.




President Ricardo Martinelli’s public approval rating remained high in 2013, even as he and his associates were implicated in numerous corruption scandals. Martinelli’s administration continued to pressure journalists, particularly those who reported on the corruption allegations. Meanwhile, authorities displayed a reluctance to thoroughly investigate the charges against the president.

Nongovernmental organizations and others have expressed concern over the increasing militarization of the civilian security forces, following the successful demilitarization of the 1990s. Martinelli has continued to issue pardons for police officers accused of committing acts of violence against civilians, and has expressed firm support for a much-criticized law that keeps officers accused of crimes from being suspended or placed in pretrial detention.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Political Rights: 35 / 40 (-1) [Key]

A.Electoral Process: 12 / 12

The president and deputies of the 71-seat unicameral National Assembly are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. Martinelli, of the center-right, business-oriented Democratic Change (CD) party, won the presidency in 2009 with 60 percent of the vote; he was backed by the Alliance for Change, a four-party coalition that included the CD, the Panameñista Party (PP), the Patriotic Union Party (PUP), and the Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement (MOLIRENA). Elections to the National Assembly were held concurrently, with the Alliance for Change winning 42 seats and the opposition One Country for All alliance, headed by the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), taking 27; the remaining seats went to independent candidates. The elections were considered free and fair by international observers.

The CD’s alliance with the PP collapsed in August 2011 when Martinelli announced plans to hold a referendum on proposed electoral reforms, which included allowing consecutive terms in office for the president. However, the referendum was never held, and the current law—which prohibits a president seeking consecutive terms and mandates a two-term waiting period before running again—remains in place.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16

High levels of electoral competition between political parties and voter participation characterize Panamanian politics. Turnover between government and opposition parties has been the norm since the return to democracy following the 1989 U.S. invasion that removed Manuel Noriega. The country’s main political parties spent 2013 jockeying for position ahead of national elections set for May 2014.

On October 8, Panama’s Electoral Tribunal prohibited a negative advertising campaign against the PRD’s 2014 presidential candidate, Juan Carlos Navarro, ruling that it violated his dignity. The Supreme Court later overruled the Electoral Tribunal’s decision, saying the tribunal had violated free speech; the Supreme Court’s move drew complaints that it had acted outside of its jurisdiction, as the Electoral Tribunal is supposed to have final say over electoral matters. Additionally, the Supreme Court drew criticism for issuing a ruling by its president and two substitute judges at a time when the two judges assigned to the case were on vacation.

Indigenous groups continue to suffer political, economic, and social discrimination.


C. Functioning of Government: 8 / 12 (-1)

Corruption remains widespread, and electoral reforms have been criticized for failing to improve the transparency of campaign financing. In September 2012, Vice President Juan Carlos Varela of the PP accused officials associated with Martinelli of accepting bribes when signing a $250 million contract to buy helicopters and other equipment from Italy. Italian authorities are still investigating.

Martinelli, his son, and other government officials have also been implicated in the solicitation of bribes from Italian businessman Mauro Velocci and Valter Lavitola, an associate of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, in exchange for contracts to build modular prisons and a new Metro system, and to expand the Panama Canal. Velocci in October 2013 confirmed the authenticity of audio recordings of a 2011 conversation—presented as evidence in Lavitola’s Italian corruption trial—between himself, Lavitola, and Ricardo Martinelli Linares, President Martinelli’s son, about bribery payments. The recordings were made by the Italian authorities and made public in October by leading Panamanian daily newspaper La Prensa; the paper’s site was blocked for about eight hours after it published the recordings.

Former minister of government and current acting mayor of Panama City, Roxana Méndez, has also been implicated in the bribery scandal. Meanwhile, former PRD presidential candidate Balbina Herrera in October was sentenced to three years in prison, the maximum possible, after she was convicted of illegally disseminating e-mails that purported to show President Martinelli discussing bribes with Lavitola. Martinelli, however, pardoned Herrera days later, calling her an “idiot” who had not recovered from her loss in the 2009 presidential election. Panamanian prosecutors appear reluctant to investigate the bribery allegations.

Panama was ranked 102 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.


Civil Liberties: 47 / 60 (+1)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16

Panama’s constitution protects freedom of speech and of the press, but these rights are not consistently upheld in practice. Libel is a criminal offense, though no one has been jailed for it since 2008. Independent or critical journalists and outlets face pressure from the government. In May 2013, Martinelli criticized a local reporter and businessman linked to La Prensa after the paper published stories accusing the president of improper ties with several hydroelectric dam contracts. In October, the government ordered its staff not to respond to questions posed by La Prensa.

In June, prosecutors issued orders compelling journalists working with the dailies La Estrella and El Siglo to reveal their sources, after the outlets had published articles raising concerns about government corruption. Prosecutors then attempted, without success, to search computers belonging to La Estrella, and separately issued an order allowing a search of El Siglo’s offices. The cases against the two papers remained unresolved at the end of 2013. Also in June, Frank LaRue, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, and Catalina Botero, special rapporteur for freedom of expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, criticized Martinelli’s government for illegally conducting surveillance of journalists, and for the detention of journalists. The country’s media outlets are privately owned, with the exceptions of the state-owned television network and a network operated by the Roman Catholic Church; Martinelli himself has holdings in the print, radio, and television markets. Internet access is unrestricted.

Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is generally honored. However, police in October arrested members of the Revolutionary Student Front (FER-29) who had participated in an anticorruption protest at the Instituto Nacional, a highly regarded public school. The police reportedly arrested 59 students, several of whom had not participated in protests, and later expelled 29 students without due process under orders from Education Minister Lucy Molinar. Days later, the government reportedly established rules allowing a permanent police presence in public schools.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12 (+1)

Freedom of assembly is recognized, and nongovernmental organizations are free to operate. Violent clashes between government forces and protesters have taken place in recent years; however, no such incidents were reported in 2013. In 2012, three people were killed and six were injured when government forces clashed with protesters opposed to the sale of state-owned land in the duty-free zone in Colón; the protesters feared that the sale of the land would result in job losses. The government ultimately scrapped the plan. The National Medical Negotiating Committee (Comenenal), nursing unions, health technicians, and other health sector workers held nonviolent strikes in September and October to protest the government’s move to recruit foreign doctors. Although only about 10 percent of the labor force is organized, unions are cohesive and powerful.


F. Rule of Law: 9 / 16

The judicial system remains overburdened, inefficient, politicized, and prone to corruption. Panama’s Accusatory Penal System became operational in 2011 and is gradually being introduced throughout the country. The new system is intended to reduce congestion in the courts by resolving complaints more efficiently, while lower the number of people held in detention without conviction. The prison system is marked by violent disturbances in decrepit, overcrowded facilities. As of September 2013, the prison system was over capacity by more than 6,500 inmates.

The police and other security forces are poorly disciplined and corrupt. The government’s militarization of the Panamanian Public Forces has prompted concern from human rights advocates. Many allegations of criminal activity committed by police officers go uninvestigated. Numerous officers accused of committing abuses against civilians have received presidential pardons. A 2010 law shields officers accused of crimes from pretrial detention and suspension from their positions. Human rights advocates have asked for the repeal of this law, but Martinelli asserted in November that he had no intention of scrapping it. Panama is experimenting with Community Police Units that are modeled on Brazil’s Pacifying Police Units. The initial results have been promising.

One suspect has been arrested in connection with the September murder of Panamanian lawyer and PRD delegate Juan Ramon Messina. There are concerns that his shooting might have been politically motivated.

Panama’s growing importance as a regional transport center makes it appealing to drug traffickers and money launderers. Intelligence sources claim that the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, the Zetas, and the Beltran Leyva Organization, all of which are Mexico-based narcotics organizations, operate in Panama. Panamanian authorities over the summer discovered coca fields within the country, as well as laboratories at which coca leaves are processed to extract cocaine. However, drug seizures in Panama have now decreased over three consecutive years. Panama additionally struggles with criminal street gangs; the attorney general in August said there were 201 gangs operating in the country, and that more funding was needed to combat them.

Refugees from Colombia have faced difficulty obtaining work permits and other forms of legal recognition. The Martinelli administration had suggested measures to normalize the status of thousands of undocumented Colombians living in Panama without official refugee status, but minimal progress had been made on these measures. New immigration rules that took effect in 2008 tightened controls on foreigners, but other legislation grants recognized refugees who have lived in Panama for more than 10 years the right to apply for permanent residency.

Discrimination against darker-skinned Panamanians is widespread. The country’s Asian, Middle Eastern, and indigenous populations are similarly singled out. While there are no laws prohibiting same-sex sexual relationships, members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) face societal discrimination and harassment.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 12 / 16

The government generally respects freedom of internal movement and foreign travel. Indigenous communities enjoy a degree of autonomy and self-government, but some 90 percent of the indigenous population lives in poverty, 69 percent in extreme poverty as of 2012. Since 1993, indigenous groups have protested the encroachment of illegal settlers on their lands, and government delays in formal land demarcations. In July, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, called on the Panamanian government to work with indigenous authorities to protect indigenous lands and natural resources according to international standards.

Violence against women, including domestic violence, is widespread and common. In October, Martinelli signed a law to punish femicide—the act of killing a girl or woman—with up to 30 years in prison. Panama is a source, destination, and transit country for human trafficking. The government has worked with the International Labour Organization on information campaigns addressing the issue, and has created a special unit to investigate cases of trafficking for the purpose of prostitution. However, law enforcement is weak, the penal code does not prohibit trafficking for forced labor, and the government provides inadequate assistance to victims.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology