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A year after repeal of gag laws, press freedom situation still cause for concern, says RSF



(RSF/IFEX) - The following is a 20 December 2000 RSF press release:

A year after the repeal of laws that are used to gag the media, Reporters Without Borders says the state of press freedom is still giving cause for concern

The organisation condemns government pressure and continued jail sentences for press offences




On 20 December 1999, President Mireya Moscoso promulgated law number 55, repealing laws 11 and 68, the so-called "gag laws" inherited from the 1968-1990 dictatorship. Both gave the interior ministry powers to censor media and close down newspapers.

One year on, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) expressed concern about the fact that several laws providing for prison sentences for "insults" and "defamation" are being kept on the statute books. The repeal of the "gag laws" in December 1999, barely three months after Ms Moscoso came to power, had raised hopes that Panamanian legislation might be adapted to respect international laws on press freedom. Those hopes were dashed on 12 December 2000, when a bill put forward by the "defender of the people" that would have repealed the laws on "insults" was rejected by parliament.

The organisation urges the Panamanian authorities to do everything in their power to have prison sentences for press offences removed from the country's legislation. Such punishment is out of proportion to offences involving the media, discourages journalists from doing their job and is therefore harmful to their right to inform and the right of society as a whole to be informed. About 40 journalists are currently being prosecuted for "insults" or "defamation". Numerous complaints have been filed by the attorney-general, José Antonio Sossa, who has become the media's "bête noire".

RWB also wishes to express its concern about reports that several media chiefs have received phone calls from the president and members of the government attempting to influence their editorial line. We regard such pressure as unacceptable and ask those reponsible to put a stop to it.

Laws on "insults" in breach of the American Convention on Human Rights

On 12 December 2000, the Panamanian parliament rejected a bill submitted by the "defender of the people", Italo Antinori Bolaños, which would have abolished all the laws on "insults". They empower certain state representatives to order the imprisonment of any journalist who shows "lack of respect", without the need for a trial. Penalties range from three days in prison for insulting a municipal employee to two months for insulting the president. The editor of the daily El Siglo, Carlos Singares, was jailed for eight days at the end of July for such an offence. The order was issued by the attorney-general, who accused the newspaper of publishing statements by a lawyer accusing him of paedophilia. The journalist appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the imprisonment was "constitutional" under the terms of Article 33 of the Constitution, which states that state officials "may sanction [with fines or prison sentences] insults or lack of respect without a court ruling".

During a visit to Panama in July 2000, Santiago Canton, the Organisation of American States' special rapporteur on freedom of speech, said that the absence of a court ruling was in breach of the American Convention on Human Rights. Moreover, the Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights states that "the laws that punish insulting a civil servant are a breach of freedom of speech and the right to information". The commission believes that the laws give civil servants additional protection, whereas in a democratic society they should, on the contrary, be subject to even stricter observation in order to guard against abuse of authority. In a document published in January 2000, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and freedom of speech said that "imprisonment as punishment for the peaceful expression of an opinion constitutes a serious violation of human rights".

Two years in jail for "defamation"

On 14 July 2000 a court sentenced Jean Marcel Chéry to 18 months in prison, commutable to a fine of 1,800 dollars (1,900 euros), over an article published in the daily El Siglo in 1997. A few days later, Carlos Singares was sentenced to 20 months in jail for the same offence. Articles 173A, 175, 307 and 308 of the penal code provide for jail sentences of up to two years for "defamation".

The penalties are rendered even harsher by the Panamanian legal system, which does not recognise the notion of "harmful intent". Even if the journalist can prove that he or she had carried out a serious investigation and that, if a mistake was made, there was no intention to harm the plaintiff, a prison sentence may still be passed. A case is pending against Anel Cordero of the daily El Panamá América over a report of an incident between a member of parliament and her husband. In such cases the Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression clearly states that "it must be proved that by making the information public, the journalist concerned intended to cause harm, was fully aware that the information was inacccurate or negligently failed to establish whether the information was true or false".

Even more serious, it is common for journalists to be prosecuted for reporting the comments of a third party, even though no action is taken against the third party. This practice clearly infringes the principle of the free flow of information, guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights, which has been ratified by Panama. For instance, Rainer Tuñon and Juan Manuel Díaz of the daily El Panama América were prosecuted for reporting remarks by a judge questioning the authenticity of the qualifications of several doctors and revealing their names. One of the doctors, whose qualifications proved to be authentic, filed a complaint against the two journalists but not against the judge.

The legal apparatus does not provide all the necessary guarantees. Complaints filed by the attorney-general are investigated by magistrates reporting directly to him. This was pointed out by the lawyer of the daily La Prensa on 8 August 2000 when police turned up at the homes of Gustavo Gorritti, Mirem Gutiérrez, Monica Palm and Rolando Rodríguez with summonses for them to appear in court issued by investigating magistrate Armando Fuentes. José Antonio Sossa had filed a complaint against La Prensa over a series of articles published on 7 and 8 August 1999 accusing him of offering protection to an American businessman suspected of having ties with drug traffickers.

Phone calls from ministries and the president's office

Two newspaper editors who talked to an RWB representative on 15 and 16 November said that some of their shareholders and board of management members had received phone calls from the president or from ministers following publication of articles criticising the government's running of the country. The newspapers were warned that they would no longer be given state-sponsored advertising.

Ernesto González de la Lastra, editor of the daily El Universal, said that several executives and people close to the newspaper had received such calls. The agriculture minister had called a member of his family on 16 November 2000 after the newspaper published an editorial severely criticising a ministry decision to restrict imports, claiming that it was an attempt at "vote-catching". Other calls threatened to withdraw government advertising from the newspaper. In fact, the editor of El Universal said that it was no longer being given state advertisements, which had formerly accounted for 31% of the newspaper's income. One witness who asked not to be named said that two of his relatives had seen a presidential memorandum sent to several ministries, asking officials to stop giving the newspaper advertising.

The daily El Panamá América said it had also received several calls from the president herself. She threatened to file a libel complaint if the newspaper published a memorandum that called into question the "dubious origin" of a helicopter she was using. The newspaper management said it had also been threatened with the withdrawal of advertising at an official meeting. At the moment, only the labour ministry has withdrawn its advertising, and the threats of prosecution for libel were not carried out after the article was published. RWB is nonetheless extremely concerned about the revelations, especially as the president made numerous reassuring statements concerning the media during the first few months of her mandate.

Recommendations

RWB calls on the Panamanian authorities to:

- respect Panama's international commitments and comply with the laws of the highest international bodies concerning freedom of speech by repealing laws on "insults" (articles 202 and 386 of the code of legal procedure, article 827 of the administrative code, article 45 of the administrative code on municipalities and articles 307 and 308 of the penal code), and on "defamation" (articles 173A, 175, 307 and 308 of the penal code), which provide for prison sentences.

RWB calls on the president of Panama and members of her government to:

- stop putting pressure on the media,
- respect the Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which states that "the arbitrary or discriminatory allocation of advertising and offical loans [by the state] in order to apply pressure or sanctions, to reward or favour certain media depending on what news they publish or broadcast is harmful to freedom of speech and should be explicitly forbidden by law".

Finally, RWB calls on the attorney-general of Panama to stop passing or ordering prison sentences against journalists.



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