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IAPA condemns conviction of journalist

(IAPA/IFEX) - Miami, April 29, 2009 - The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) today characterized the two-year prison sentence handed down to a Panamanian journalist for his 2001 exposure of corruption involving a Supreme Court justice in that country "judicial harassment".

Jean Marcel Chéry, currently the editor of the Panama City newspaper El Siglo, was ordered to serve the prison term and pay a fine on a charge of illegal entry into the ranch home of Supreme Court Justice Winston Spadafora in 2001. At the time Spadafora was Interior and Justice Minister in the government of President Mireya Moscoso.

In his February 18, 2009 ruling Judge Ricardo Mazza Moreno said that in addition to Chéry, another journalist, Gustavo Aparicio, and photographer John Watson, both working for the Panamá América newspaper, secretly entered the Spadafora ranch and took photographs. The photos were published on March 8, 2001 with a report saying that public monies from the Social Investment Fund had been used to construct a highway that led directly to the Spadafora property.

In his defense Chéry testified that he had been given permission to enter the private property by security guards. He also presented evidence of irregular trial proceedings which the IAPA has denounced in its biannual state of press freedom reports and other statements.

IAPA President Enrique Santos Calderón, editor of the Bogotá, Colombia, newspaper El Tiempo, declared that the conviction of Chéry "is an indirect manner of violating freedom of the press since, besides the judicial irregularities that were reported publicly and not paid due process, what is being punished here is a media report alleging an unlawful act committed by a person in public office." Santos Calderón added, "We have before us a sentence that by no means took into account the matter of freedom of the press or the benefits to society of a press report on the investigation of an alleged act of corruption that harms the entire population of a country. The judge that handed down the sentence ruled against the journalist's alleged crime but failed to take into account the benefits of his claim."

Chéry and Aparicio were convicted of libel on August 1, 2003 after Spadafora filed a charge in connection with the same event. The 12-month prison sentence was upheld on appeal on July 5, 2004 but in September that year they were granted pardon by President Moscoso as she ended her presidential term.

Referring to the latest developments, the chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, Texas, said, "This case is highly suspect and is a clear case of judicial harassment when you consider that even the country's head of state had pardoned the journalists and now we are witnessing a court moving forward with another charge for the very same case." Aparicio, also put on trial for the same offense, was acquitted after it was proved that at the time of the entry into the ranch he was interviewing Spadafora at a downtown location.

Updates the Chéry case:

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