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"La Prensa" convicted of libel, ordered to pay US$300,000 in damages

(IAPA/IFEX) - Miami, May 10, 2010 - The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) today criticized a "highly surprising" court decision against Panamanian newspaper "La Prensa" that ordered payment of US$300,000 in damages to a former public prosecutor for libel after the newspaper published official reports on irregularities that took place under her watch.

On April 30th, Second Civil Circuit Court Judge Miriam Cheng de Aguilar ordered "La Prensa"'s publishing company to pay public prosecutor Argentina Barrera for "moral damages" arising from the publication of two articles on August 30, 2005, titled "Attorney General's Office Continues on the Trail of Corruption" and "For Lack of Ethics Another Prosecutor is Fired." The reports referred to the content of official press releases issued by the Attorney General's Office.

IAPA President Alejandro Aguirre, editor of the Miami, Florida, Spanish-language newspaper "Diario Las Américas", called the court ruling "highly surprising" because, he said, "the risk here is that a dangerous legal precedent is being set, which makes the news media and journalists responsible for official information that originates from government sources." Aguirre added, "This is a restriction and a message of censorship not only to the press and official sources but to the right that every citizen has to access official information."

The chairman of IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Robert Rivard, declared, "This is an extremely troubling ruling that we hope will be overturned by the appeals court because it completely ignores the role of the press, which is to report on matters of public interest and relevance, especially when government officials are involved."

The Attorney General's press release explained that Barrera was dismissed by the federal agency because of ethical issues along with other legal officers whose names were also mentioned in the report published by the newspaper. In addition to quoting the press release, "La Prensa"'s articles included statements made by Barrera, who was reinstated in 2008 by a Supreme Court ruling that also ordered she be paid her suspended salary.

"La Prensa"'s editor, Fernando Berguido, said he would appeal the court order, which also includes payment of legal fees amounting to approximately US$50,000.

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