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Uproar over criminal defamation conviction despite presidential pardon

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli's pardon last week of two TV journalists sentenced to jail for defaming officials does not solve the underlying problem of Panama still having criminal defamation laws, say the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and other IFEX members.

On 28 September, an appeals court sentenced Sabrina Bacal, the news director of TVN Canal 2, and reporter Justino González to a year in jail and barred them from practicing journalism for a year, for airing a story in 2005 that alleged Panamanian immigration officials were taking part in human trafficking.

Facing criticism from the local press and human rights defenders, Martinelli offered a full pardon last week.

While the pardon was welcome, Panamanian journalists have joined forces to express objections to the laws. On 8 October, radio and TV stations went dark for 30 seconds during daytime newscasts, as a symbol of mourning for freedom of expression. During the evening, journalists protested in front of the Supreme Court and called for a revision of laws considered to restrict freedom of expression, reports the Knight Center.

Earlier this year, veteran Panamanian journalist Carlos Núñez López served 20 days in prison for allegedly defaming a property owner in a story about environmental damage, reports CPJ.

Regionally, countries have started to repeal laws that jail reporters for defamation. Argentina repealed criminal defamation provisions in its penal code in November 2009, while in April 2009 Brazil annulled the 1967 Press Law, which had imposed harsh criminal penalties for libel and slander, says CPJ.

According to CPJ, Panama has only partially decriminalised defamation. Under a 2008 reform, criminal sanctions cannot be imposed in cases of defamation of high-ranking public officials. But other criminal defamation provisions remain in place. The Canal 2 case would be subject to criminal defamation even now, for example, because it did not involve senior officials, Miguel Bernal, a Panamanian lawyer who handles press freedom issues, told CPJ.

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    Although President Ricardo Martinelli said he would pardon the journalists, CPJ said that lawmakers should repeal all criminal penalties for defamation.

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