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Journalists' sentence confirmed in libel case in Panama

(IAPA/IFEX) - Miami, September 13, 2012 - A court ruling in Panama upholding the conviction of two journalists and their newspaper on a libel charge was called by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) today an indirect means of restricting press freedom and encouraging self-censorship.

At issue was publication more than a decade ago of alleged acts of corruption committed by a government minister.

The First Court of Justice on September 12 ratified a 2009 sentence imposed by a lower court on the news company Editora Panamá América (EPASA), which publishes the daily newspaper Panamá América, and reporters Jean Marcel Chéry and Gustavo Aparicio in a civil lawsuit claiming “damage to reputation” filed by Winston Spadafora, who was also a Supreme Court justice and gave up that position earlier this year.

The ruling requires Spadafora to be paid $20,000 in damages for harm to his reputation and $5,000 in legal costs.

As it declared in 2003 and again in 2009, the IAPA said the ruling punishes the messenger and does not take into account legal precedents regarding the truth and the intent of the journalists and the media outlet to denounce matters of public interest and of benefit to the common good.

The chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Gustavo Mohme, said, “In practice the ruling is resoundingly against press freedom, as it warns the press to practice a lukewarm kind of journalism, fearful that it could suffer reprisals, despite its being responsible and faithful to the facts.”

Spadafora began his civil legal action following the publication on March 8, 2001, in the Panamá América newspaper of a report by journalists Chéry and Aparicio that disclosed the construction with public funds of a highway that benefited and led directly to a ranch he owned. At that time Spadafora was Government and Justice Minister in the administration of President Mireya Moscoso.

Mohme, editor of the Lima, Peru, newspaper La República, declared, “At this time in which the governments of the Americas have agreed to reform the Inter-American Human Rights System, it is essential that the Inter-American Commission and Court do not lose their autonomy so that in cases such as this one in Panama the citizens can have recourse to these bodies when they feel they have been denied their right to due legal process or to exercise freedom of expression.”

The IAPA has expressed its concern that the reforms suggested could weaken and neutralize the IACHR's ability and that of its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression to denounce violations of human rights and free speech.

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