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Newspapers must pay damages to Panamanian naval company for "moral harm"

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has expressed concern at a court ruling in Panama against five journalists and the publishing companies of newspapers La Estrella de Panamá and El Siglo. They were sentenced to pay high-level damages and face criminal charges. The organization said the action “has negative effects for the practice of investigative reporting on matters of public interest and the public's right to information.”

On June 16 the 13th Civil Court ruled in favor of Lourdes Castillo, manager of the Naves Supply, S.A. company, for material damages and moral harm. She had filed a suit concerning a series of reports published in the two newspapers in 2011 about alleged wrongdoing in the granting of a $1.2 million government contract to her company for collection and incineration of Health Ministry premises trash.

The chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Claudio Paolillo, said, “Apart from respect for court decisions we cannot fail to show our concern at a sentence that clearly has negative effects for the practice of investigative reporting on matters of public interest and the public's right to information.”

Paolillo, editor of the Montevideo, Uruguay, weekly Búsqueda, added that with this ruling “remain open the doors to self-censorship, as it is an intimidating message for those who have the task of investigating and reporting wrongdoing in public affairs.”

In 2011 Castillo filed suit against Carlos Atencio (a journalist with La Estrella de Panamá), Alexis Charris (that paper's publisher), Gerardo Berroa (the then editor), Jean Marcel Chéry (editor of El Siglo at the time) and Magaly Montilla (El Siglo news editor) and the publishing companies of the two papers, Geo Media and El Nuevo Siglo. Castillo, now a member of the board of directors of the Panama Canal Authority, sought damages totaling $725,000 – $150,000 for moral harm, $500,000 for financial damage to her company and $75,000 for legal costs.

The journalists found guilty are also to face a criminal charge for the same alleged acts. The ruling will be appealed.

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