Committee to Protect Journalists
Country Report: Panama
As of December 31, 1999

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Although President Ernesto Pérez Balladares promised in 1997 to repeal "gag laws" on the books since the military government of Omar Torrijos in the late 1970s, authorities continue to use them to muzzle journalists who report on corruption and the growing influence of drug traffickers.

In one dramatic incident in December, police officers tried to arrest journalist Herasto Reyes on charges that an article he published in August defamed President Pérez Balladares. The arrest was thwarted when Reyes' colleagues from the Panama City daily La Prensa surrounded the journalist. Meanwhile, two other reporters from La Prensa, associate editor Gustavo Gorriti and investigative reporter Rolando Rodríguez, have been battling a lawsuit filed by Attorney General José Antonio Sossa. The charges stem from a 1996 article the two journalists wrote linking Sossa to a drug trafficker. In 1997, authorities tried to expel Gorriti, who is originally from Peru, because of his investigative stories exposing corruption in the P&eacujte;rez Balladares administration. For his defense of press freedom in Panama and in his native Peru, Gorriti received CPJ's 1998 International Press Freedom Award in November.

Under the gag laws, criticism of the president or other high officials can result in a prison sentence of up to 10 months; libel is punishable by up to two years in prison. The laws stipulate that all top newspaper editors must be Panamanians, and grant broad censorship authority to the Interior Ministry. A censorship board, which reports to the president, has the authority to confiscate newspapers, shut down radio stations, or fine reporters. The government has little to worry about from television stations: Most of them are owned by relatives and associates of the president.

Rather than repealing the laws, the Panamanian Congress is considering legislation that could further hinder journalists' work. Under the proposed law, local or foreign reporters could be jailed for writing stories that affect global shipping or international trade.

Despite the clear risk, Panamanian journalists have continued to aggressively cover major news stories. In November, Gorriti and Rodríguez published a three-part series in La Prensa on José Castrillón Henao, a notorious Colombian drug trafficker who nearly succeeded in bribing his way out of a Panamanian jail.
Attacks on the Press in Panama in 1998
Date Journalist Incident
12/28/98 Herasto Reyes, La Prensa Legal Action
01/21/98 Rolando Rodríguez, La Prensa Legal Action
01/21/98 Gustavo Gorriti, La Prensa Legal Action

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