Panama media under siege despite new regime
By Eric Jackson Posted Feb 18 2011
The news on Nov. 19 wasn’t different from that of any other day —–the press in Panama was under attack on several fronts.
The first notable item was from La Prensa: Aníbal Salas: The presiding magistrate of the Supreme Court explained how old criminal defamation charges against some 70 journalists, including this reporter, would be reviewed.
On her way out of the presidency in August 2004, Mireya Moscoso had pardoned 164 people, including corrupt politicians, terrorists, ordinary criminals, victims of miscarriages of justice and the press contingent. The new administration sued to void the pardons, mainly because among the freed were some Cubans who came to Panama with explosives for a bomb that would have killed Fidel Castro and hundreds of other people. The legal challenge was on the ground that though a sentence may be commuted for any crime, the constitution limits pardons to “political offenses,” which are not defined by Panamanian law. In 2008 the Supreme Court voided all of the pardons.
In the case to which the most attention was paid, it was found that an assassination plot is not a political crime. In my case, it was found that publishing stories about an Atlanta swindler who, supported by a mayor and the vice president of Panama during that time, engaged in real estate frauds, is also not a political crime. Neither was the case of journalist Jean Marcel Chery, who wrote about a road that the government built to serve two individuals, who happened to be Panama’s Comptroller General and Minister of Government and Justice. Salas said that the cases would be reactivated at the point where they left off in 2004.
When the pardons were revoked my accuser had been extradited to the United States and convicted on fraud charges—–things that The Panama News reported on and got in trouble for. He was released from prison earlier this year.
About half of all working journalists in Panama are facing or have faced defamation charges, which carry a one-year prison term that can be avoided by paying a large fine. Journalists are also sometimes accused of other offenses, usually in bad faith. Part of the problem is that journalists share with everyone else. The rule of law is weak in Panama, and the findings of its courts frequently have little to do with the truth of the matter and much to do with the wealth and power of the contending parties.
Also in that day’s newspapers was a story about Guillermo Antonio Adames, a radio station owner and the president of one of Panama’s journalist groups, the Consejo Nacional de Periodismo (National Journalism Council). He has been a critic of the expansion of presidential power and its use against the press—–such as the prison sentences handed to two television reporters for their accurate report of the contents of a government document about corruption in the Immigration Office. The day before, Ministry of Economy and Finance auditors showed up at his radio station and told him it would be audited. Adames claimed he had word from someone inside the administration that the audit was a reaction to things he said in a newspaper interview. This type of political audit was a favorite tactic used against the government’s critics during the 21-year military dictatorship. It appears to be making a comeback.
Those were the morning’s stories. Early in the afternoon, word came that the former director of Colombia’s Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) intelligence agency, María del Pilar Hurtado, had fled to Panama and asked for political asylum. She was under investigation for having ordered wiretaps of 16 journalists; for spying on her country’s Supreme Court, opposition politicians, labor leaders and human rights activists; and coordinating physical attacks and disinformation campaigns against the foes of former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.
Asylum was quickly granted. The Ministry of Foreign Relations announced that, “With the aim of contributing to social and political stability in the region, in strict compliance with the rules and the doctrine of territorial asylum, recognized by international law and historically observed by the Republic of Panama, we have favorably considered the request, and thus proceeded to grant asylum in the Republic of Panama.”
Radio show host, law professor and activist Miguel Antonio Bernal commented, “Once again, Panama is being used as a dump for human rights’ violators.” Back in 1979, Bernal was beaten nearly to death in front of Panama City’s Don Bosco Basilica for leading a protest against asylum for another ex-tyrant, the Shah of Iran. However, when former Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos sought refuge here in 2000, Bernal and others were more successful in their protests, and the henchman had to leave.
The asylum decision sends a message, despite the administration's actions: frivolous defamation prosecutions; the prison sentences for truthful reporting; the birdshot wounding of La Prensa photojournalist Eduardo Grimaldo during the labor disturbances in Changuinola; the arrest and abuse of El Panama America photojournalist Mauricio Valenzuela for photographing the arrests of union members; the allegations by Minister of the Presidency Jimmy Papadimitriu that reporters make things up; and the scandals about ties between the president’s party and gangsters. It’s about solidarity, not humanitarian concerns. It’s also an expression of the insecurity of Panamanian President Martinelli’s administration.
How insecure is the president? Consider that in the run-up to the 2009 elections, it was revealed that Colombian racketeer David Murcia Guzmán—now in U.S. federal custody, having just pleaded guilty for drug-money laundering—had various dealings with politicians on both sides of Panama’s partisan divide.
Murcia was coming in and out of the country with the protocol chief of the National Assembly (a Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD apparatchik) meeting him at the airport. He was protected by presidential bodyguards. Some of his luxury cars—a fleet of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Maseratis—were imported in the names of PRD alternate deputies to the Central American Parliament, so as to use their legislative exemption from auto-import duties. While trying to take a photograph of Murcia’s Maserati, parked in the acting Attorney General’s space at the ministry’s headquarters, this reporter was stopped by three Public Ministry guards.
It was alleged, and hotly denied, that Murcia had given millions to the PRD candidates in the 2009 elections. However, it has not been contested that on the other side of the divide, Murcia transferred $800,000 to President Martinelli’s supermarket chain. It was purportedly for the purchase of gift certificates. Panamanian prosecutors decided that there was no crime to investigate, but U.S. prosecutors did not concur.
There is also the matter of the president’s cousins, one of whom, Ramón Martinelli, had served as the treasurer of the president’s Cambio Democratico party and had headed the national water and sewer utility and served in the Central American Parliament representing that party. Ramón, another of the president’s cousins, César Fábrega Samaniego, and two other Panamanians were arrested in Mexico, in November 2009, for allegedly laundering money for the vicious Beltrán-Leyva Cartel. Fábrega died while in custody, but the other three Panamanians remain behind bars awaiting trial.
A Costa Rican news website, Nuestro Pais, citing unnamed Panamanian and U.S. law enforcement sources, wrote a series of stories about the affair.
Although Panama’s newspapers did report on the Costa Rican stories once they were published, Panama’s corporate mainstream rarely launches this type of investigation, not so much as a matter of fear about reprisals but as a matter of fear of losing access. There is exceptionally tight control over which reporters are allowed access to this administration, and just asking will get someone booted. It’s also possible that the sources took their stories to the Costa Ricans for fear that Panamanian media managers would cave to government pressure and give up their confidential identities.
The president denied the familial relationship with one of his cousins and asserted that Ramón was “the black sheep of the family,” who had not been connected with his party for 10 years, and that none of those accused in Mexico had anything to do with his 2009 campaign. El Panama America published the genealogical record of the president’s family ties to Fábrega. Most of Panama’s print media noted that as a matter of public record, Ramón Martinelli served in partisan political offices for Cambio Democratico through at least August 2004. Nuestro Pais published photographs of Ricardo Martinelli along with all four of those arrested in Mexico at a Cambio Democratico campaign event in 2009.
In January 2010 President Martinelli replaced his U.S. security advisors with veterans of Israel’s Shin Bet, who now train the Servicio de Proteccion Institucional (Institutional Protection Service, or SPI), which not only guards the president but is also Panama’s elite national security force. Nuestro Pais, as part of its series of stories, cited the switch from Americans to Israelis as part of Martinelli’s scandal-related malaise.
With that, Martinelli had a chance to strike back. He instructed Panama’s acting Attorney General to bring charges in Costa Rica. It was not for defamation, but for endangering the Panama Canal by telling al-Qaeda types that Israelis have something to do with guarding the canal. Think about going into a foreign court to discuss the Panama Canal’s defenses if you care to know how rash the president of Panama is about attacking the press.
Lately the police have been arresting journalists on “mistaken” detention orders in their criminal database. The government is trying to expel Spanish journalist Paco Gómez Nadal, a La Prensa columnist, without giving a series of incoherent or factually incorrect reasons why.
Step by step, we’re going back toward Noriega times—except that the dictatorship had a bigger entourage of obsequious reporters than the Martinelli administration does.