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Like neighbouring Costa Rica, Panama stands out as an exception in Central America, which is notoriously dangerous. Cases of assaults against journalists are extremely rare. But although the country is much safer than Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, a photographer on the daily El Siglo, Eliecer Santamaria, was killed in April 2008.
Reasons for concern within the profession are more likely to come from the sometimes tense relations with the authorities, which are at the root of official or judicial abuses. This was the case in September 2008, when a court ordered seizure of the property and bank accounts of El Periodico, on the request of businessman Herman Bern, who had been named in the weekly in a case of false tax statements. The legal authorities can have long memories and are ready to hound journalists. A court sentenced Jean Marcel Chery, Gustavo Aparicio and photographer John Watson to two years in prison and a fine on 18 February 2009 for a case of trespass going back to 2001. The complaint was lodged by Supreme Court judge, Winston Spadafora, who was interior and justice minister at the time and was accused of embezzlement of public funds and illegal construction. The three journalists were sentenced a first time to one year in prison for “defamation and insult” but received a presidential pardon in 2004. The justice system came back at Jean-Marcel Chery, who had since become editor of the daily El Siglo and at one time president of the national college of journalists (CNP), by ordering seizure of his property. Chery, who won his case each time, lodged an appeal, along with his two colleagues, against this latest sentence for “trespass”. Just as surprising, in 2008 was a ban on leaving the country slapped on sports columnist Bienvenido Brown of the daily La Estrella de Panama, when he was due to leave for the Beijing Olympics, after he was sued by the Panama Sports Institute (Pandeportes) over his condemnation of their poor management, even though the case dated back to 2005.
Finally, Panamanian journalists remain very worried by criminal law reform that curbs leaks to the press and publication of personal information, exposing offenders to daily fines, prison or, “in default” to weekend imprisonment. Protests that went as far as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) did nothing to dissuade outgoing president, Martin Torrijos, from promulgating the new law, on 21 March 2007.
Panama - 22 November 2011
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