CIVICUS

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Panama

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Last updated on 24.07.2019 at 16:38

Panama-Overview

Although not fully enabling, civic space in Panama has long been hospitable enough for civil society to prosper.

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In Panama, harassment and sanctions limit journalists' work

In Panama, harassment and sanctions limit journalists' work

Although Panama rose from the 91st position in 2018 to 79th in Reporters Without Borders' 2019 Press Freedom Index, some recurrent situations still engender restrictions to freedom of press in the country. In the period covered by this update, there have been two incidents related to press freedom, including an Electoral Tribunal decision to restrict media access to candidates during election day. There were also three separate protests, one of which resulted in clashes between groups of opposing political views.

Peaceful Assembly

On 7th and 8th May 2019, protests against Benicio Robinson’s re-election to Panama's National Assembly were held in Bocas del Toro province. A group of demonstrators marched to the Electoral Court to display their dissent, where there were clashes with a group of Robinson supporters. Demonstrators opposed to Robinson claimed that supporters of the deputy  threw stones at them as the situation escalated. However, there have been no reports of persons injured or arrested.

Panama’s new president Luis Cortizo's term in office began with protests by students and workers. Cortizo took office on the 1st July 2019, and the next day there were two separate demonstrations. Students of the University of Panama gathered to show their dissatisfaction with the lack of maintenance of the university facilities and alleged unfair grading by some teachers. In a different part of Panama City, workers of Santo Tomás Hospital protested against reported irregularities in hospital management and put forward a number of demands. There were no reports of crackdown against these demonstrations and President Cortizo declared that protests are part of the proper exercise of democracy. Cortizo also said that such demonstrations could take place, while commenting that they ought to avoid blocking the streets and affecting third parties.

Expression

Deputy Mayín Correa sparked controversy on 26th April 2019 when she insulted Edwin Cabrera, director of Radio Panama. The episode took place when a Radio Panama reporter contacted Mayín Correa to ask her for a comment on the Electoral Tribunal's decision to prevent former president Ricardo Martinelli from running in the general elections. Because of this decision, Correa, as Martinelli's alternate, became the candidate for 8-8 district. Correa refused to give the interview and attacked Radio Panama's director with a racist slur. Following this incident, the National Journalists Association (CONAPE) commented through its Twitter account, urging candidates to maintain their composure and asked Correa to apologise to the journalist.

Although Panama rose from the 91st position in 2018 to 79th in Reporters Without Borders' 2019 Press Freedom Index, some recurrent situations still engender restrictions to freedom of press in the country. According to the Reporters Without Borders (RSF)' report, journalists who cover corruption stories or criticise government policies continue to be subjected to judicial proceedings and are often sanctioned with fines for defamation. RSF also highlights the control of government over access to information.

As seen in the tweet above, Panama's National Journalists Association rejected an Electoral Tribunal decision to limit media access to candidates approaching voting centres on 5th May 2019, the general election day in Panama. According to CONAPE, these barriers imposed by the Electoral Tribunal are a violation of freedom of the press, and such a decision should be subject to consultation with all parties affected.

Association

Although the freedom of association is constitutionally and legally recognised, CSOs often face difficulties in obtaining legal recognition, including complex and lengthy procedures, the need for an attorney, burdensome paperwork, high costs, and discretionary processing of applications.

Although the freedom of association is constitutionally and legally recognised, CSOs often face difficulties in obtaining legal recognition, including complex and lengthy procedures, the need for an attorney, burdensome paperwork, high costs, and discretionary processing of applications. Those organisations which are already registered must comply with burdensome reporting requirements and they lack safeguards against the possibility of an arbitrary revocation of their legal status. Although no legal barriers to advocacy exist, it is not uncommon for advocacy CSOs to face hostile government rhetoric as well as competition from government-organised NGOs, established by or affiliated with politicians and political parties. There are no legal bans on foreign funding, but CSOs have to comply with various regulations against money laundering, drug trafficking and terrorism. Workers are allowed to unionise but, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, there are systematic violations of trade union rights in Panama.

Peaceful Assembly

The freedom of peaceful assembly is recognised in the Panamanian Constitution.

The freedom of peaceful assembly is recognised in the Panamanian Constitution. Organisers must give 24 hours prior notice before a public gathering, demonstrations blocking public transit require authorisation, spontaneous assemblies are not permitted, and violent protests are punishable with imprisonment. In practice, road blockades, with and without prior notice, are widespread. Authorities often fail to protect demonstrators and sometimes use excessive force to suppress protests, even peaceful ones, when circulation is disturbed. The increasing militarisation of the security forces is a cause for concern within civil society. A conflict around the construction of two hydroelectric dams that is expected to cause massive flooding and displace dozens of indigenous and peasant communities has been ongoing for years, with several protests repressed by police, especially in early 2013.

Expression

The constitutionally-protected freedoms of expression and of the press are not consistently respected in Panama.

The constitutionally-protected freedoms of expression and of the press are not consistently respected in Panama. Although journalism is not a high-risk occupation in Panama, journalists are subject to occasional threats and attacks. Defamation, libel and slander are still criminal offences and cases are filed regularly, although prison sentences have been eliminated. With the exception of one state-owned television network and one radio station, all media outlets are in private hands. Cross-ownership of print and broadcast media is prohibited; nevertheless, former president Martinelli – who is being prosecuted for corruption – accumulated several newspapers and radio stations, and at least one television outlet. In 2014 the distribution of government advertising got more biased as the elections approached, and cases of surveillance, judicial and fiscal harassment, censorship, and self-censorship multiplied as tension increased. Panama participates in the Open Government Partnership and passed an Access to Information Law in 2002; however, actual access to public information remained limited due to frequent official denials of requests and a lack of proactive transparency. An autonomous National Authority of Transparency and Access to Information was created in 2013 following recommendations to comply with best practice standards. No restrictions exist on Internet access or content.