Panama: thousands protest against electoral reform approved by National Assembly
Since September 2021, Panamanian civil society groups have peacefully protested against electoral reforms in discussion in the National Assembly. On 14th September 2021, an estimated 5,000 people joined protests rejecting unilateral changes made by lawmakers to a reform bill (No. 544) which had been negotiated for months in a multi-sector commission. Controversy around changes made by legislators without consultation led magistrates of the Electoral Court to abandon discussions around the bill in early September 2021.
Protesters said lawmakers had acted with authoritarianism and without transparency. Feminist groups denounced the removal of articles related to the promotion of gender equality in political parties and women's participation in politics. Fundación para el Desarrollo de la Libertad Ciudadana, the local Transparency International chapter, said that legislators acted opportunistically to promote a legislative project that would reduce transparency, accountability and fairness in elections. They said the bill contained articles that, for instance, increase the ceiling for private campaign financing and reduce the statute of limitations for electoral crimes. Despite criticism, the project was approved by the National Assembly and the reform (Law 227) was published in the country’s Official Gazette on 22nd October 2021.
Following the law’s approval, protesters again took to the streets in Panama City carrying signs with messages like “Enough now!” and “I want a country without corrupt politicians.” Convened by labour unions, the demonstrators also rejected government policies that they say fail to tackle inequality.
In October 2021, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) published their 2021 Chapultepec Index, which measures freedoms of expression and the press in the Americas. According to their findings, Panama is among countries in the region where there are “low restrictions” to these freedoms. The country was placed 9th among 22 others. However, during IAPA’s General Assembly in October, a report on Panama raised concern about the increasing use of legal actions against the media, journalists and opinion makers as a tool of intimidation and to promote self-censorship. Another issue is the lack of compliance with access to information laws, in particular in regard to the use of public funds during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a case highlighted by IAPA, on 1st September 2021 the Public Prosecutor’s Office charged journalist Mauricio Valenzuela, of digital media Foco Panamá, with alleged gender-based violence. Earlier this year, ruling party congresswoman Zulay Rodríguez sued him over a report published in 2019 where a businessman accused Rodríguez of misconduct. Press organisations Consejo Nacional de Periodismo and Fórum de Periodistas issued a statement in support of Valenzuela saying that the lawsuit seeks to censure the journalist by manipulating important rights.