In Panama, harassment and sanctions limit journalists' work

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.