Court rulings against La Prensa set dangerous precedents for press freedom in Panama


On 8th June 2020, a court ruling banned newspaper La Prensa from publishing images of lawyer Janio Lescure, who has been implicated in allegations of corruption. Lescure filed a defamation lawsuit against two representatives of La Prensa after the newspaper published, in September 2019, audio recordings in which he appears to discuss his participation in alleged acts of corruption in the justice system. The court ruling also ordered the newspaper to refrain from investigating this case further. Panama’s national journalists’ council, Consejo Nacional de Periodismo (CNP), stated that the measure amounts to censorship and affects people’s right to access public interest information. Press organisations condemned the decision and called for it to be revoked. The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) also described this as a “serious precedent” for press freedom in the country.

In developments in a separate case, on 4th July 2020 a civil court ordered a freeze on the assets and bank accounts of Corporación La Prensa, which owns La Prensa and the daily Mi Diario. The order pertains to a defamation lawsuit filed against the corporation in 2012 by former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares after press reports published in 2011 claiming the former president could face a criminal investigation for alleged money laundering. Despite the lack of a ruling on the lawsuit, the court granted the plaintiff’s request to embargo Corporación La Prensa’s financial assets to cover any eventual damages payment.

According to CNP, this order is a direct attack on the press and would hinder salary payments of 240 employees of the media group. CNP highlights that it is an unprecedented decision which violates various fundamental principles and guarantees in Panama’s Constitution and in international norms. Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, also called the decision a "disproportionate measure with an impact on freedom of press."

At a press conference on 5th July 2020, Diego Quijano, chairman of the Board of Directors of Corporación La Prensa, emphasised that the media group faces 12 civil suits and 22 criminal complaints by political critics of the newspapers. On this court order, Quijano said:

“This is not only a court decision against La Prensa. It is a threat to anyone who dares to criticise and investigate abuses of power.”