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Rising cost of living sparks a month of protests in Panamá

Rising cost of living sparks a month of protests in Panamá
Protesters march to demand steps to curb inflation, lower fuel and food prices. July 2022, REUTERS/Erick Marciscano.

Peaceful Assembly

In July 2022, thousands of people joined Panama’s largest protests in decades, demanding government action to address the rising cost of living, including fuel and food price increases. On 19th May 2022, the coalition Alianza Pueblo Unido por la Vida (People United for Life Alliance), which includes labour unions and social movements, presented a list of 32 demands to the government. These included measures to tackle price rises, salary and pension adjustments, increase in the education budget, infrastructure investments and policies to support Indigenous people’s rights.

In early July, Panamanian teachers’ unions announced they would launch a national strike because of the government’s lack of response to these demands. Over the month, labour unions and social movements organised strikes, road blockades and marches. 22 organisations in the Alianza Nacional por los Derechos del Pueblo Organizado (National Alliance for the Rights of Organised Peoples - ANADEPO), led protests in the province of Veraguas, epicentre of the demonstrations. National Indigenous organisation Coonapip also joined the demonstrations, adding their own demands for recognition of land rights and action to remove settlers from Indigenous territories.

On 11th July 2022, president Laurentino Cortizo announced a reduction on the price of fuel and a cap on prices of ten basic products. However, protests continued with demonstrators saying more efforts were needed to address their demands.

Throughout the demonstrations, there were reports of protesters dispersed by police using tear gas and pellets. On 20th July 2022, for instance, a young protester in Veraguas was injured in the eye with a pellet. In Pacora, a town in the Panama province, farmers clashed with Indigenous and campesino protesters who had blocked the Panamerican highway.

After three weeks of protests, the police disclosed that they had arrested 102 people in the demonstrations, 80 of whom had hearings for obstruction of transit and disrupting peaceful coexistence. There were 12 cases of protesters facing charges for alleged assault and seven cases of vandalism or theft charges. The police said 16 officers were injured while policing protests, and several police cars were stolen or vandalised.

A dialogue roundtable was established between social movements and the government, reaching a series of agreements on demands related to the cost of living and investments in education. On 2nd August 2022, teachers returned to classrooms as unions lifted their strike. Negotiations continued as several pending demands remained.

Expression

In June 2022, Panama’s National Authority for Transparency and Access to Information (ANTAI) fined digital media La Verdad and journalist Amanda Alvarado for violating personal data protection legislation. The US$1,000 fine referred to an article published in June 2021, which included the image of a marriage certificate voluntarily provided to the media outlet by one of the parties concerned. Initially, ANTAI found that the media outlet should have sought the “unambiguous and informed” consent of all parties. However, the decision sparked outcry from freedom of expression experts, leading to its review.

Press associations Forum de Periodistas and the National Journalism Council (CNP) said the sanction established a dangerous precedent for the free and independent exercise of journalism by implying that anyone can seek penalties from media or private citizens for publishing their name, or the image of a document in which their name appears, without authorisation. In that regard, the organisations argued, media outlets could be fined for publishing any story of public interest with supporting documentation. In July 2022, ANTAI suspended the fine.

Press violations amid protests

On 27th July 2022, the National Association of Journalists (CONAPE) reported that journalists covering protests in the Veraguas province had faced discrimination, harassment, insults and attacks by protesters. They said some demonstrators had attempted to take journalists hostage, and reporters reported facing threats of physical assault. They called on unions, social organisations and groups protesting to respect the reporters and their journalistic work.