Freedom of Expression

Press Release R101/10









Washington D.C., October 8, 2010. — The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern over the criminal conviction and one-year prison sentence issued by a Panamanian court on September 24 against two journalists who had previously been acquitted for reporting on actions of public officials.


According to the information received, Panama's Second Superior Court of Justice sentenced the news director of Canal Dos, Sabrina Bacal, and reporter Justino González of radio station KW Continente to one year in prison for criminal defamation (calumnia and injuria). The ruling also bars both journalists from carrying out activities related to their profession for one year, and substitutes the prison sentence with a fine of $US 3,650 each. The conviction overturned two judgments of acquittal issued by tribunals of the First Criminal Circuit of Panama. The Office of the Special Rapporteur was informed that PresIdent Ricardo Martinelli announced on October 6th that he will pardon the convicted journalists. Although the pardon is without doubt a positive step, it would not prevent the future application of sanctions against those who expose possible irregularities that are of interest to the public.  


The criminal conviction represents a serious setback in terms of the will the Panamanian State has demonstrated up until now to prosecute in civil courts alleged crimes against honor in matters of general interest that involve public officials. In addition, the order barring the journalists involved from exercising their profession for one year disproportionately compromises their freedom of expression.


The 2008 Criminal Code of Panama establishes that no criminal sanctions shall be imposed in cases of criminal defamation when those allegedly offended are high-level public servants. The Office of the Special Rapporteur has repeatedly noted the regional importance of this legislative development, which was the result of a significant national consensus. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights also referred positively to this development in January 2009, in the Case of Tristán Donoso v. Panama.


In addition to its concern regarding the journalists' criminal conviction, the Office of the Special Rapporteur is concerned about the opinion of the Attorney General's Office of Panama in favor of declaring unconstitutional the article of the Criminal Code that partially decriminalizes crimes against honor. The Office of the Special Rapporteur has indicated that criminal sanctions applied to crimes against honor have an inhibiting and intimidating effect on the exercise free expression and that this approach is disproportionate and truly unnecessary in a democratic society. The use of criminal mechanisms to punish expression in matters of public interest or about public officials can constitute a form of indirect censorship, due to its intimidating and inhibiting effect on public debate.


It is worth noting that Principle 10 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression establishes the following: "Privacy laws should not inhibit or restrict investigation and dissemination of information of public interest. The protection of a person’s reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official, a public person or a private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest. In addition, in these cases, it must be proven that in disseminating the news, the social communicator had the specific intent to inflict harm, was fully aware that false news was disseminated, or acted with gross negligence in efforts to determine the truth or falsity of such news."


Moreover, Principle 11 of the same Declaration states: "Public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials, generally known as ‘desacato laws,’ restrict freedom of expression and the right to information."


The Office of the Special Rapporteur calls on Panamanian authorities to preserve the important gains that have been achieved, which incorporate the jurisprudence and doctrine that the inter-American human rights system has established in the area of freedom of expression. These important gains provide an invaluable guarantee to ensure the existence of a truly vigorous, pluralistic, and uninhibited public debate and the very health of every democracy.