Freedom of Expression

Press Release 57/02



The IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is concerned over the prosecution of journalist Miguel Antonio Bernal on a charge of defamation and injurias. According to information received, the suit was filed in February 1998 as a consequence of statements made by Bernal in a television news report, in which he allegedly attributed responsibility for the murder of four prisoners at the Coiba Penal Island to police officers.  The complaint was lodged by the then-Director General of National Police and is based on Articles 172, 173, and 173A of Panama’s Penal Code.  Article 173.a establishes a penalty of 18 to 24 months in prison “in the case of defamation and 12 to 18 in the case of injurias ,” when such expressions are issued through the mass media.  A hearing in the case against Bernal will be held tomorrow, after which the journalist could be convicted. 

Principle 10 of the Inter-American Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression states:  “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.” 

The Rapporteur has stated repeatedly that the existence and use of the crime of defamation or injurias in order to silence criticism of government actions is contrary to the exercise of the freedom of expression. 

Eduardo Bertoni 
IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression
May 11, 2002
Washington, D.C.