Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Nevertheless, journalists and media outlets noted an increase in criminal and civil libel/slander lawsuits, which they considered a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Libel/Slander Laws: Former and sitting government public figures increased the use of libel/slander lawsuits against journalists and media. According to local media contacts, both criminal and civil lawsuits were filed. The amount of lawsuits and the figures of financial compensation by plaintiffs increased substantially during the year, according to media groups. In September the daily newspaper La Estrella de Panama reported that lawsuits against journalists and media outlets for libel/slander reparations reached $12 million. The major media corporation Corprensa reported lawsuits against its two daily publications, La Prensa and Mi Diario, totaled $61.7 million. Corprensa representatives added they had been sued 15 times for libel/slander since 2017, once more than the previous 10 years combined (14 lawsuits filed in 2006-16).
On August 21, five journalists from La Prensa appeared at a family court hearing in response to former first lady Marta de Martinelli’s lawsuit seeking “protection” for “family image.” She sought a court order for “media, print, television, radio and social media, and especially the newspaper La Prensa,” to stop publishing the names and surnames of her family, who were under investigation for alleged corruption.
On August 25, former president Martinelli, in prison and on trial for illegal wiretapping, filed a slander lawsuit for two million dollars against political opinion radio-show hostesses Annette Planells and Mariela Ledezma.
On September 5, journalists, journalism organizations, and students demonstrated against the lawsuits, claiming such lawsuits were attacks against freedom of speech and the press.
Violence and Harassment: In August and September, National Assembly Deputy Sergio Galvez verbally harassed television journalists Alvaro Alvarado, Castalia Pascual, and Icard Reyes, and National Assembly Deputy Carlos Afu publicly threatened to sue La Prensa for $20 million. Both deputies made their statements on the National Assembly floor; according to the constitution, deputies may not held liable for these actions.
Press and Media Freedom: With the enactment of the 2017 electoral reforms regulating the 2019 general elections, there was to be a blackout period for the publication of voter polling 20 days before the national elections, scheduled for May 2019. TVN Media, one of the country’s largest media groups, challenged the law in the Supreme Court, arguing the blackout would hinder the public’s access to information because political parties would continue to carry out private surveys.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 58 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot based on universal and equal suffrage. Naturalized citizens may not hold specified categories of elective office, such as the presidency.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In 2014 voters chose Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez as president in national elections that independent observers considered generally free and fair. Elected at the same time were 71 national legislators, 77 mayors, 648 local representatives, and seven council members.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires new political parties to meet strict membership and organizational standards to gain official recognition and participate in national campaigns. Electoral reforms passed in May 2017 require that political parties obtain the equivalent of 2 percent of the total votes cast to maintain legal standing, a reduction from 4 percent. The Revolutionary Democratic Party, Panamenista Party, Democratic Change Party, and Popular Party complied with the requirement. During the year the Electoral Tribunal granted legal status to new political groups registered with the Electoral Tribunal, including the Broad Front for Democracy, the Alliance Party (Alianza), and the Independent Social Alternative Party after they demonstrated compliance with electoral requirements. The Electoral Tribunal provided oversight of internal party elections.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.
In August the National Secretariat of Science, Technology, and Innovation released a study in coordination with the Catholic University of Santa Maria Antigua. The study, titled Gender Inequality for Women in Access to Elected Office, showed that female candidates for elected office had only a 2 percent chance to win election. Research showed that from 1945 to 2014, only 67 women were elected to the National Assembly, compared with 764 men. Researchers concluded that contributing factors included cultural barriers, unequal social opportunities, a lack of mechanisms to equalize effectively internal political opportunity, and unequal access to campaign funds.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively. Corruption remained a serious problem in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches as well as in the security forces. The government took steps to address corrupt practices among government employees and security forces. Anticorruption mechanisms such as asset forfeiture, whistleblower and witness protection, plea bargaining, and professional conflict-of-interest rules were used in the government’s efforts to combat corruption.
Corruption: A series of corruption scandals became public from May through August as the Comptroller General’s Office filed before the Supreme Court separate cases against deputies from all political parties represented in the National Assembly. Alleged corruption by deputies involved the following: relatives registered in National Assembly payrolls despite their not working there; dozens of workers from the private sector (restaurants, hotels, stores) who appeared on deputies’ payrolls (some without knowing it; some allegedly receiving a percentage of the salary collected monthly and the deputy pocketing the rest); political community leaders working for deputies in their districts and not for the National Assembly but on the assembly’s payrolls; salaries of workers from private companies owned by deputies being paid by National Assembly payrolls; and direct contracts awarded to companies owned by some deputies. As of August no charges had been filed against any of the deputies, but civil society outrage prompted the beginning of the “No reelection” movement for the May 2019 general elections.
Corruption and a lack of accountability among police continued to be a problem, although the government took steps to address violations. Agents were dismissed on grounds of corruption and were under investigation by the Public Ministry. After an 18-month investigation, in July the First Penal District Court held a preliminary hearing involving 12 individuals (four current and three former penitentiary system employees, two inmates, and three private individuals) for alleged corruption in the La Joya Prison, La Joyita Prison, and the Women’s Rehabilitation Center. According to inmates’ relatives, the group charged money for the alteration of documents to reduce sentences, falsify release orders, and improperly transfer inmates among prisons. The prosecutor requested the judge to press charges on 11 of the 12 conspirators.
In February the Comptroller General’s Office filed 186 audits before the Public Ministry for transactions between 2009 and 2014 by elected local representatives. The audits allegedly reflected misuse of public funds through irregular contracts carried out by the Martinelli administration’s National Assistance Program. As of November prosecutors continued with the investigations but had not filed charges.
In July the First Criminal Court tried Luis Cucalon, former internal revenue director under the Martinelli administration, on embezzlement and corruption charges. In September Cucalon was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison and forfeiture of six million balboas.
The case continued against former minister of the presidency Demetrio “Jimmy” Papadimitriu and former minister of public works Jaime Ford, both in the Martinelli administration, detained in September for alleged links to bribes paid by Brazilian multinational construction company Odebrecht. In August the Second Superior Tribunal refused to withdraw the charges or dismiss the case as requested by Papadimitriu’s lawyers. Both individuals faced money-laundering and corruption charges. They were released on bail but could not leave the country without a court order. The cases remained under the inquisitorial system.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires certain executive and judiciary officials to submit a financial disclosure statement to the Comptroller General’s Office. The information is not made public unless the official grants permission for access to the public.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman, elected by the National Assembly, has moral but not legal authority. The Ombudsman’s Office received government cooperation and operated without government or party interference; it referred cases to the proper investigating authorities.