U.N. expert says Panamá should decriminalize libel

The United Nations independent expert on the right to the freedom of opinion and expression voiced concern Thursday over a prison sentence for two Panamanian journalists, who had earlier been acquitted on charges of slander and libel.

UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue said in a statement that, according to available information, the two journalists were also prohibited from carrying out activities related to their profession for one year.

The pair are Sabrina Bacal, TVN Channel 2’s news director, and Justino González, the reporter on the story.

“This judicial decision represents a worrying precedent for the efforts being made to decriminalize such incidents, especially in cases such as this, wherein the act which led to the punishment relates to information about the actions of public officials,” La Rue said.

Costa Rica has a similar law.

Although the Panamá prison terms were later commuted to a fine and there was the possibility of a pardon, the expert reiterated his position on the importance of the right of citizens to be fully informed about the activities of public officials.

“Despite the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, states frequently limit or restrict freedom of expression arbitrarily, even resorting to criminal laws or civil actions, in order to silence dissent or criticism,” he stated.

He urged Panama to take account of international instruments related to the exercise of the right to the freedom of opinion and expression.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said two lower courts dismissed the charges but a court of appeals convicted the pair of criminal defamation and banned them from professional work for one year, news reports said. President Ricardo Martinelli said he would pardon the journalists, the Committee said that lawmakers should repeal all criminal penalties for defamation.

The case stems from a 2005 story alleging that Panamanian immigration officials were taking part in human trafficking. Two officials named in the story filed a defamation complaint against the pair.

In a ruling dated Sept. 28, an appeals court in Panama City overturned the lower court decisions and barred the reporters from working for one year. The court also ordered Ms. Bacal and González to pay a $3,650 fine or be subjected to a one-year suspended prison term.

Earlier this year, veteran Panamanian journalist Carlos Núñez López served 20 days in prison in connection with a 2008 criminal defamation conviction, the committee said. A property owner alleged he was defamed in a story about environmental damage in Bocas del Toro province.

Panama has only partially decriminalized defamation. Under a May 2008 reform, defamation of high-ranking public officials is no longer subject to criminal sanctions. But other criminal defamation provisions remain in place. The TVN Canal 2 case would be subject to criminal defamation even now, for example, because it did not involve senior officials, said Miguel Bernal, a Panamanian lawyer who handles press freedom issues, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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