Concern expressed for Panamá journalists

Five journalists and the publishing companies of Panamá newspapers La Estrella de Panamá and El Siglo have been sentenced to pay high-level damages and face criminal charges.

June 16 the 13th Civil Court ruled in favor of Lourdes Castillo, manager of Naves Supply, S.A. for material damages and moral harm. She had filed suit concerning a series of reports published in the two newspapers in 2011 about alleged wrongdoing in the grant of a $1.2 million government contract to her company for collection and incineration of health ministry premises trash.

Ms. Castillo filed suit against Carlos Atencio, a journalist with La Estrella de Panamá; Alexis Charris, that paper’s publisher; Gerardo Berroa, the then-editor); Jean Marcel Chéry, editor of El Siglo at the time; and Magaly Montilla, the El Siglo news editor; and the publishing companies of the two papers, Geo Media and El Nuevo Siglo.  Ms. Castillo, now a member of the board of directors of the Panama Canal Authority, sought damages totaling $725,000, $150,000 for moral harm, $500,000 for financial damage to her company and $75,000 for legal costs.

The journalists found guilty are also to face a criminal charge for the same alleged acts. The ruling will be appealed.

The Inter American Press Association expressed concern at the court ruling. The organization said the action “has negative effects for the practice of investigative reporting on matters of public interest and the public’s right to information.”

The chairman of the press association’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Claudio Paolillo, said, “Apart from respect for court decisions we cannot fail to show our concern at a sentence that clearly has negative effects for the practice of investigative reporting on matters of public interest and the public’s right to information.”

Paolillo, editor of the Montevideo, Uruguay, weekly Búsqueda, added that with this ruling “remain open the doors to self-censorship, as it is an intimidating message for those who have the task of investigating and reporting wrongdoing in public affairs.”

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