Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. Some journalists complained of harassment, intimidation, and threats when covering stories of impropriety, corruption, or other crimes involving members of the Ministry of Public Security or members of the public security forces.
Press and Media Freedom: During the year media outlets owned by political and business leaders facing legal proceedings claimed those proceedings limited their freedoms of expression. Media outlets continued to publish and broadcast freely throughout the year. There were anecdotal reports of the government discouraging journalists from publishing stories critical of the administration.
Television channels owners and radio directors linked to opposition parties claimed to be victims of government retaliation for their political views through the opening of corruption investigation against them. In 2016 police arrested NexTV president and former president of the board of directors of the government-run national savings bank Caja de Ahorros, Riccardo Francolini, and former Caja de Ahorros board member and current NexTV anchor and news director Fernando Correa on embezzlement charges unrelated to their media activities.
Violence and Harassment: In 2016 the Ministry of Government submitted a bill that would fine media outlets that published material promoting violence against women. Several journalist unions condemned the bill as an attempt to censor and regulate media content. Pressure from civil society stalled the National Assembly’s approval of the bill. In March the National Assembly approved a revised version of the bill, which transfers responsibility for the fines from the Ministry of Government to the judicial branch.
In April the National Assembly passed a law regulating sexual content in classified advertisements of newspapers, forbidding the publication of sex-work advertisements, in an effort to prevent sex trafficking. Some critics viewed it as a form of censorship.
New media journalists often faced challenges similar to their traditional media counterparts. For example, ClaraMente (a platform launched from Facebook, with a widespread audience) reporters Mauricio Valenzuela and Hugo German reportedly received death threats over the telephone regarding their publications critical of anti-immigration right-wing groups and religious organizations.
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.
The government provided free, wireless internet in public spaces that, when working, reached 86 percent of the population. According to government statistics, two million persons had fixed internet access, representing 50 percent of the population.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The government provided permits for organized groups to conduct peaceful marches. Nevertheless, police at times used force to disperse demonstrators, especially when highways or streets were blocked. The law provides for six to 24 months’ imprisonment for anyone who, through use of violence, impedes the transit of vehicles on public roads or causes damage to public or private property.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, persons under temporary humanitarian protection, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The process of obtaining refugee status generally took three to four years, during which asylum seekers did not have the right to work and could not access basic services.
As of July the National Office for the Attention of Refugees (ONPAR) received 2,613 refugee applications, compared with 2,619 in 2016. In 2016 ONPAR reviewed 784 cases for admission and admitted 10 into the asylum process. Approximately 77 percent of the applicants were from Venezuela, and the remaining 23 percent were Colombians, Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans.
In August, following a separate process not involving ONPAR, the country granted asylum to three Venezuelan judges and a consul of the Venezuelan embassy. In September the government approved the asylum request of a Venezuelan Supreme Court alternate justice.
As of September the National Border Protection Force had apprehended 4,833 irregular migrants in the Darien region. Apprehensions were down from 17,306 in 2016 and 31,749 in 2015. Cuban nationals accounted for 716 of the migrants, compared with 5,083 in 2016. In March the government announced it would deport hundreds of Cuban migrants, and in August the government stated that 76 Cuban migrants accepted the offer and would receive 1,600 balboas and a Panamanian tourist visa once back in Cuba. In September authorities began arranging repatriation flights for Cuban migrants. The government continued to manage camps in the Darien region to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to the migrants. The government reported continued migrations of persons from South Asia and Africa.
According to UNHCR and its NGO implementing partners, thousands of persons living in the country might be in need of international protection. These included persons in the refugee process, persons denied refugee status, and persons who did not apply for refugee status due to lack of knowledge or fear of deportation.
Employment: Refugees recognized by authorities have the right to work, but recognized refugees complained that they faced discriminatory hiring practices. In an effort to prevent this discriminatory practice, ONPAR removed the word “refugee” from recognized refugees’ identification cards.
All foreigners seeking a work contract must initiate the process through a lawyer and pay a government fee of 700 balboas to obtain a work permit that expires upon termination of the labor contract or after one year, whichever comes first.
Access to Basic Services: Education authorities sometimes denied refugees access to education, while refusing to issue diplomas to others if they could not present school records from their country of origin. The Ministry of Education continued to enforce the government’s 2015 decree requiring schools to accept students in the asylum process at the grade level commensurate with the applicants’ prior studies.
Durable Solutions: The law allows persons legally recognized as refugees or with asylum status who have lived in the country for more than three years to seek permanent residency.
The government worked with Colombia to recognize approximately 200 stateless persons on the border. In July the governments of Panama and Costa Rica, with the cooperation of UNHCR, set up a mobile registry office on the border with Costa Rica to register indigenous Ngabe and Bugle seasonal workers who travel between Costa Rica and Panama and who had never registered their births in either country.