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 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.