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Panama: Retrograde move to make insulting president punishable by imprisonment

Tailoring it for Panama: Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli speaks to the media after attending the first session of the year of the National Assembly in Panama City, Sunday, January 2, 2011.

Paris-based press freedom group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) has urged the National Assembly of Panama to reject a draft law under which anyone insulting the president or an elected official could be sentenced to between two and four years in prison, as it would represent major step backwards for freedom of expression in Panama. The National Assembly is due to resume examining it Tuesday.

Called Draft Law 105 and submitted on January 5 by National Assembly president José Muñoz and representative Agustín Sellhorn, both members of President Ricardo Martinelli’s Cambio Democrático party, the bill would add the following article (439-A) to the criminal code: “Anyone who, without grounds, insults, slanders or vilifies the President or any public servant holding an elected post will be punished by two to four years in prison.”

This would violate the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression that was adopted by the Organization of American States (OAS). Paragraph 11 of the declaration says: “Public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials (...) restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.”

We agree entirely with this principle. A public figure is by definition exposed to public comment and criticism. Punishing such criticism with imprisonment would be tantamount to introducing censorship and self-censorship. It would be incompatible with democratic principles.

Ricardo Lombana of the National Journalism Council’s ethics committee called the bill “retrograde,” especially as it would target only insults against public servants. “This initiative is unconstitutional,” he said. “Insulting a public servant is not a crime. It is not defamation. It is just a lack of respect, which cannot be punishable by imprisonment.”

Guido Rodríguez, the head of the Journalists Forum on Freedom of Expression, said: “This proposal is absurd and would destroy all the progress that has been made as regards freedom of expression.”

Four bills affecting media rights and freedom of expression are currently before the National Assembly. One, introduced in October, would increase the maximum penalty for defamation from 18 months to five years in prison.

Amid an increase in tension between the government and some of the media, two TV journalists were recently banned from practising their profession for one year. Panama fell 26 places in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and is now ranked 81st out of 178 countries.

Date posted: January 11, 2011 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 185