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Panamanian Journalist Faces Imprisonment

 

Journalists protest in Panama
El Siglo journalists Carmen Boyd Marciaqc and Marcelino Rodriguez protest the Panamanian government's treatment of journalists on the steps of Panama's Supreme Court, March 19, 2001 (Photo: AFP).
On June 4, Panamanian Circuit Judge Zaida Cárdenas found veteran Panamanian journalist Michelle Lescure guilty of "crimes against honor," or criminal libel, as the former editor of Panama City's independent El Siglo newspaper. Cárdenas sentenced her to 18 months in jail, but commuted the sentence to a US$500 fine. Jaime Padilla Béliz, legal representative of El Siglo's parent company, Corporación Universal de Información, and El Siglo columnist Carmen Boyd Marciaqc were also found guilty of "crimes against honor."

The charges stem from two articles published in El Siglo on Feb. 11, 1999, and March 1, 1999. In the first article, columnist Carmen Boyd Marciaqc claimed that Juan Carlos Tapia, host of the Panamanian TV show, "Lo Mejor del Boxeo" ("The Best of Boxing"), lived opulently while his sister lived in a shelter for the poor. The second story, purportedly signed by a man who—it was later revealed—had been dead for 20 years, contained similar allegations. 

Though Lescure's name was on El Siglo's masthead as the paper's editor at the time both stories ran, Lescure and her former colleagues at El Siglo maintain she was no longer acting as the editor.  

"I do not approve of these kinds of stories," Lescure said, "it isn't journalism to publicize the... problems of the relatives of public figures. However, I had nothing to do with this. I wasn't El Siglo's editor at the time (1999), nor was I connected in anyway with the publication of those stories." Though her sentence was commuted to a US$500 fine, Lescure has indicated that she has no intention of paying the fine since she has done nothing wrong.

Upon learning of the charges against her, Lescure petitioned a prosecutor from the Panamanian Ministry of Public Affairs to investigate whether she was the editor of El Siglo when the stories ran. The ministry never asked El Siglo’s administrators whether Lescure was the editor of the paper at the time. The ministry failed to call witnesses from El Siglo to testify as to whether she was still working as the paper's editor. State prosecutors also failed to notify Lescure of the legal action being taken against her, and Lescure only learned she was to go on trial the day before her scheduled court appearance.

The legal action against Lescure is particularly worrisome in light of the Panamanian government’s crackdown on journalists amid mounting revelations of governmental corruption. Lescure has been an outspoken critic of corruption at all levels of Panamanian and Latin American society, and through her work for Journalists Against Corruption—a Latin American civil society organization dedicated to promoting journalistic investigations into corruption—has campaigned for government reform and fiscal transparency. Her work has earned her enemies in the past: In 1998, a sniper attempted to kill her outside El Siglo’s offices.

Panama’s government has drawn the condemnation of international press-freedom advocacy groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontières for its restrictive press statutes, commonly known as “gag laws.” Though some of those laws were repealed in December 1999, most of the laws remain on the books.

Today, 90 of Panama’s 200 working journalists face criminal defamation charges. A draft law currently before the Panamanian Legislative Assembly would require all journalists to be licensed by the government, giving authorities control over who could and could not practice journalism.

Readers who wish to express their concern about Michelle Lescure’s case, or about the crackdown on the press in Panama, should write to website@worldpress.org. We will forward your messages to the Committee to Protect Journalists and to the appropriate Panamanian authorities.

Please be polite and respectful in your letters, and please keep your comments brief.

Michelle Lescure is World Press Review's correspondent in Panama.

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