Speaking Out Against Corruption

Panama corruption
Popular frustration overflows: Protesters in Panama City attack an unidentified member of the government (center) Jan. 21, 2002. Politicians from Panama's two largest political parties are facing increasing public outcry over allegations of corruption (Photo: AFP).

Michelle Lescure is the former editor of independent Panama City newspaper El Siglo, and the first woman to edit a Panamanian daily. She currently works as a correspondent for World Press Review and as Panama's representative and correspondent for Journalists Against Corruption, a Latin American civil society organization dedicated to promoting journalistic investigations into corruption.

For many years, Lescure has campaigned to repeal Panama's gag laws, most of which were passed during General Omar Torrijos Herrera’s 1968-81 military dictatorship. She has twice been charged with "crimes against honor" by public officials accused of corruption. In both of cases, she was exonerated. Details on the cases against her are available from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The speech that follows was given to a fact-finding group that came to Panama in March under the auspices of the National Security Center, a U.S.-based conservative think-tank.

Corruption continues to be the greatest threat to democracy in Latin America. It has retarded economic growth, and perpetuated poverty. It has accentuated inequities in the justice systems of Latin American countries so that the rule of law does not apply equally across social strata. It has contributed to increasing distrust in political parties and governments; it has exacerbated voter fatigue and limited citizen participation. In 2001, according to a study published by Transparency International, regional support for democracy fell to 48 percent, down from 58 percent the previous year. Only 25 percent of respondents across the region expressed satisfaction with their democratic government. As award-winning Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer recently observed, "If one considers Latin America's tragic history of military regimes that took power arguing that democracy had failed, there is a lot to worry about."

Weak and partisan government institutions, along with the absence of checks and balances, transparency, and accountability, have provided numerous opportunities for corruption. The lack of public pressure from an ideologically biased or muzzled press has made Latin America an attractive and safe place for corruption.

For centuries, corruption has been viewed in Latin America as a way of getting things done. Almost all Latin American citizens have become accomplices in one way or another---in order to obtain a driver's license or a telephone line, to expedite the retrieval of a package at the post office or customs, or to supplement an insufficient income. Others have obtained university degrees, enriched their personal fortunes, avoided prosecution or imprisonment, used government resources to win elections, laundered illegal funds, managed lucrative illegal drug or arms trafficking operations, or have benefited in some other way from corruption. As the vice president of El Salvador, Carlos Quintanilla Schmidt, pointed out in October 2001, "Corruption has become an anti-value and the corrupt, because of their astuteness and ‘success,’ are admired and emulated by both the rich and poor."

Failure of Anti-Corruption Efforts

The anti-corruption efforts of international financial organizations and development agencies, typically focused on institutional reforms, have not had the desired results in Latin America because public officials lack the political will to implement them. Local civil society anti-corruption initiatives also do not enjoy much credibility because opportunists have used them to develop public images, and eventually run for public office, or because of their partisan ties, hidden agendas, or involvement in corrupt activities. Many suffer from a dependence on generic concepts and strategies; limited vision and creativity; a lack of interest, knowledge and use of Internet resources; and a lack of both local and cross-border partnerships with seasoned and reputable anti-corruption actors. The best civil society anti-corruption efforts also have had inadequate funding, especially when difficult national economic situations have drained people of the time and resources that they might otherwise volunteer.

Importance of the Media in Fighting Corruption

With few exceptions, media reports have had the most impact in exposing corruption. However, media reports have frequently been selective, incomplete, or tarnished by partisan slants. Very often reporters do a good job getting the story, but what gets published or broadcast is inaccurate because of the internal censorship of editors and media owners, who toe a party line, either willingly or because of outside pressure. Difficulties in obtaining information from the government and private organizations, journalists' lack of investigative and reporting skills, and reprisals, or fear of reprisals, have also undermined the quality of most reporting about corruption. Those factors usually explain why many tales of sleaze in high places go untold.

Regardless of its problems, journalism is Latin America’s most promising tool in fighting corruption. Reporters, rather than police and prosecutors, are the ones who are investigating and exposing unethical conduct and malfeasance in government.

The importance of investigative corruption in democratic countries cannot be overstated. It highlights improper uses of public funds, holds politicians accountable, deters government officials from engaging in corrupt practices, and pressures government to implement reforms. It is also important for monitoring and reporting corruption in business, finance, and civic organizations, all of which are big problems throughout the region.

In most Latin American countries where corruption is a part of everyday life, media reports raise awareness and can teach new values and behavior. Good journalism can engender a democratic mindset, and ultimately lead citizens to demand accountability from their public servants. This is a novel idea in many countries. But investigative reporting on corruption is endangered because the escalating violence and worsening economic crisis in the region monopolize the public’s attention. Increasingly vicious rhetoric and physical attacks against journalists who cover corruption make the situation even worse.

This is why Journalists Against Corruption or PFC (Periodistas Frente a la Corrupción, in Spanish), of which I am a member and for whom I speak today, emerged in August 2000 as a regional project to strengthen Latin America’s most promising anti-corruption tool, watchdog journalism. Its principal activities consist of investigative assistance to motivate and upgrade press coverage of corruption across national boundaries; defense of press freedoms, with a focus on journalists and media that investigate corruption; and advisory services to help the media play their watchdog role.

Among its activities, PFC reviews 50 major Latin America news sources Monday through Friday, gathering articles and editorials about corruption, anti-corruption activism and freedom of the press issues. PFC observed an increase in media coverage of corruption during 2001. But we also found that attacks against journalists who cover corruption have risen in tandem, as have legislative and judicial efforts to undermine investigative journalism.

During 2001, PFC recorded the cases of 114 journalists who suffered reprisals because of their investigations into corruption; five were killed. During the first few months of 2002 alone, PFC has registered over 30 such attacks, including two killings. These figures are probably low, since there are no uniform reporting systems, and governments and civil society typically show little interest in such cases.…

Other Attacks

In addition to attacks against journalists, two anti-corruption leaders were killed in Guatemala and Colombia in mid-March. The latter was an archbishop, and though the crime is still unsolved, it seems that the Archbishop of Cali died because he spoke out against the corrupt activities of gangsters, guerrillas, and paramilitaries.

The increased media coverage of corruption in 2001 and during the first trimester of 2002 has probably also contributed to citizen uprisings and demands for the resignations of corrupt government officials, and for the increased involvement of the business sectors in some countries–--namely, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Panama–--in anti-corruption initiatives. Business leaders are being attacked, too. For example, in Guatemala, the vice president used the government printing office to publish pamphlets attacking the President of the Chamber of Commerce, Jorge Briz, who spoke out against government corruption and supported protests and strikes calling for an end to impunity.

Unfortunately, only a few public officials have been forced out of office because of their involvement in corruption. It is rare that the corrupt are prosecuted and sentenced, and when they are, they are often prematurely released from prison….

Let us recall, for example, the case of Frank Iglesias, the former Panamanian consul in New York, who is wanted by the FBI for his alleged role in trafficking stolen Peruvian antiquities. According to the FBI, Iglesias smuggled a priceless piece of golden armor in the Panamanian diplomatic pouch. That's clearly against our laws, but there has never been any question of these laws being enforced.

Some important defenders of freedom of expression in Latin America are the Miami-based Interamerican Press Association, made up of media owners; the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres, who have all stated that respect for media rights in Latin America is on the decline. They have also recognized that with a few exceptions, there is impunity for attacks against journalists and media. In a pronouncement last week, the Interamerican Press Agency stated: "The general state of the free press has declined in the last six months. In Latin America, violence against journalists and media has been the principal cause of insecurity that is aggravated by deficiencies in the administration and application of justice and in legal initiatives that intend to censure journalism."


In terms of the number of attacks against journalists who report on corruption, Panama represents an extreme case.

Because of the country’s gag laws against the press, 90 of its 200 active journalists are facing or have recently faced criminal charges for defamation. Among those who are speaking you today, Tomas Cabal, Eric Jackson, and I are all facing or have faced criminal charges for our work.

Most of these cases relate to unethical conduct of government officials or other forms of corruption. Thirty-six of the cases were initiated by government officials--–the former minister of justice Dr. Winston Spadafora, the attorney general Jose Antonio Sossa, and even the president Mireya Moscoso–--all of whom have been implicated in corruption by published accounts. Last month, PFC and the Center for International Law and Justice accompanied three Panamanian journalists Betty Brannan Jaen, Dr. Miguel Antonio Bernal, and Dr. Octavio Amat, to a hearing before the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States to highlight these cases and legislative attempts to undermine media investigations of corruption.

It is important to notice that representatives of the Panamanian government declined an invitation to attend. It is also interesting to note that the Panamanian legislative assembly is currently considering a bill that would prevent all three of these journalists from continuing to work because their doctorates are in law rather than journalism.

New Legislative Proposals

We hope that media pressure will result in a greater government commitment to investigate, expose, and castigate the corrupt. Encouragingly, increased media coverage of corruption has already helped generate proposals for new freedom-of-information legislation.

On the other hand, government intervention has undermined some of the laws that were passed. For example, last year in Paraguay, a congressman, with the aid of a coalition of civic organizations, lobbied on behalf of a bill that would facilitate access to public information. But in order to get the bill through Congress, it had to be changed so much that the final version would actually have muzzled the press. International pressure, much of it orchestrated by PFC, led the president to veto the law.

Other laws have not been implemented, which is typical for Latin America. An example is the Panamanian Transparency Law approved in December 2001 by the legislature and in January 2002 by the president. To date, there is no evidence that journalists or other citizens have been able to access government information more easily. Citizen groups, political analysts, and others are attacking the bill as nothing more than an insincere gesture to improve the country’s international image.

This image is continuing to deteriorate because of the attention corruption is receiving in the international media and because of the government’s lack of action in investigating, prosecuting, and sentencing the corrupt. It is no surprise that Panama ranked as one of the region’s most corrupt countries in [Berlin-based nongovernmental organization] Transparency International’s 2001 Corruption Index. Most recently, Panamanian Chancellor Miguel Aleman, in response to U.S. President George Bush’s threat to deny visas to the corrupt, announced that there is no corruption in Panama because if there were, the government would be prosecuting it. The announcement came as a relief to many here and abroad.

Corruption in high places filters down to all levels of society. Poor people do not so much break the law as the law breaks them...and then they opt out of the system. The poor cannot use their salaries and possessions as collateral to obtain credit for investments and purchases.

Over-regulation functions as a "poverty-trap" that creates high costs for doing business in the legal economy. Denied legal means to make a living, the poor resort to the illegal economy.

In countries like Panama, the high cost of doing business legally is made even higher by institutionalized corruption, creating permanent barriers to investment and commerce. Who would want to invest here if that would require paying bribes to men in expensive suits and hiring security guards for protection from men in rags?

In the past five years, governments in the region have blamed "external factors" for the deterioration of services and uncontrolled price increases in all aspects of food, housing, and education. The health services are bankrupt or in decay. Unemployment and underemployment have increased in almost all Latin American countries over the past five years.

But when we see the money that has come in to government coffers over the past five years, the numbers don’t add up. If we add the amounts for loans received, we can see that Latin American governments should have had sufficient money to run basic services.

The excuses won’t do anymore, and we have to look inside each country for the cause of so much dispossession. The main internal problem is, without any doubt, corruption. The money pours, as if through a sieve, to public officials who openly steal. Government bureaucrats and elected officials simply consume the taxpayers’ money, adding their own pharaonic expenditures to the cost of running the state.

The high government official ends up charging the public for the cost of his cell phone, his wife’s makeup, his children’s braces, his mistress’s vacations, his secretary’s wardrobe, and the eccentricities of his new "lifestyle." Even the most discrete can’t justify their expenses and have to resort to financial juggling acts.

Soon, even domestic servants end up on the state payroll, farms and houses are put in the names of friends and relatives, and accounts are managed by fronts. To maintain their luxuries, officials are obliged to steal more every day, as the calendar counts down to the next elections.

This is the so-called "good life." To go out and work, to honorably earn a salary with one’s own sweat, is, on the other hand, "the bad life."

Nobody is saying that all high-ranking public officials steal. It’s not like that. But there are so many curious examples of miraculous changes of fortune among them that by a simple process of extrapolation, as a class they’d have to be among the luckiest one percent on the planet, the people who win the lottery twice a year. The worst of it is that people know that to reach the top of the pyramid, they have to leave all morals behind as if fleeing a graveyard. It's a life of excesses, embezzlement, and sharp-edged deals, and whoever tries to set things right has first to enter the realm of politics and make a sacrifice to the gods of corruption: avarice and arrogance.

"All governments steal," a Panamanian politician, Tomás Altamirano Duque once publicly said, "without dying of shame."

The unadorned truth is that to be a politician is almost synonymous with being shameless and dishonest in public life. The efforts that are made to present a new image crumble into dust with every scandal that comes to public attention, when the media owners allow this to happen.

In light of this, the voices of journalists who denounce corruption are almost the only things that create consciousness, that promote investigations, demand explanations, and disseminate information from which the public can draw its own conclusions.

However, these reporters tend to be timid, as they remain under the watch of the powerful whom they would denounce, people who have the power, the money, and the influence to shut them up.

More than anything else, the media live from advertising, and the government is one of the principal advertisers. Nobody wants to slay the goose that lays the golden egg of ad sales, especially if the government is the goose.

It may be naive to believe that corruption can be ended by its denunciation. But the first thing that has to be done to resolve the problem is to recognize that it exists.

By seeing the transgressions of its leaders, the public will demand stricter and more just laws. At election time, they will be able to choose the most competent officials, rather than the most superficially popular.

But this process will take time, and more courageous journalists to take on corruption.