By Peter Therriat


I. Introduction
In 2014, Panama ranked number 87 on the freedom index as reported by Reporters Without Borders. This ranking actually marks a jump for Panama: in 2010, they were ranked 81 but took a dramatic nose dive in 2011 where they fell to 113. A big reason for the dramatic decrease was because a radio station owner was murdered and two Spanish journalists were expelled from the country for trying to expose the mining industry taking indigenous people’s land. Since that outbreak year of violence however, Panama’s steady increase up the freedom charts has been due to mostly the economic growth that has occurred by Panama’s receiving full control of the trade that occurs on the Panama Canal. Panama currently has major problems with corruption in the courts and with heavily restricted news/media outlets.

II. Historical Background
Located between the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, Panama is the southernmost country of Central America. The climate on Panama is considered tropical maritime weather, which means that internally, the country endures a tropical climate which helps support one of the most diverse rain forests in the world. On the coast people enjoy the more bearably coastal weather brought on by the bodies of water bordering them. Population wise, Panama, has a growing population at about 3,700,000 residents. This population demographically is made up of; mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 70%, Amerindian and mixed (West Indian) 14%, white 10%, and Amerindian 6%. The main language spoken is Spanish, and is also the country’s official language as stated in the Panamanian Constitution. However, most citizens are bilingual. Roman Catholicism is the main religion of the country, but there is also a large protestant population as well. Economically, Panama exports a variety of goods from the fruits, and sugar to shrimp and gold, Panama has major success in these areas. A large part of income that also comes in to the country has to do with the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal is currently the only link between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. Recently Panama was finally given full ownership of the canal by the United States of America.
Panama was originally a part of Spain up until 1821, when they then declared independence and joined with Colombia to form a larger union with Venezuela and Ecuador. This union broke apart in 1830 and Panama stayed incorporated with Colombia. In 1903 with support from the United States, Panama broke away from Colombia and formed its independent country. Part of the reason for the United States backing was that the United States wanted to finish what the French had started when they began work on the Panama Canal. The canal was finished in 1914. Since then the traffic flow on it has only increased and shows no signs of slowing. Following the breakup from Colombia, the Panamanian people originally instituted a constitutional democracy but many military leaders and dictators took power between that time and 1989 when democratic elections began to take place again. Since the time of the election in 1989, every election that has taken place has done so peacefully. Ricardo Martinelli is the latest President to be elected by the Panamanian people in a landslide vote in 2009.
Currently the Panamanian government is a constitutional democracy. The current constitution Panama has was adopted in 1972 but has several amendments made since then. Before this last constitution there were three others. The first one allowed for the United States government to interfere anywhere and at any time with the country. The others after that restricted many civil liberties of the people. Liberties that included: freedom to criticize the government, journalistic freedoms, and the right to peaceably organize. The Panamanian government is divided in to three branches; the executive, the legislative and the judicial. The executive branch is made up solely of the president and vice president. The president is not only the chief of state, but also the head of the government. The president does need a majority of the vote to win the election. The legislative branch is unicameral and made up of 71 members. The judicial branch consists of 9 magistrates and their alternates. The branch is further divided into separate chambers.
Citizens in general are granted freedom of religion, peaceful assembly, education, voting rights, and speech. Citizens are also found innocent until proven guilty in court. Educational freedom is highly touted in Panama recently, because of recent reforms by former president of Panama, Mireya Moscoso. However, some of these freedoms are restricted at times, especially the freedoms of speech, assembly and press. All the press/media outlets are privately owned for this reason, with the exception of one state owned broadcasting company. The right to protest has seen times where there is high government restriction especially in a famous historical case involving the Cruzada Civilista, where demonstrators were viciously attacked by a military riot control unit.

III. Free Speech
A majority of the free speech issues that arise in Panama stem from demonstrations and the opinions of the Panamanian people. Since Panama’s split from Colombia in 1904, government officials have always had an article in the many constitutions that have occurred since, that public attacks on a person (government official) are punishable by jail time and fines. This even goes as far as attacks that are backed up by fact. Because most courts were set up by militaristic dictators in the years that followed the 1940’s most cases involving free speech and expression were dealt with violently by “riot police.”
One prominent episode with relation to calling out public officials occurred during the Manuel Noriega regime. In June 1987, the general public growing tired of militaristic and criminal ways of Noriega’s rule set up a demonstration with the Cruzada Civilista, led by the people. The demonstration was violently put down by the “Dobermans,” a riot control force controlled by Noriega. Six hundred people were injured while another 600 were detained, tortured and even raped. This lead to the United State involvement which had former President Reagan send troops into Panama to help reinstall a democratic government. This episode was essentially the archetype for freedom of expression cases, as most cases were met with the same violence demonstrated by the “Dobermans.”
Currently, Panama is still having trouble with giving people the freedom of speech and expression. Many people that express their opinion of the government are not only verbally but also physically attacked. The attacks that happen currently are almost always linked back to whatever specific legal party that was criticized. Although, the attacks are not currently legal anymore many of the attacks go unpunished or the courts find in favor against the journalist.
In 2007, two articles were added to the constitution by then former President Martin Torrijos. The first one states that it is illegal to read mail that is intended for a government official and then publish it. This is punishable by two years in jail. The second one does not allow for a person to reveal secrets they hold as a result of their office. The fact that these amendments were signed into the constitution is a huge blow for the freedom of expression because it does not allow for any government documents to be made known by the people.
In 2011, the radio station owner, Darío Fernández Jaén, who was highly critical of the current President Martinelli, was assassinated. Jaén, was not only critical of Martinelli but he had also reported on the corruption surrounding government officials and land speculators. The big part about this was not just that he was murdered, it is also the fact that no arrest were made in the year after this occurred.
2011, though, saw a major breakthrough for freedom of speech rights. A bill was brought before the legislation that would have had a drastic effect on Panama if it was indeed passed. The bill called for jail terms, for anyone that insulted an elected official or the president. Penalty would be for 2 to 4 years in prison depending on the severity of the insult. However, current President Martinelli warned that he would veto the bill if it passed in the legislature. So far the bill has not passed in the legislature

IV. Free Press
Panama has seen many issues facing freedom of the press. Most of these issues stem from charges of libel or defamation. Freedom of the press is still an ongoing issue that has not improved since the creation of the country. The next episodes detailed here will explain the general atmosphere for journalism in Panama.
In 1996 the Panamanian Government ran a smear campaign on their own major news outlet as well as other well-known United States news outlets. Their campaign accused “La Presna,” “The Miami Herald,” “The Economist,” and “The New York Times,” of falsely reporting that the elections that had recently taken place were illegitimately financed by drug money. The Panamanian Government then went on to say that they would not allow these papers to ruin the “good name,” of Panama.
In 2003, the journalist Roberto Eisenmann Jr. accused the Attorney General for “protecting criminals and filing charges against journalists.” The Attorney General responded to this by forcing Eisenmann Jr. into criminal questioning for defamation. After the questioning was over Eisenmann was dismissed without serving jail time or a fine. However, he was restricted from leaving the country for more than year.
In 2005 two TV journalists reported that high ranking immigration officials for the Panamanian government were involved in human trafficking. The officials responded by suing the journalists for criminal defamation. Originally the lower courts dismissed the case, but when it reached the appeals court, it was ruled in favor of the immigration officials. The journalists were fined, and prohibited from working for a year. Fortunately for the reporters, a late pardon in 2011 by President Martinelli allowed the journalists to continue working.
In 2011, two journalists were reporting the activities of a mining company that was taking land from indigenous people in illegal ways. The couple was not native to Panama. They were in fact from Spain; however, they were there on work visas reporting the demonstrations that were occurring on the capital lawn. During one of the demonstrations they were detained and then deported for running counter opinions to the Panamanian government. Public outcry occurred after the couple said that the Panamanian police force forced them to take voluntarily repatriation, which would allow them back into the country after two years.
In 2012, a journalist criticized a former Supreme Court Justice for creating a highway with government funds that lead to his ranch and allowed him to benefit from the highway. The journalist was charged with damaging the former Justice’s reputation, and was forced to pay $25,000 in damages to the Justice. This case highlights and caps off the difficulty journalists faced in the history of freedom of the press in Panama. It shows that no matter if the journalist has correct information about an official, the government can still punish said journalist.
V. Critical Comparison

To begin a comparison of the United States of America and Panama, it helps to begin by looking at the wording of both countries’ constitutions. Specifically, when looking at the way freedom of speech is incorporated into each document. In the First Amendment it reads “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech or of the press…” This wording specifies that freedom of speech and the press is protected from the government and that people should have the liberty to say as they please. Nothing in that says it should ever be restricted, however in some court cases in the U.S. certain circumstances allow for some restriction. In the Panama Constitution under Article 37, it states that “Every person may freely express his opinion verbally, in writing or by any other means, without prior censorship, but there are legal responsibilities when by any of these means is prejudicial to the honor or reputation of the persons or against social security or public order.” In the Panamanian constitution the government is essentially outlawing any negative speech by the people. The wording alone in these documents suggests the difference between a true government for the people as opposed to a government that controls the people.
In the 1966 case of Brown v. Louisiana, Brown, an African-American, was refused service at a public library. Instead of leaving and having the book he wished to check out mailed to him, Brown and others began to protest and sit in on the library refusing to move until the rules were changed. This was all done in a peaceful way. The case almost mirrors the demonstration that the protestors in the Cruzada Civilista had in 1987. Fortunately, though for Brown and his fellow protestors this case did not come to the violence unleashed on the Civilistas. This case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was decided in a 5-4 ruling that Brown was innocent of any charges and that the discrimination was unconstitutional. The justices made the decision based on the fact that due to the fact that it was a public run library and therefore run by the government, any discrimination or segregation was unconstitutional. Clearly, unlike the case that occurred in Panama where no trials were held protestors were met with violence.
For the best comparison of the freedom of press issues that Panama faces, the case of Near v. Minnesota, clearly demonstrates what the U.S. feels on statements made by the press. In Near v. Minnesota, Jay Near made comments that called out Minnesota officials for conspiring with mobsters. The officials that were named in the comments ordered an injunction of Near’s paper to keep him from publishing anything in his paper. The case made it to the Supreme Court and was ruled 5-4 in favor of Near. The reason given for the ruling was that Near’s comments were in no danger of hurting anyone other than the official who was mentioned, and the first amendment is not meant to protect someone’s feelings or reputation. This case was one the first cases that dealt with prior restraint. Which is a form of censorship that puts an injuction on a newspaper before can print an article. Because of this case the Supreme Court ruled that prior censorship is unconstitutional except for certain circumstances that affect national security i.e. wartime scenarios. In comparison to the Panamanian press, the courts are allowed to keep a paper from publishing anything critical of the government. They are able to do this because of the wording of their constitution, which holds anyone accountable for what they say even if it is the truth. This was one of the first cases though in the United States that Supreme Court began to rule in favor of the press.

VI. Conclusion

Since its inception as its own free standing country in 1903, Panama has made great strides in protecting the civil liberties of its citizens. However, freedom of the press continues to be an ongoing struggle for the country. Most problems stem from politicians that have true or embarrassing comments made about them, from which they immediately sue or try to have the commenter arrested. The United States on the other hand in recent years dating back to 1931, actually have the Supreme Court’s vigorously backing journalists and ruling in their favor. The freedom of speech is also much more protected in the United States as compared to Panama, because even lies in the United States can find protection in the First Amendment as long as no damage or people get hurt because of the lie.

This post was last updated April 30, 2014.


Brown v. Louisiana, 383 U.S. 131 (1966).

“Freedom House .” Panama. N.p., 26 Mar 2014. Web. 27 Mar 2014.<;.

Greene, Julie, The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal (New York: Penguin Press, 2009)

Harding, Robert C., The History of Panama, Greenwood Publishing, (2006).

“IFEX .” Defending and Promoting Free Expression. IFEX, 26 Mar 2014. Web. 27 Mar 2014. <;.

Lewis, Anthony (2008-03-03). Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931).

New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971).

Panama Const. art. 37 (2004).

“Reporters Without Borders.” For Freedom of Infortmation. N.p., 26 Mar 2014. Web. 27 Mar 2014. <;.

Weeks, John and Gunson, Phil, Panama. Made in the USA, (1992).

One Response to Panama

  1. Christophe Beaulieu says:

    In Section II, Historical Background, one finds the statement, “The main language spoken is Spanish, and is also the country’s official language as stated in the Panamanian Constitution. However, most citizens are bilingual.”

    To the statement, “most citizens are bilingual,” I must take great exception. In that I am a Permanent Resident of Panama with an E-Cédula, I can speak with more than casual authority about this matter both in English and Spanish. The kindest comment I can make concerning the author’s statement is that perhaps Mr. Therriat has never been to Panamá! I can find absolutely no justification whatsoever for such a patently inaccurate, unambiguously incorrect statemenent, “most citizens are bilingual.” At the very most one might be able to identify 15% of the population who speak “some” English.

    There are, of course, exceptions when one meets a native Panamanian who speaks excellent English. But these are the exception, definitively not the norm. I personnaly know many university students in Panamá who study Englsih but have no ability whatsoever to engage in even a one-or-two sentence dialogue in English. I have questioned many bright university students about the modus operandi of their English professors. The answers are consistently and virtually identical, i.e, most “university professors of English” in Panama cannot even speak enough English to teach a few minutes of their classes in the language that they profess to know well enough to teach! They conduct their classes entirely in Spanish.

    While one will encounter some physicians and some attorneys who speak some English these are exceptions. I have been hospitalized enough days over the years to know that the staff does not speak English and perhaps only fifty-percent of the physicians speak some English. To categorically state that “most citizens are bilingual” is simply preposterus. My academic curiosity compels me to ask what source the author can cite to justify his contention that “most citizens are bilingual?”

    An astounded reader

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