Entities demand respect for press freedom during criminal investigation into purchase of media group in Panama

Freedom of expression organizations in Panama are on alert after the Public Prosecutor's Office disclosed it is investigating whether money laundering occurred during the purchase of a media company.

Although the prosecutor has not released the name of the media organization in question, local news outlets are reporting that the case involves Editora Panamá América S.A. (Grupo Epasa).

In a statement released on June 22, the public prosecutor said that the money used to acquire the media group could be linked to crimes against public administration, as reported by the newspaper La Estrella de Panama. According to the prosecutor, three businessmen are being investigated.

For Epasa, which currently publishes the newspapers CríticaPanamá América and Día a Día, the investigation is a reprisal for recent reports released by the group containing criticism of José Luiz Varela, brother of the current president Juan Carlos Varela and other politicians.

The acquisition of the group was carried out in 2010 during the administration of Ricardo Martinelli, a former president who was arrested in the U.S. on June 12 after his country's justice system requested a red alert from Interpol when investigating him for crimes involving more than ten cases of corruption and espionage against opponents. Martinelli is in a Miami jail and is being sought for extradition to Panama.

Media company workers held a peaceful demonstration at the company's headquarters on June 23 in protest of the investigation initiated by the Public Prosecutor's Office, according to the site Telemetro.

The National Association of Journalists (Conape for its acronym in Spanish), a Panamanian organization of media professionals, said it was "on alert" after the announcement of the investigation.

The entity has called on state authorities to use due diligence within the constitutional parameters and so as not to interfere with the editorial line of the company nor to affect the work of the journalists.

"Workers always tend to be the most vulnerable in these processes, and are often their indirect victims, not the main actors," Conape said in a statement posted on social networks.The entity stressed that freedom of expression, opinion and the press are the three fundamental pillars for the exercise of free journalism.

In a statement, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) called for freedom of expression and press freedom to be respected during the criminal investigation process.

"While the IAPA is respectful of the exercise of justice and keeps itself outside of the merits of the case that the Attorney's General's Office is investigating we urge that, as was pointed out in an official communiqué, there be guaranteed respect for freedom of expression and the editorial stance of news media," IAPA president Matt Sanders said via press release.

Critics of the current government of President Juan Carlos Varela said that the investigation is a way to silence communications companies that oversee and report on government actions, according to the newspaper Panama América, which is part of the group being investigated.

"They keep making mistakes ... they should not be pursuing or closing media, let alone use their influence so that newspapers do not publish their news," opposition congressman Ivan Picota told the newspaper.

In a press release, the public prosecutor stated that it respected and guaranteed freedom of expression and the editorial line of the media, and said that "criminal investigation does not affect the labor relations nor the journalistic activity performed there."

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.