Former President of Panama could face charges of espionage on journalists

The future of the former president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), will be determined on March 25, when the electoral criminal protection that he currently has will be officially removed. Once this happens, the justice system could demand that he returns to the country to respond to the different investigations involving him. One of these is related to alleged illegal wiretapping and spying on journalists, members of the opposition, civil society, and even his own employees and associates.

The scandal erupted in late 2014 when it became known Martinelli's administration spent more than US $13 million on the purchase of equipment and software from an Israeli company in mid-2010 with funds from the National Assistance Program (PAN by its Spanish acronym), a state-run social assistance plan. Such equipment, with which the interceptions were made, had the ability to capture data from any cell phone, to copy audio files, videos and pictures, and it can even activate cameras to record without being detected.

The equipment, which targeted the National Security Council, an entity that reports directly to the Presidency, is missing. However, recordings, transcripts and videos have been found, which has allowed for further investigation by prosecutors. Even the current president, Juan Carlos Varela, has asked Israel about the transaction.

In light of these events, on January 12, Gustavo Perez and Alejandro Garuz, former directors of the Council, were arrested and charged with offenses against the inviolability of secrecy and privacy. According to the prosecution, it is believed that at least 150 people were victims of eavesdropping, a fact that was suspected by many, especially due to public statements made ​​by the former president.

“Martinelli was a person who had no filter,” Lourdes de Obaldía, manager director of the newspaper La Prensa, said in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “Even at a general meeting of shareholders of La Prensa he said, ‘I have the records of everybody here’.

“We did not denounce the hearings because the institutions in Panama were very weak,” Obaldía added. “But we talked about direct threats, stigmatization that existed, and campaigns against journalists and newspaper executives. To the extent that they had even made a television ad discrediting journalists of the newspaper.”

The administration of Martinelli was characterized by a hostile relationship with the media. For example, during his speeches it was common for him to attack media that was critical of his government and that had published information regarding alleged corruption. With La Prensa, he had a particularly difficult relationship because of its publications.

One of the investigations conducted by La Prensa was published in 2013 in which it was stated that relatives of Martinelli had allegedly received bribes connected with the former president of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi. Soon, the newspaper’s website suffered a cyber attack and was shut down.

Martinelli did not hesitate to use his Twitter account to discredit and attack the newspaper, which he accused repeatedly of "inventing" the information published. In the 2013 Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the different attacks and stigmatizing statements were documented against La Prensa.

But the attacks were not only verbal. According to Obaldía, a year and a half into his term, all government advertising to the newspaper was suspended. The newspaper also faces lawsuits for nearly US $50 million.

Furthermore, Roberto Eisenmann, founder of the newspaper La Prensa who was quite critical of alleged corruption in the government of Panama, was targeted with unusual tax audits. Eisenmann and Martinelli had several confrontations through social media and it is believed that Eisenmann is within the list of potential victims of eavesdropping.

Other corruption allegations

Although the hacking scandal has had quite an impact in Panama, the case for which he could be required to return to the country is the complaint against him for alleged irregularities in a contract for US $ 45 million for the purchase of dehydrated food, also purchased with money from the National Assistance Program (PAN). This is a process that began on January 28, when the Supreme Court admitted knowledge of the denouncement.

However, Martinelli has electoral criminal protection as the president from the Cambio Democrático (CD) Party. This is a benefit provided by Panamanian law that has prevented the criminal process from beginning. Against this background, the Supreme Court, after it ratified on March 7 the decision made on January 28, asked the Electoral Tribunal (TE) to remove the immunity Martinelli enjoys.

On March 17, the TE admitted the request made ​​by the Supreme Court , which presented more than 20 volumes containing the record of complaints against Martinelli. That same day, TE officials went to the offices of one of the former president’s lawyers to notify him of the request to remove immunity.

On January 28, Martinelli left the country and traveled to Guatemala to participate for the first time as a Member of the Central American Parliament. Since then, he has not returned to Panama, and although there is no clear information as to his whereabouts, he is believed to be in the United States. However, the former president has made statements through different media and his Twitter account, claiming he feels like a persecuted politician and will not return to the country due to lack of guarantees.

Despite these arguments, it should be noted that the decision to request that immunity be removed was made by the Supreme Court, which consists of nine judges, five of whom were appointed by Martinelli.

And although the future of Martinelli has not yet been determined, possible prosecution is welcomed as good news for freedom of expression and for the country's justice system, more generally.

“The Panamanian is quite positive. Never has a former official of such weight been tried,” said Obaldía. “Not that there haven’t been corrupt governments, but what happens is that there is a need and a commitment to justice. What Martinelli did was a blow to the country's institutions; he assaulted public funds with cost overruns and indebtedness and a constant attack on fundamental rights.”

*Mariana Muñoz, a student in the class “Journalism and Press Freedom in Latin America at the University of Texas at Austin, contributed to this article.

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.