Leaked messages allegedly show former Panamanian president tried to influence media coverage through executives

Messages leaked by an anonymous group allegedly show that former Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela (2014-2019) sustained an operation during his tenure to carry out online attacks on journalists critical of his administration, as well as pressure media executives to stop negative coverage of his government.

The messages were allegedly exchanged between Varela and advisors, government officials and public figures between 2017 and 2018 through the WhatsApp messaging application and were published by an anonymous group on the site Varelaleaks.com. Those responsible for the site describe themselves as "a group of Latin American citizens committed to democracy and tired of the corruption and abuse of our authorities." They said the messages were collected from a mobile phone to which they had access.

According to the site Panama América, since Nov. 5, several media outlets in the country have received a message from the group indicating the site where nearly 25GB of files containing the messages were made available.

Former Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela (right) (Photo- Presidencia de la República Mexicana : CC BY 2.0)

Former Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela (right) (Photo: Presidencia de la República Mexicana : CC BY 2.0).

Since the leak was published, Varela has acknowledged that the messages are his on more than one occasion. He maintains, however, that what was extracted from the phone was "distorted, altered and manipulated with the clear intention of causing damage," as it said in a statement released on Nov. 7 on his social networks. In a new statement issued on the 13th, the former president said that “the illegal interception, alteration and filtration of my private conversations, once again, are the lowest act of cowardice of my political adversaries.”

The messages have been explored by various Panamanian media, which found conversations between Varela and government officials pointing to an alleged scheme of online harassment of public figures critical of his government, including journalists, led directly by the former president, as reported by Panamá América.

Varela's "Tweet Center", according to the news site, was made up of presidential campaign collaborators who after the elections were hired in government positions. The former president reportedly coordinated the operation with Rafael Montes, then-deputy director of state-run TV network Sertv, and the two “through their team of public officials worked memes and shock messages on social networks against journalists, politicians, lawyers and civil society voices who at some time questioned the management of the Government,” Panamá América wrote.

Among the targets of this alleged operation are journalists Álvaro Alvarado and Atenógenes Rodríguez and commentator Juan Carlos Tapia.

In addition to the “Tweet Center,” the messages point out that Varela's then-Secretary of Communication, Carlos Estrada, referred to several journalists as homosexuals using homophobic terms, Panamá América reported.

It is clear that Juan Carlos Varela and his Communication team structured a plan to discredit several journalists calling them people who ask for bribes, homosexuals, clowns, etc. Several times I reported that all the attacks against me were structured by him and his call center,” Alvarado said on his Twitter profile.

Journalists are "corrupt" or "incompetent," Varela reportedly said

According to Varelaleaks.com, the messages also show that the former Panamanian president exerted influence over newspaper La Prensa through Fernando Berguido, the former president of the daily who was appointed by Varela as Panama's ambassador to Italy during his government.

In a conversation on Aug, 29, 2018, Varela allegedly sent Berguido a link from a La Prensa tweet to an article about a speech the then-president delivered at Harvard University. The tweet stated that “a claim” interrupted Varela's “optimistic speech.” “That was not so. It was the questions part. Do I put a fake stamp on that?” the former president allegedly asked the former ambassador.

Berguido allegedly replied by sending Varela the message he said he had sent to Chelle, supposedly referring to María Mercedes de Corró, La Prensa's executive vice president and also Panama's ambassador in Spain under Varela's government, and the “director,” supposedly Rita Vásquez, director of the newspaper. In a message he said he sent at two, Berguido allegedly calls La Prensa's coverage “unfair,” “malicious,” “retarded” and “childish.”

In messages sent minutes later, Berguido allegedly sends the link to the story and comments "at least they changed the title" and then reportedly adds that "I'm asking to go to LP this week to talk." Varela reportedly replies: “Yes, that's all. Put things right.”

In talks between Corró and Varela, also leaked, the former president allegedly tries to direct La Prensa coverage, offering interviews and suggesting approaches, and reportedly complains about certain articles published by the newspaper about his government. More than once, Corró  allegedly defends the publication, as in a message from Nov. 30, 2017, in which he reportedly says that La Prensa “has been respectful and supportive of his struggle to the point that for the first time in the history of the newspaper we have been labeled as oficialistas.”

Varela also allegedly complained directly to Stanley Motta, owner of the television network TVN, about the broadcaster's coverage of his government. “I understand that you are with your family on vacation, and you are not involved in the day to day, but it is your channel and they are your journalists,” the former president reportedly wrote on July 27, 2017. Without reply, Varela allegedly insisted the following day: “Stanley, your journalists and your channel has been the most aggressive in that. I thank you, tell me where we are.”

To Miguel Heras, current president of the Foreign Trade Bank of Latin America and a board member of TVN, the former president also allegedly complained about the network's journalistic coverage. “The truth [is] that in this country one puts all journalists in a blender and one doesn't come out. Some for corrupt, others for incompetence,” Varela supposedly said in an Oct. 19, 2018 message.

A journalist cited several times in the alleged complaints by the former president to Motta and Heras is Sabrina Bacal, a TVN official and president of the Panama National Council of Journalism (CNP, for its initials in Spanish).

Pressures on the media, concerted attacks on social networks against critical journalists, insults and disrespect for the work of journalists, are some of the behaviors that threaten the freedom of expression that are extracted from the #VarelaLeaks. Deplorable!,” Bacal wrote on Twitter.

In a statement released on Nov. 21, the CNP and the Forum of Journalists for Freedom of Expression stated that the leak of Varela's messages "left bare great weaknesses of our institutionality.”

“The situation forces an energetic call to officials and former officials of all levels to understand and respect the work of the media. The duty of journalism is to report rigorously and independently the facts of public interest, avoiding taking sides in personal disputes, policies or partisan agendas,” the organizations wrote.

The leaked messages led to the resignation of Panama's Attorney General, Kenia Porcell, appointed by Varela in December 2014 for a ten-year term, as CNN reported.

She announced her resignation on Nov. 13, effective Jan. 1, 2020. According to CNN, the conversations between Varela and Porcell leaked on Varelaleaks “betray alleged requests for personal favors, influence peddling and possible interference of the former president in the management of cases in the public prosecutor’s office.” They also report how the prosecutor, Varela and his brother José Luis Varela, then a deputy, “would have orchestrated the sentencing agreements” between the Panamanian government and the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.

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