Panamanian legislator withdraws controversial proposal that would have regulated practice of journalism

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  • November 6, 2015

By Andy East

After a wave of criticism, the Panamanian Congress decided not to consider a controversial proposal that would have imposed serious restrictions on the practice of journalism for local and foreign correspondents, according to the Panamanian newspaper La Prensa.

The author of the proposal, representative Juan Moya, sent a letter to the president of the Communication and Transportation Commission of the General Assembly requesting the withdrawal of the proposal, according to a tweet from the legislator’s Twitter account on October 15.

“It’s my desire that [the project] is withdrawn from the agenda. If it’s not possible, I leave it to the discretion of the Commission,” he said in the missive. Although the letter does not explain the motives for the withdrawal,  in an interview given to the newspaper Mi Diario the legislator said the opposition to the proposal was “a campaign of lies” and left the door open to try to present it later.

Draft Bill No. 15 “that regulates the professional career of journalists and graphic reporters in Panama” sparked controversy in July when Moya submitted it to the Congress.

The criticism centered on articles 4 and 5 of the proposal. Article 4 stated that Panamanians must have a university degree in journalism to practice journalism or a certification issued by the Academic Technical Commission of Journalism, an entity that the proposal sought to create. The proposed law would have also imposed a deadline on journalists who had started school after 2010 to finish their degrees.

Article 5, for its part, would have required foreign journalists to obtain “a temporary professional accreditation” from the Academic Technical Commission of Journalism to practice journalism in the country and would have been valid for one year with the possibility of an extension for an additional year. After the second year, a foreign journalist “would not be able to continue practicing the profession in the Republic of Panama,” according to the to proposal.

Additionally, article 21 stated that anyone who “illegally practices the profession of journalism will be sentenced to two to five years in prison” in accordance with the country’s penal code.

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) said the proposal’s provisions would have been a relapse to the “gag laws” approved during the country’s military dictatorship and later abolished in 2005, according to the preliminary conclusions of SIP’s 71st General Assembly in Charleston, South Carolina, which ended on Oct. 6.

“Not even in Venezuela is there a law that would imprison somebody for practicing journalism,” said Claudio Paolillo, president of the Commission of Press and Information Freedom of the IAPA during the assembly, as reported in La Estrella de Panamá.

In an Aug. 3 press release, the Panamanian government said it was in disagreement “with any law that restricts the freedom of information and expression.”

Months later, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela told local media outlets that “the legislator who submitted that law should withdraw it, seek a consensus with media owners, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), and if they are going to submit something, it should be a consensus,” according to the news agency EFE.

Faced with the controversy surrounding the restrictions to foreign correspondents, Moya said, in an interview with the website PanAm Post, that his intention was to find out how many foreign journalists were in the country.

“We haven’t given up,” Moya later told the newspaper Mi Diario on Oct. 25. “We will continue the fight to support journalists as long as they do the same. The unions need to sit down and dialogue with media owners to reach the necessary agreements.”

Blanca Gómez, the president of the National College of Journalists (Conape), an organization that supported the proposal, said the rejection of this initiative “was due to blackmail by some media owners,” according to EFE. Gómez also announced that a commission of representatives would be created to immediately work on the “restructuring” of the proposed law.

Other parties such as journalism students expressed their support for the proposal. The hashtag #Síalaley (Yes to the law) was created on Twitter.

Panama has seen an uptick in attacks against freedom of expression in recent years. In 2012, the Union of Panamanian Journalists reported that attacks against media outlets had increased 275 percent that year compared to the previous year, according to the Knight Center.

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.