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Knight Center

JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Panamanians protect their oldest daily newspaper and ask the U.S. to remove it from the Clinton List



167 years of Panamanian journalistic history could come to an end as the continuity of operations at newspapers La Estrella de Panamá and El Siglo is uncertain due to a legal problem with the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Problems for the newspapers started in May 2016 when Abdul Waked, the main owner of the newspapers, was included in the Treasury Department’s Clinton List. The list seeks to combat money laundering and states that businesses of people on the list who are involved in judicial cases with the U.S. will be frozen. Also, people in the United States are prohibited from entering into commercial relations with them.

On Jan. 6, workers at La Estrella de Panamá deliver free newspapers to citizens as thanks for their support. Courtesy photo:Ariel Marciana/ La Estrella de Panamá.

However, during the past eight months, the newspapers have been able to continue their operations with “multiple limitations” because the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has granted them licenses to do so, according to what Eduardo Quirós, president of Grupo Editorial El Siglo y La Estrella (GESE), told the Knight Center.

Most recently, on Jan. 5, a license was given to the newspapers to perform “certain transactions and activities” until July 13, 2017.

Although this resolution meant that the newspapers were not forced to close their doors at midnight on Jan. 5, as had previously been thought, for Eduardo Quirós, president of Grupo Editorial El Siglo y La Estrella (GESE) it is only an extension of “an unexecuted death sentence.”

It was announced in May that the newspapers were not under investigation by U.S. authorities, Quirós said. However, they have not been completely removed from this list, a fact that creates commercial and economic restrictions.

According to Quirós, despite having licenses, being included on the list hinders any activity, including, for example, the sale of advertising. Usually the contracts are made annually, he said, however, as OFAC licenses are for less time, it is difficult to make a contract in this manner. Also, buying raw material, like paper and ink, is a problem as they import it from the United States. And eventually the operation of its digital site could become complicated since the servers are located in the U.S.

The situation of these media has not gone unnoticed in Panamanian society. La Estrella de Panamá is considered the “dean of journalism” in the country. Founded in 1849 under the name The Panamá Star, the newspaper has told the country’s history for 167 years, from the time before Panama became an independent republic. For its part, El Siglo is celebrating its 32nd anniversary and has become a voice in the country’s media landscape.

The closure would also mean job loss for 250 employees at both media outlets. During these last eight months, they had already been forced to let go 50 workers, to change a magazine from weekly to monthly distribution and to reduce page numbers.

Panamanian associations show their support for the situation of newspapers La Estrella de Panamá and El Siglo. Courtesy photo: La Estrella de Panamá.

It is not surprising then that different organizations have joined their struggle. The country’s Chamber of Commerce, as well as different universities and the Catholic Church, have expressed support for the newspapers. Even the National Assembly passed a resolution in which it expressed support for the newspapers and expressed concern to the U.S. Congress.

In a Jan. 6 editorial, the day it was thought would be the last edition, La Estrella thanked Panama for the support, but added that this license is not the solution they need.

“Both La Estrella de Panamá and El Siglo have been granted a license for six months more in order to operate without problems. It is not what we demand, rather total exclusion from the list,” the editorial said.

To be excluded, as has happened with two other companies owned by Waked, the U.S. authorities have suggested that the media be sold. That option has been strongly rejected inside the newspapers.

“I, in my capacity as president of the newspapers, said that under these conditions was the worst time for sale because it will affect the editorial line of the newspaper. La Estrella de Panamá is not only the oldest newspaper in the country, but today, the most independent newspaper in Panama,” Quirós said. “And in that position we stay.”

Quirós explained that selling a newspaper does not resemble selling “a department store” because it puts the journalists’ independence at risk.

“The most important thing for a media outlet is its editorial line, is the independence, the freedom the journalists have to do their work. If the newspaper is sold, in the scheme of an auction, and in a small society like that of Panama where there isn’t a line of people with interests to buy a media outlet, except someone who is close to power, it is really worrisome. We are very concerned of the possibility of a sale that ends up altering the editorial line of the newspaper.”

The position is also shared by the National Association of Journalists of Panama (Conape for its acronym in Spanish). For its president, Blanca Gómez, the decision to sell the media outlet cannot be imposed by the United States, especially since there is no clear investigation against the newspapers.

“We consider that it is violating the term of national sovereignty,” Gómez told the Knight Center. “This is a Panamanian company, it is a national company, and the ambassador [of the U.S. in Panama] has been giving statements saying that the company has to change owners, that it has to change capital, that this is the answer for the situation. He is not the one that has to come and dictate this here. He has to maintain his position as a diplomat, and in any case let it be the authorities that make the decisions.”

According to Gómez, the prosecution in Panama investigated this company and determined that there was no direct link with illegal activities. “The United States Department of the Treasury has been asked to present the evidence it has and has not presented it, and the only thing the ambassador has pointed out is that there is nothing against the company per se. So we do not understand why these two media outlets are still being harassed and being kept on the Clinton List.”

For both Gómez and Quirós, this situation is not only an economic and commercial issue. For them, freedom of expression of Panamanians and therefore the democracy of a country is being affected. Therefore, it seems to them that the attitude of the governments of both countries has not been ideal.

For Gómez, the Panamanian government has failed to play a more active role vis-à-vis the United States. Quirós said that Panama “could have been a little more forceful.”

However, the Panamanian Presidency said in a statement that the most recent license was granted thanks to the work of the High Level Commission that was created by the government to address this situation.

The statement also said that the president “will continue to work to protect the jobs of Panamanians in those situations that because of different factors are at risk,” but added that, according to the Minister of Economy and FInance, the future of the media outlets depends on the “decisions taken by the shareholders” as in the case of other companies on the Clinton List.

For its part, the US Embassy in Panama also commented on the latest license through its Twitter account. In the statement, the embassy notes its commitment to freedom of expression, but assures that the intention of this extension is to give U.S. companies time to “disengage from their commercial relationship with GESE” in the event that a "permanent solution in which GESE does not need a license" is not achieved.

For now, Quirós and Gómez hope that this license will give them the time the media need to get the United States to change positions concerning the situation of the newspapers.

“It cannot be possible for a country that has been a banner on democracy for the whole world to try to do that with a country like ours, where we have shown 100 percent of the time that we have been a peaceful people, and we have always tried to maintain good relations with all our brother countries,” Gómez said.

“The United States is a country that comprehends and understands well the significance of freedom of expression,” Quirós said. “The democracy of the United State is built on the fundamental pillar of understanding that freedom of expression is the freedom of freedoms. However, in this case there has been too much inconsistency on the part of that government. I hope that this attitude changes and we can safeguard that which more than a newspaper is heritage, an institution of the Republic of Panama.” 



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