Knight Center
Knight Center


Media executive says press freedom at stake as U.S. refuses to renew commercial operations license to Panamanian newspapers

Estrella de Panamá and El Siglo will not be able to conduct business transactions with U.S. citizens and companies starting July 13, 2017 following the recent decision of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Treasury Department to not review their operating license, according to La Estrella de Panamá.

"A more fighting response from the Government of the Republic of Panama would have been opportune, mainly because what is at stake is the freedom of expression and of the press, the right of access to the information of the Panamanians," Eduardo Quiros, executive president of Grupo GESE, told the Knight Center.

According to AFP, this decision of the U.S. government is due to Abdul Waked’s inclusion in the 'Clinton List' in May 2016. Waked, a Panamanian businessman of Lebanese origin, is the majority partner of Grupo Editorial GESE, the company to which the newspapers mentioned belong.

Those included in this list, prepared by the U.S. government since 1995, are individuals or companies around the world that have had links or are being investigated for alleged links to drug trafficking or money laundering.

Regarding the consequences of this decision from the U.S. government, Quirós told the Knight Center: "Panama is a dollarized and heavily banked country. The vast majority of our advertisers have relationships with companies or citizens of the U.S., so the effect at the advertising level is going to be very large."

"We have news agency services that we pay in the United States, we pay many of our providers by international transfers; [now] we could not,” Quiros said.

The GESE group, in a statement released on July 12, called on its advertisers and suppliers to continue to support them in order to continue operations in Panamá.

"We remain committed to continue on all of our platforms, including print," Quirós told the Panamanian daily La Prensa.

Quirós also told La Prensa that they are unaware of the current U.S. government policy that led OFAC not to renew its operating license.

In January 2017, the U.S. government extended the license of La Estrella de Panamá and El Siglo for another six months. According to an official statement from the Panamanian embassy in the U.S., this extension, which expires on July 13, was done in order to give American companies time to commercially and financially disassociate from the newspapers.

At that time, the president of the National Association of Journalists of Panama (Conape), Blanca Gómez, told the Knight Center that the public prosecutor of Panama had investigated the GESE group and determined that there was no direct link between the company and illicit activities.

"The United States Department of the Treasury has been asked to present the evidence it has and has not presented it," Gómez said in January 2017 and also included that she did not understand why the U.S. government continued to include the two newspapers on the Clinton List.

After the non-renewal of the license of operations to the Panamanian newspapers, several organizations that defend freedom of expression have shown solidarity with the editorial group. In particular, Conape was emphatic, via Twitter, in saying that this measure is a violation of the freedom of the press that humiliates the country.

The chairman of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information of the Inter American Press Association, Roberto Rock, reported that his organization is reiterating requests to the U.S. government, both in publications and meetings with officials in Washington and Miami, to take the necessary measures to ensure that newspapers, press freedom and the right of the Panamanian public to information are not affected.

"We are surprised that while the U.S. ambassador in Panama, John Feeley, said publicly that the newspapers are not involved in unlawful activities on the other hand the government does in fact apply these sanctions against those media," Rock said.

According to La Estrella de Panamá, following the publication of the Clinton List in early May 2016, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Edison Lanza, said during a visit to Panama: "Whenever there is a possibility that a newspaper disappears, freedom of expression is at risk."

The dean of the Panamanian press also reported on that occasion that since the release of this list, the GESE group was forced to take drastic measures to continue operating, reducing its pagination, its products and dispensing with 10 percent of the payroll.