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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

U.S. lifts economic restrictions on Panama's oldest newspaper after transfer of ownership



Panama’s oldest newspaper is celebrating after a transfer of ownership led the U.S. Treasury Department to remove financial restrictions against it.

Fundación Publicando Historia is now majority owner of La Estrella de Panama and El Siglo Editorial Group (GESE), which has been subsequently cleared from the effects of the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) List, also referred to as the Clinton List.

Screenshot of La Estrella de Panamá’s website on the morning of Oct. 24
 

This is a momentous achievement that reinforces the critical importance of the freedom of the press and the plurality of media outlets in a democratic society such as Panama’s,” said John D. Feeley, U.S. Ambassador in Panama, according to an embassy press release. “We applaud Eduardo Quirós, President of GESE, for his unrelenting and valiant leadership in securing a viable path forward for these venerable newspapers. As well, we salute the employees of GESE for their perseverance in upholding their journalistic commitment to Panama during trying times.”

In May 2016, the U.S. Department of the Treasury included Abdul Waked at the time the main owner of newspapers La Estrella de Panamá and El Siglo on the SDN List, which seeks to combat money laundering. Inclusion on the list means that the individual’s assets in the U.S. are blocked and U.S. citizens and residents are prohibited from doing business with them.

Though the newspapers themselves were not included on the list, they were blocked because of Waked’s majority ownership and inclusion on the list, as explained by the U.S. embassy. News agency EFE pointed out that Waked doesn’t face trial in the U.S. and that the Panamanian judiciary dismissed a case against him due to lack of evidence.

GESE and its employees fought its inclusion on the list, saying it hindered operations and the future of its newspapers. Eduardo Quirós, president of GESE, told the Knight Center in January 2017 that it restricted the sale of advertising and the purchase of resources such as paper and ink that are imported from the U.S.  In July, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) did not renew the papers’ operating license.                                                                                                               

On Oct. 18, Abdul Waked ceded irrevocably and free of charge 51 percent his shares to Fundación Publicando Historia, which is now the “controlling beneficiary and owner of GESE newspapers,” according to La Estrella de Panamá and a release from the U.S. Embassy in Panama. Consequently, U.S. citizens and businesses can now carry out business with the papers.

Fundación Publicando Historia is led by a Foundation Council comprised of Quirós; businessman and former Panama Vice President Samuel Lewis Navarro; and Eloy Alfaro, lawyer and former Panamanian ambassador to Washington D.C..

According to El Capital Financiero, there will be three members on the foundation council “who must be Panamanians and cannot be civil servants.”

Members, except for Quirós, are also prohibited from intervening editorially in the papers, according to La Estrella de Panamá. It added that Alfaro, who was part of the Editorial Board for the paper, resigned from that post immediately.

At a press conference on Oct. 23 announcing the transfer of ownership, El Capital Financiero reported Quirós as saying, “In these citizens [Alfaro and Lewis Navarro] we have found the disposition and the commitment for the defense of the freedom of expression and safeguard of the heritage that the newspapers represent for Panama.”

The publication added that Quirós said the GESE payroll was reduced more than 50 percent since it was included on the Clinton List. Despite obstacles and restrictions of the past 17 months, Quirós said that the papers received support and strength from advertisers and subscribers, according to La Estrella de Panamá.

Filemón Medina, general secretary of Panama’s Union of Journalists, praised the fact that the paper’s were no longer restricted, but added "the position of rejection against the foreign policy of the United States Government, which they want to impose in the world on the basis of deciding who is good and who is not good, [should be] regretted and maintained, EFE reported.

Regarding work with the embassy, Quirós said to Telemetro that “the positions of the newsroom and of the embassy did not always coincide. But common ground was found that made it possible to move the newspapers forward,” La Estrella reported.



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