A birthday report from the editor
It’s a couple of days away from the 21st birthday of The Panama News and it has been a rough year. So much has changed, so many coincidences, so many things about which I wonder but don’t really know. Tough times will continue into at least the start of this coming year. There are pivotal things to be decided for better or worse in 2016, especially in the United States but also in Panama and the Latin American and Caribbean regions.
This time last year The Panama News was knocked offline by hackers and a reader had offered to hire some folks to get it back up but after a month of doing nothing they quit. (In retrospect it was blessing not to be in any sort of relationship with those would-be defenders and web hosts.) I fought off-and-on battles with the hackers, which culminated in March when the knocked us offline and destroyed many of our archives going back to 2000. The website didn’t get back up until the latter part of July, but in the meantime we went into “exile,” publishing articles as Facebook notes. Our email list shrank and our Twitter following grew during this exile. Both are slowly growing now.
I think that the hacker problem may have been plural, dating back to early 2014 at least but then getting very disruptive in mid-December of that year. It may be that one operation crippled the website in a way that I hardly noticed and then later other opportunist criminals saw a weakness and moved in. I don’t know. The attacks that started in December of last year, unlike the previous problems, were about someone taking over the website and sending spam. I got a taunting perverted Facebook message at the time but did not recognize it for what it was until I got the same thing again when somebody was trying to take over The Panama News Facebook page and email accounts. Mark Zuckerberg, by the way, APPROVES of these sorts of taunts, or at least his employees said that they don’t violate community standards.
What else was happening last December? Prosecutors were starting to ask questions about the Petaquilla gold mining stock swindle. One of that scam’s protectors, Alejandro Moncada Luna, was put under house arrest. The local gringo community’s resident online fascist, Don Winner — who was a shill for that stock swindle — fled the country. Winner also used Moncada Luna as a prized source in calling me a liar and a criminal — although the now imprisoned ex-magistrate lost that case against me, very badly. This is a long-running annoyance from the past, not much worth mentioning except that it fits into a pattern that’s well-nigh ubiquitous on the US far right, which dominates the Republican Party. I’ll get to that again in a bit.
So how bad of a hit to The Panama News readership was the website outage? It certainly was a hit, but how bad is hard to say. Before the email spam / shutdown attacks started, people coming to the website were often getting an error message, which they could overcome simply enough by refreshing the link. Some did, some didn’t and both sorts of people registered as unique visitors. From time to time, people had also been getting messages that The Panama News was a bogus website that would infect their computer with viruses.
Anyway, reconstruction of The Panama News website began in July and is still far from over. I want to create a front page with a graphic slider that highlights the newest stories, and links to sections, a front page on which I can put some prominent ads and a few RSS feeds for other websites. (Really, I’d like to have a common portal to most of Panama’s English-language and alternative online media, through which we could mutually boost each others’ readership and generate some revenue to share.) There is much content from the past that can be rescued and saved in a new archive, but that’s a lot of work, maybe something that can be done by a lot of volunteers doing a little work each. The thing is, we are and really long have been a ragtag, mostly volunteer and mostly reader-supported news and cultural medium. All of that still comes short but by doing the occasional outside work and growing some of my food the publication and I scrape by.
Marching through the wilderness of virtual exile, the news kept on coming in life’s full spectrum and with help from a relatively few readers — you know who you are — we kept up the battle, reported some important stories, celebrated life in Panama and plotted our return.
With our woes, Winner’s exit, Okke Ornstein mostly working in Europe and the Middle East and paying less attention to the Panama beat, the death of Lee Zeltzer who was covering Boquete online and some of the English-language media having production ups and downs according to the lives of the senior citizens who run them, that has left some spaces and there have been some newcomers, most of whom are just copyright pirates or fronts for some other business. And let me not be overly dismissive: there are publications that are mostly advertising like The Visitor and Playa Community, media that do not try to seriously cover the news of Panama in general, let alone the world outside the isthmus, but nevertheless feature some fine, informative and serious writing amidst all the “advertorials.” There are all of these tiny operations, none of which is big enough to be a comprehensive “newspaper of record” and at which Google and the rabiblanco media might sneer, but here as around the world we have the few ailing and corrupted media giants that used to dominate but are now being eaten alive by the piranha attacks of a plethora of much smaller independent media. (That’s what “net neutrality” is about — big corporations want to control the Internet so as to control the news and public discourse, and they can’t easily do this with net neutrality rules that keep them from just blocking access to the little guys.) In this environment much of The Panama News readership now connects to us via a Facebook page that features far more content than the website. There are ways to measure and compare things — and also puffery games that get played in the social media — but for us, for the others and for potential advertisers it adds up to a somewhat bewildering set of calculations about who reads what.
One of the important facts of this scene is social fragmentation and media as echo chambers. It’s really not a good thing for democracy when people only read one point of view, but everybody does have a perspective whether it’s admitted or not, readers pick up on it and very often stop reading stuff with which they don’t already agree. When you are a medium with largely volunteer contributors, a lot of people won’t send serious work if the publication does not entirely reflect their beliefs. In this atmosphere the “big lie” tactic — endlessly repeated lies which people tend to accept as truth after a while — thrives. The worst liars invoke this purported “Godwin’s Law” that says that mentioning those who perfected this tactic — the German National Socialist Working Man’s Party, which did not invent it but applied it to criminal ends in a major way for the first time — discredits all discussion about it. But rise up and take notice, all you Americans. Fascism is out and about in society, including among Americans living abroad. After years of repeated lies there are people here who wrongly believe that Don Winner got me fired from a job I never had and escorted by security guards out of a workplace where I never worked. Donald Trump is leading the race for the GOP nomination with stump speeches that are largely malicious fiction. In both Donalds’ discourse the prominent use of vulgarity provides that tone of “anti-establishment rebellion” for mobs of pathetic and frightened losers whose youthful revolt never got to asking any serious questions about the world but was confined to smoking cigarettes or drinking beer. To them, Trump’s reference to female candidates getting “schlonged” and Winner’s f-bombs are daring. Behind all that the message is all about greed, hatred and violence.
And then there are those of us who see a terrible, hydra-headed crisis of economics, politics and moral values and are not going to readily let a mobbed-up candidate, a candidate who hangs with every Wall Street hustler there ever was or a minor league pump and dump shill speak for us. Is everything a foregone conclusion for America and Americans? I don’t think so.
As one born a dual citizen — born to American parents in the city of Colon — I put on my Panamanian hat and I see a society that’s walking wounded. We just survived a five-year reign of a guy who invented no new form of corruption, but took virtually every known scam and carried it to new extremes. We might suspect that President Varela is willing to let it all slide and to change none of the basic underlying conditions that allowed his predecessor’s abuses to happen. People are impatient with that, the nation’s credit is close to maxed out and the regional economy on which ours largely depends is in a bad way. Panamanians ought to think long and hard about who we are, what we are and how we want to run our affairs. However, there are people with vested interests who would like to get all such thoughts out of our heads.
Meanwhile, as the website is mostly in English but has significant Spanish content, the Facebook page is far more bilingual. Consider that of Panama’s three broadsheet dailies, two of them — La Estrella and El Panama America — started out in English as The Star & Herald and the Panama American respectively. While there are some who see something in Spanish on the Facebook page and run away forever, we serve an English-speaking community that is largely bilingual and we urge newcomers from the anglophone world to learn Spanish if they don’t know it already. This is Panama.
It makes for a lot of fun stuff, and plenty of scary stuff, for a Panagringo journalist to cover. As The Panama News turns 21, let me not disappoint you.