Criminalizing journalism, or criminals getting into journalism?

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ALT PRD
Aldo Lopez Tirone, right, gets into the picture on the 2014 PRD campaign trail. He was a PARALECEN deputy at the time, then later ran for a party position and lost.  So does the extortion charge that he’s facing, whether true or not, drive him farther out onto the margins of political influence? Photo from his Facebook page.

An extortion bust at the margins

by Eric Jackson

[Editor’s note: The “www.dpanama.news” website is unrelated to The Panama News and never had any relationship. The former publication, of far more recent vintage than the latter, generally goes by the name “D Panamá” or “Democracía Panamá” and on its masthead sounds certain anti-oligarchic themes that one might also see played out in The Panama News. There have been a number of folks who have in one way or another pirated The Panama News name since we began publication in 1994 — some with the specific intent of sowing confusion intended to harm The Panama News — and there is the ever present apprehension that some thug who has pirated the name will go to court and pretend to be the “real” thing and get this website shut down and erased. The editor of The Panama News will refrain from trying to read the mind of the editor of D Panamá about this point at this time.]

The journalism as extortion racket meme has again come front and center in Panama. Historically it has almost always been bogus, but there is also a history of mass communications media being used for blackmail, for the most unfair sorts of political smears and in unseemly disputes with rival media organizations. The latest episode pits Aldo Lopez Tirone, an occasional PRD apparatchik and relatively minor business figure, against Emanuel González-Revilla, member of a noteworthy oligarchic family who has hydroelectric dam, banking, retail and media interests who is President Varela’s ambassador in Washington. Lopez Tirone was a Norieguista back in the late 80s when it became unpopular to be such. came back into influence with the PRD’s return to power in 1994, serving as deputy director of the SINAPROC disaster relief agency. Having served in various party positions, Lopez Tirone was rewarded with a major plum — big salary, juicy perks, immunity from criminal investigation, little public notice and almost no work — a seat in the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) between 2009 and 2014. As is common with Panama’s political caste, in between rides on the public office gravy train Lopez Tirone has dedicated himself to private pursuits. This time around one of his ventures is a news and commentary website, D Panama.

Aldo Lopez Tirone studied agribusiness in Chile and bought a business and finance diploma from the “Rocheville University” Pakistan-based online diploma mill. Such knowledge he has of the news business comes from political activities on various campaign trails and as a reader, viewer and listern of various media. In a way, he would be a poster boy for the Sindicato de Periodistas argument that Panama should license journalists and restrict the profession to those who graduate from the University of Panama’s Faculty of Social Communications. (But of course, from the ranks of such graduates it would be easy to come up with poster children to illustrate one of the arguments for the proposition that this licensing scheme a bad idea.) That a man who has held elected and appointed public offices and party posts within the PRD flaunts academic fraud on his Facebook page reflects part of the corrupt world view that is widely held among Panama’s political caste.

Emanuel González-Revilla studied business administration in the United States, with a BS from Wharton and an MBA from the University of Miami. These days his main business interests are in hydroelectric dams. He is on the boards of directors of Cable Onda and of the Delta gas station chain. He has been a player on the Panama City banking scene, which is now consolidated under mostly Colombian ownership. His extended family, perhaps the richest and most powerful in Chiriqui province, owns a chain of pharmacies and a major stake in MEDCOM, which spun off Cable Onda and runs the RPC and Telemetro TV channels. While the Gozález-Revilla surname plays prominently in PRD circles, that Emanuel serves in a Panameñista administration reflects a tendency among rabiblanco clans to place their sons among the various contending political forces so as to maintain family influence no matter which political party gains the upper hand.

So what’s the scoop? According to Lopez Tirone, it’s that the ambassador’s son does drugs and beat somebody up.

Taken, for the sake of argument, that this story is absolutely true, it would still cross a bright red line in Panamanian media culture and social discourse. Public officials have private lives that are generally off limits to publicity, and the private lives of their children are yet farther out of bounds. But there are exceptions to this. Does a president hire his mistress’s worthless and fugitive from justice brother as a diplomat? That allows a breaking of the normal taboo about discussing politicians’ mistresses. Were illegal drugs transported in a government car, or was illegal business conducted from an official residence? If a relative of a public official is involved in that sort of thing, it becomes newsworthy. But a drunken or drugged out brawl among adolescents, one of them the offspring of a public official, is a tale that almost all Panamanian journalists ignore, or at least just file in their memory for reference if the day comes when said wayward son decides to seek public office. We can argue about the propriety of such standards and hypocritical distinctions in their application, but those are parts of the Panamanian peculiarity about privacy.

The charge is that Lopez Tirone shook down the ambassador for a payment in exchange for not publicizing the alleged incident involving the latter’s son. But the defense is that the elder González-Revilla came to the editor of D Panama with an offer of a bribe not to publish the story, this offer was rejected, and there ensued a set-up in which the big proof was a $5,000 check enclosed in an envelope placed under the windshield wiper of the editor’s car.

Lopez Tirone’s home and car were raided on August 17 and he was taken into custody by police. After two days of interrogation, assistant prosecutor Marcelino Aguilar ordered him jailed under preventive detention for extortion.

 

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