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What to do when they're trying to throw a journalist in jail?
by Eric Jackson


Panamanian politicians recently gained an extra measure of notoriety when the mayor of David ordered journalist Luis Gaitan jailed for two days for "disrespect." The particulars? It seems that the mayor found that Gaitan's reporting was "injurious" (but she didn't say untrue), and that he left a city council meeting after she ordered him to stay.

Jail terms for disrespect are administrative matters, in which certain public officials have powers to act as accuser, trier of fact and passer of sentence. These powers are sometimes used to retaliate for unflattering comments about such officials' performance of their public duties. Disrespect laws are part of the Civil Code tradition of which the Panamanian legal system is a part, but in most other jurisdictions these powers have been limited and are in any case rarely invoked against journalists. Panama surely leads the Americas in the percentage of its journalists facing possible jail time for their work these days --- about 80 of us, roughly one-third of the country's reporters, editors, columnists and cartoonists.

Gaitan is one of those reporters who strings for several different Panama City-based media that use his reports from Chiriqui. He also runs Chirinet, one of Panama's best news websites. If you can consider The Panama News Online to be the electronic town newspaper of Panama's English-speaking community, Chirinet serves roughly the same function for chiricanos, wherever they're found.

So, what can you do for Luis Gaitan? For starters --- especially if you read Spanish --- visit Chirinet at http://www.chirinet.com .

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