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The myopic lighthouse
by Miguel Antonio Bernal
It's a notorious and public fact that the publication El Faro (The Lighthouse) is for the exclusive use of the referendum's "yes" supporters, in flagrant violation of the guiding principles of freedom of expression and the right to information. In defense of these principles, I've written a letter to the Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, Ignacio Alvarez, which I share with you.
... The reason for this missive is to denounce an important and repeated act that attacks the freedom of expression in the Republic of Panama.
As a preamble to these acts, I must indicate that our country is living in an agitated political environment, since the beginning of the publication of a project elaborated by the government about the expansion of the Panama Canal, which requires a referendum for its final approval as the final clause of Article 325 of the Political Constitution of the Republic provides. In compliance with this norm, to date the necessary steps and requirements have been taken to hold a consultation, by way of the approval of Law 28 of July 17 of 2006, which among other things convenes a national referendum on October 22, 2006.
For the purpose of the construction of a third set of locks in the Panama Canal, the great majority of the country's communications media have dedicated their spaces in favor of the proposal, promoting an affirmative vote for the project in the referendum. That is to say, that this proposal is promoted by the dominant political and economic sectors of the country, under the auspices of the current government.
However, the fundamental object of this complaint is the activity in favor of "yes to the expansion," which has been developed over several months by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), an autonomous juridical person under public law that's in charge of looking after the administration, functioning, conservation, maintenance and modernization of the Panama Canal, and because it's a public entity, must respect the human rights of the citizenry. The questionable activity, from the point of view of freedom of expression, that the ACP has undertaken through its newsletter El Faro flows from the use of this written medium to openly favor the government's campaign for this project.
El Faro is a publication of the Panama Canal Authority, whose content must by "general information about activities related to the canal, its relationship with the community, its support to the state, its social contribution and its contributions to the maritime and international worlds."
Despite this, El Faro is currently being used only and exclusively to support the "yes" campaign, so that those of us who advocate against the project have no access to this institutional medium that uses state resources. Thus, according to the ACP national communications director Maricarmen Sarsanedas, the total cost of this publication has risen, for the period October 1, 2005 through September 30, 2006, to $354,016, which is used to publish 26 editions per year, 93,000 copies every 15 days. Of these 93,000 copies, 11,000 are given to the ACP for the employees, while 41,000 are inserted in La Prensa and 41,000 in La Critica on the national level.
With these brief histories and data, there can be no doubt that El Faro is a medium of national publication, which, using state resources, is violating our freedom of expression by only running articles, information and data that support the proposal to expand the interoceanic canal. This depiction of the debate is unreal and serves to deceive the great majority by not permitting the publication of information in opposition to the proposed canal expansion.
The ACP, through El Faro, is violating our rights as set forth in Article 13 of the Inter-American Human Rights Convention.
The acts complained about are also contrary to the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, which provide that "restrictions on the free circulation of ideas and opinions, as well as the arbitrary imposition of information and the creation of obstacles to the free flow of information, violate the freedom of expression" (Article 5). Moreover, "the imposition of prior conditions, such as veracity, opportunity or impartiality, are incompatible with the freedom of expression."
And thus it's of vital importance to the freedom of expression, as a fundamental an inalienable right inherent in all persons, and an indispensable requisite for the existence of a democratic society (Article 1 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression), that at this time Panamanian society requires a democratic and participatory debate that's respectful of human rights in light of the national referendum that will be held this coming October 22.
I thank you in advance for the analysis that you and your staff can do with respect to the situation set forth here, hoping for your support and collaboration in the face of this situation that affects us.
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