US move against newspapers prompts nationalistic objections

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La Estrella, founded in 1853, is one of Latin Ameica’s oldest newspapers. It is the Spanish-language offshoot of a merger between two earlier English-language newspapers, the Panama Star and the Panama Herald, to become The Star & Herald. The newspaper played a key role in the coup that separated Panama from Colombia in 1903, went through ups and downs and ownership changes — including a sharp decline when La Estrella became a Noriega mouthpiece and abandoned The Star & Herald for lack of very many English-speakers who would read it. After the 1989 invasion there were legal battles over ownership and ultimately the paper was sold to members of the Waked family, who also acquired the tabloid El Siglo.

American ambassador’s insistence on papers’ sale prompts nationalist reactions

by Eric Jackson

This past May a Colombian-Panamanian businessman of Lebanese descent, Nidal Waked, was busted in Colombia on a US money laundering warrant. The US Treasury Department simultaneously listed dozens of businesses owned by members the extended Waked family as part of the “Waked Money Laundering Organization,” which it described as the world’s largest money laundering outfit. These businesses, active in several Latin American countries, employ about 5,000 people. Nidal Waked has or had stakes or operational roles in some of them, and in some of them he didn’t. The Treasury Department listing on the “Clinton List,” an administrative move for which no court order is involved and no proofs must be shown, means that any US citizen, US green card holder or US company that does business with any of the listed companies or individuals faces stiff criminal penalties.

Named as fellow money laundering kingpins with Nidal Waked by the Treasury Department — but we don’t know if there are any criminal charges outstanding against them — were his cousin Abdul Waked, Abdul’s son Mohamed Waked and Lucia Touzard, the attorney for the extended Waked family’s holding company, Grupo Wisa. Abdul and Mohamed Waked and Ms. Touzard deny that they had any involvement in or knowledge of any money laundering and demand a bill of particulars and the right to proceed in court to defend themselves. But it is the US position that it does not need any proof to put a person or entity on the Clinton List and an administrative decision to do so is not subject to any sort of judicial review. US lawyers for Abdul and Mohamed Waked, along with Touzard, have sued in the US federal district court for the District of Columbia. Their complaint says that “Lines of credit have been withdrawn. Distribution contracts have been suspended. Loans have been called. Stores have been shuttered. Health insurance for employees cancelled. And, thus far, more than 3,000 employees have lost their jobs. Without meaningful and prompt access to the administrative record, the remaining 2,000 jobs are in jeopardy.” The case is pending before Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, with a federal government, with a motion on the US government’s motion to dismiss for lack or jurisdiction probably to be decided in January.

Meanwhile, Nidal Waked has fought extradition in the Colombian courts but so far appears to be losing that battle. The other Wakeds are distancing themselves from his predicament.

The big complication is that among the Waked holdings is GESE — Grupo El Siglo Estrella — the parent company for the broadsheet daily La Estrella and the daily tabloid El Siglo. All manner of circulation claims get made — Panama has no official disclosure requirement, online figures are tricky to fully decipher and the ad cartel works on family ties rather than any real statistics about how many people of which description a medium reaches — but most probably El Siglo is the Panamanian newspaper with the biggest circulation. There is no doubt that La Estrella is Panama’s oldest newspaper, indeed one of Latin America’s oldest. When the Waked businesses were put on the Clinton List this past May the newspapers were granted a temporary exemption. That runs out on January 5.

Because the United States has a president-elect who ran on a platform that most Latin Americans see as explicitly racist against themselves, anti-American feelings, always latent in the region, are enhanced. In Panama there is also an uptick in general xenophobia, most of all directed at Venezuelans and Colombians and exacerbated by an economy that’s slowing down and a common sentiment that there aren’t enough jobs to go around for Panamanians so foreigners should be excluded. Any perception of foreign control of Panamanian media would not go over very well with the public these days.

The business realities of Panamanian media are guarded family or corproate secrets, but it is said that La Prensa, long considered the “newspaper of record” here and designed so that nobody owms more than one percent of the shares, has fallen on hard times and is now under the effective control of bondholders rather than the shareholders. The bondholders and their nationalities are undisclosed. However, the editorial slant of La Prensa in recent times is much more concerned about Venezuela — and strictly aligned with the Venezuelan opposition — and less concerned about Panama. The other major newspapers, El Panama America and La Critica, are owned or controlled by Ricardo Martinelli. La Estrella and El Siglo are the most independent of all the newspapers, with columnists like law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal, former justice minister Mariela Sagel and a stable of op-ed voices that runs from left to right.

In local and international journalism circles as well, the idea that a government can force the sale of a newspaper without presenting a shred of evidence and denying that there is any right to any process of law at all is generally rejected.

GESE is waging a vigorous public campaign to defend itself, and in response to a December 5 press conference US Ambassador James Feeley issued a statement in Spanish that “As President Juan Carlos Varela said, the future of the GESE Group’s newspapers is in the owner’s hands.” The ambassador said that the newspapers’ sale is “the legal way” to save the papers and the jobs of the some 250 people who work for them.

The suspicions that such statements raise need to be seen in light of a long history of US blacklisting of Panamanian journalists and media, a practice that became rather systematic during the Cold War but existed before and after those decades. A few years ago a US consul told this reporter that The Panama News could not be sent embassy press releases because “we have different intreests.” When The Panama News first began in 1994, we received documents from the files of the then American management of the Panama Canal Commission and a political objection to a photojournalist working for us.

All of the major press and journalist organnizations in Panama — the Colegio Nacional de Periodiesas, the Consejo Nacional de Periodismo, the Sindicato de Periodistas and the Forum de Periodistas para la Libertad de Prensa — have issued statements protesting the US actions against La Estrella and El Siglo, calling them both attacks on freedom of the press and improper US interference in Panamanian affairs. The nation’s main bar association, the Colegio Nacional de Abogados, has demanded the removal of the two newspapers from the Clinton List. Its presdient, attorney José Alberto Álvarez, said that the listing “violates the most elemental principles of preseumption of innocence and respect for due process, which are valid in both the United States and Panama.” “Mr. Ammbassador, no doubt you would go out to defend whaever US asset that you consider part of the national heritage and is in danger of disappearing. This, neither more nor less, is what we Panamanian lawyers are doing,” Álvarez added.

Other media are rallying behind the threatened newspapers. Roberto Eisenmann, the founder and publisher emeritus of La Prensa, sent out a Twitter tweet opining that “The ambassador’s abrupt and hard position is unjustified if he doesn’t provide details of the accusation.” In another tweet Eisenmann cited the Clinton List and the US prison at Guantanamo as examples of “barbaric” vioations of the rule of law.

The 2014 PRD presidential candidate, Juan Carlos Navarro, gave “full support” to GESE, adding that “all of us Panamanians must defend freedom of expression, one of our inalienable rights.” Former independent leftist presidential candidate Juan Jované said that the defense of the two newspapers was a matter of defending freedom of the press, the public right to information and Panama’s right to self-determination. Leftist sociology professor Marco Gandásegui Jr., whose columns appear weekly in La Estrella and from time to time in The Panama News, pointed out that this would be the first time that a Panamanian news medium would be closed by the direct intervention of a foreign government.

Former President Ricardo Martinelli, a fugitive from Panamanian justice being harbored by the US government in Miami, has no criticism of his hosts. Current President Juan Carlos Varela is basically writing it off as a dispute between a company and the Americans that is beyond his control, while some critics raise suspicions that what’s afoot is the forced sale of the newspapers to someone who will turn them into acolytes of the president’s Panameñista Party.


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