The Billings Outpost

Limping toward free press

Story and photo - By T.J. GILLES - For The Outpost
Dancers celebrate at a festival in Panama, which ranks 143 among nations for press freedom.

RIO SERENO, PANAMA – At the recent Summit of the Americas, President Obama once again said no to drugs - and to Cuba. A few Central American heads of state had proposed decriminalizing drug consumption lest they become the new Mexico with its narco-warfare state, which has usurped Colombia, host of the conference.

A few days after the conference, even the head of drug enforcement for Colombia said his agency could do a more thorough job if it could concentrate on the hard stuff and let people smoke marijuana on their front porches if they so choose.

At the summit, the United States was in the majority in voting that decriminalizing drug use in an election year is a bad idea. The United States and Canada were alone in their opposition to allowing full status for communist Cuba at this summit – or the next one – which may not happen if the two English-speaking giants boycott.

Speaking in a country ranked 143rd for press freedom by the organization Reporters Without Borders, the President also spoke out in favor of freedom of expression and of the press. Mr. Obama assumedly was wagging the presidential finger in the direction of Cuba – or looming despotism in such nations as Venezuela, which has plenty of oil and natural gas but a potential one-man state in Hugo Chavez.

Venezuela came in 117th in the latest Reporters Without Borders ratings and is ranked simply “Not Free” by another non-governmental press watchdog, Freedom House. Venezuela thus joins the ranks of Cuba, Mexico and Honduras in this hemisphere and trading partners such as China, Saudi Arabia and Russia in other parts of the world.

The organizations’ rankings and indices are based on a number of factors: government or religious censorship, journalists being killed (66 worldwide in 2011) or arrested (4,000), physically attacked (about 2,000) and countries’ draconian laws for arresting or otherwise harassing journalists for doing their jobs or saying bad things about their governments.

The United States fell 29 spots to 47th in press freedom in the latest ratings, largely because of rampant arrests of those covering various Occupy demonstrations and attacks on WikiLeaks.

Of course, the hot news reaching the United States out of the Summit was the not-so Secret Service’s dalliances with Caracas’ working girls while security men should have been screening the rooms and the travel routes for the chief executive.

Trying to steal that thunder, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli took the Summit forum as a pulpit to bully the press of his own country in front of international reporters. Ranked 113th in press freedom, Panama has “freedom of expression but not freedom of the press,” he said, because of zillionaire media moguls who seem to be out to get him and keep twisting the facts.

In the United States, we have freedom of the press and freedom of expression, with a few limits such as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater or saying something nice about Fidel Castro in the state of Florida.

That is different from non-free press nations. In the aforementioned Cuba, Castroista goons hauled a man out of a Mass being celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI for yelling “Down with Communism.” So much for the godlessness of that state.

But heck, even the mild-mannered politico Sen. Max Baucus has been known to have security (we don’t have “goons” in the United States) clear a hearing room when people began blaspheming about something called a single-payer health system. In other words, they were saying “Up with Communism” and thus had to be removed.

Panama’s Mr. Martinelli is in the news – more than once daily – for an assortment of scandals, corruption allegations, contradictory statements and attacks on the press and some of its sources through recently passed muzzling laws.

In Caracas, he accidentally invoked the words of former U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall: “The power to tax is the power to destroy,” saying he was going to silence some of these media bigwigs through the tax code.

Questioned by the international press about his detention of a former cabinet official who criticized his administration and found herself jailed and accused of leaking state secrets, Mr. Martinelli said that is a “sovereign decision,” an internal matter (mind your own beeswax, although I did call the press conference).

The next day’s big Panamanian story came out of Italy and government investigations there implicating Mr. Martinelli in bribes, kickbacks, free helicopters and other favors from Italian businessmen and members of the government of disgraced – even by Italian standards – Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The cautious Panamanian press quoted freely from reports in the Italian press. And most European papers had stories as well, which Mr. Martinelli denied and dismissed, calling the entire European press corps irrelevant and somehow out to get him, although they probably did not know the president of the Republic´s name until the story broke.

We journalists take care of our own and what really got the Panamanian press riled was a personal insult when one distinguished reporter posed an allegedly impertinent question. Mr. Martinelli responded by singling out and insulting the reporter in public.

I surmised originally that he had called the reporter something like a bastard – hardly an insult in a country where 87 percent of the births happen without benefit of matrimony. Later I found out Mr. Martinelli had told the reporter:

“Why don´t you answer the question? You´re a dope addict and ought to know everything.” The reporter had had a drug problem years back and releasing such personal information probably violated the Family Act of Panama, which was passed to keep the press from debasing the ruling class.

Ever known for his subtlety and nimbleness afoot, Mr. Martinelli backtracked, saying he only meant to say that he sincerely hopes this stressful job won´t be a tipping point that throws the reporter back into the evil clutches of drug addiction. Mr. Martinelli thus earned his credits as what we used to call a “compassionate conservative.”

The association of Chiriqui province journalists called for Panama´s ruling class (allegedly nine families own everything and have since they beheaded Balboa in 1517) to “cease all the aggression and recrimination against the press.”

It reminded Mr. Martinelli that being a leader “requires a person of high personal and human standards – not an individual whose demonstrated traits are those of someone biologically primitive.”

Golly. I hope that one gets picked up and used in smear ads financed by out-of-state interests bankrolling Montana’s U.S. Senate race.


T.J. Gilles retired from journalism and teaching in Montana and now spends his time in Panama and Costa Rica.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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