Reporters Without Borders is very concerned about Paco Gómez Nadal, a Spanish journalist who lives in Panama. Since 4 July, Gómez has been under threat of being stripped of his residency and deported because of his defence of Panama’s indigenous peoples.
In an interview for Reporters Without Borders, Gómez describes how he learned that he could be expelled and why he thinks the Panamanian authorities are hounding not only him but also the country’s journalists in general.
Since when have you been living and working in Panama?
I have been living in Panama for the past six years and I have been working for the newspaper La Prensa for three years. I am currently a correspondent for the newspaper and I write a column every Tuesday. I also work for several foreign newspapers. I am an editorial adviser for the Brazilian dailies Diário do Amazonas and Diário do Pará, the Bolivian newspaper Opinión de Cochabamba and the Venezuelan dailies El Tiempo and El Sol. Sometimes I write articles for the Panamanian magazine Guayacán and the Mexican magazine Gatopardo.
How did you learn of the ban on your entering Panama?
I was about to fly from Panama to Colombia when immigration officers told me during the routine check at the airport that I would not be able to return to Panama if I left, although I have resided here legally for the past six years. Then they held me for four hours, confiscating by passport and the document that says I have a residence permit. The Spanish embassy sent two people to try to sort out the situation. Although the head of the immigration office did not want to talk to them, with the help of media pressure, I was finally able to leave the airport and go home.
What grounds did the immigration officials give for treating you like this?
They initially offered tax reasons. But as I was able to demonstration that my tax situation was entirely in order, that there were no problems with my tax payments, they changed their reasons and accused me of violating the labour laws. They said that, since I was no longer full-time with the newspaper for which I was working when I obtaining a permanent residence permit in 2007, I had lost my right of residence. But Panamanian law says that, once foreigners have obtained a residence permit, they are not obliged to keep the same job indefinitely.
In the end, the head of the immigration service, María Cristina González Batista, changed the official version and notified me that the ban to which I was subject was a ban on leaving the country.
Do you think this ban had anything to do with your activities as a journalist?
In view of the many inconsistencies and different versions offered by the immigration service, I think there is no doubt that what is currently happening to me is linked to my journalistic activities. I write a column for a Panamanian newspaper and I am a human rights activist, defending indigenous rights.
How would you describe the current state of free expression in Panama?
I would describe the prevailing situation for journalists in Panama as relatively tense. I think that one can even talk of a wave of government harassment of journalists.
I would like to point to the Kafkaesque situation of Carlos Nuñez, a 70-year-old journalist who was been tried in absentia for defamation and has been detained for nearly two weeks because of a complaint that was brought against him more than 12 years ago, a complaint that he was completely unaware of. Then there is the case of Mauricio Valenzuela, a photographer working for the newspaper Panamá América, who was arrested for the second time without being given a valid reason, was held for more than six hours and was humiliated by the police officers, who made him take all his clothes off. And then there were the threats in May against Jean Marcel Chéry, the editor of the newspaper El Siglo, threats coming directly from the president’s public information office.
So I think that the government wants to intimidate journalists and I fear that it could be effective.
Have you been threatened in the past?
I was threatened in Colombia after writing a book about human rights violations in the River Atrato region and after covering the Bojayá massacre in the same region. I had never received threats from the government in Panama until I was told that I was going to be deported.
What initiatives have you taken to defend your right to stay in Panama?
I have requested protection from the Office of the Ombudsman, which is supposed to ensure respect for the rights of Panamanian citizens. I have submitted a pre-emptive habeas corpus petition to the supreme court and I have told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and your organisation, Reporters Without Borders, about my situation.