Journalist responds to Panama’s threats with more of the same
PANAMA CITY (AP) _ For nine days, one of the most prominent journalists in Panama lived out of three nylon suitcases, slept on the floor on a rollaway mattress and took cold showers in a cafeteria bathroom.
Fear that the government would forcibly expel him from the country kept Gustavo Gorriti holed up in the offices of his newspaper, but it didn’t stop him from challenging Panama’s power structure.
On Sunday, the day after Gorriti decided to go home, his newspaper published an article about 11 members of President Ernesto Perez Balladares’s family who hold high government jobs.
To underscore the article’s findings, a box was printed above the article containing a dictionary definition of nepotism.
The unsigned story, which Gorriti assigned and edited, also listed three other family members who have been appointed temporary ``special ambassadors″ to accompany the president on foreign trips.
Gorriti, a Peruvian who fled his country because of political persecution, came to Panama last year as associate editor of the newspaper La Prensa. He has since made Panama’s government as uncomfortable as he did Peru’s.
He investigated money laundering by powerful banks and a drug smuggler’s $51,000 campaign contribution to the president. After first denying it, the president later said he had been unaware of the contribution.
On Aug. 28, Panama refused to renew Gorriti’s work permit, saying there was no need for him in the country since a Panamanian could do his job just as well. Gorriti denounced that as an attack on press freedom.
He sent his family to the United States and moved into the offices of La Prensa hours before his visa expired, saying the government was less likely to deport him if it had to come in and drag him out.
After receiving the support of international human rights groups and newspapers across the world, Gorriti decided Saturday it was safe to go home.
``I sat for the first time in 10 days in a real bed and fell asleep for two hours,″ he said.
The government has said that Gorriti’s visa request was denied on administrative, not political, grounds.
``We haven’t given him any special treatment. He is a foreigner like any other,″ presidential spokeswoman Ibeth Vega said.
But the government has backed off of its threats to deport him, saying it will allow the Supreme Court to rule on his appeals before acting.
Gorriti believes his defiance is embarrassing the Balladares administration.
``Ten days later, I’m still in Panama. I’m still working here. I’m coordinating new investigative stories,″ he said. ``At the end of the first round, we aren’t the one with wobbly knees.″
Gorriti, a quiet 49-year-old with a graying beard, made his name as editor of Peru’s respected news magazine Caretas, where he angered both President Alberto Fujimori and the Shining Path, a Maoist rebel movement.
In 1992, Fujimori suspended the constitution and had Gorriti detained. After international pressure, Gorriti was freed and allowed to go into exile.
He taught in the United States and conducted research in Washington and Miami before coming to La Prensa.
Many Panamanian journalists, while publicly criticizing the government’s attempts to deport Gorriti, privately denounce Gorriti as a foreigner who came to Panama to make the country look bad.
``His colleagues don’t see Gorriti’s activities in Panama very well,″ said Javier Collins, a reporter with the newspaper El Universal. ``What he is doing is hurting the image of the country.″
Gorriti says he is doing the kind of investigative reporting newspapers in many countries would consider routine: probing for drug corruption in government, money laundering in banking, excesses in the upper class.
``What these people cannot stand is substantive journalism, the kind that doesn’t lose time over insults and tries to find out the facts, and in doing so reveals things that many of these people want to remain unknown,″ he said.