Democracy and rights
Abbreviated as PAN by Abbreviationfinder, Panama is a functioning democracy where fair elections are regularly held and power shifts between different parties. Freedom of speech and association is generally respected even though the media is somewhat circumscribed. However, corruption poses a serious social problem that affects both politics and the judiciary.
In terms of political and civil rights, Panama is better off than most Latin American countries (though significantly worse than neighboring Costa Rica). Despite this, the regional cooperation organization OAS has criticized government holders for misusing public funds in connection with elections. Lack of mechanisms against corruption and poor transparency in public administration and the actions of the state power also diminishes the assessment of the country. This is partly due to the remnants of the dictatorship that ended three decades ago.
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In comparisons concerning the functions of the rule of law, Panama falls roughly in the middle among other countries in the Latin America / Caribbean region. The problems of corruption and the efficiency of the justice system are reducing the cut. In comparison with other high-income countries, the investment is poor, but the country is also far down in terms of income.
In Transparency International’s ranking of the world’s countries based on corruption, Panama is ranked 101 out of 180 countries. This has led to a deterioration in recent years, but several other countries in the region are still significantly worse off (see list here).
Among several high-ranking people charged with corruption are former President Ricardo Martinelli (2009–2014), who was, however, released from the charges in August 2019 (see Current Policy). Martinelli is the first former president of Panama to face trial.
Violent crime is not as great a problem as in the rest of the region. The homicide rate in 2016 fell to 10 homicides per 100,000 residents, for the first time since 2007. The level that lasted for the next few years is among the lowest in Latin America.
Freedom of expression and media
Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are enshrined in the constitution and the direct censorship gradually disappeared after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1989. However, freedom of the press is limited by laws on defamation and slander which are used extensively. Defamation cases against journalists usually result in fines.
The relationship between the media and state power can be described as strained. The state tries to control the media by controlling the availability of information. One way of influencing it is also the placement of state advertising, where critical media organizations risk being disadvantaged. Journalists risk legal proceedings if they write critically about government policy or corruption scandals. This is especially true when there are international connections, as with the so-called Panama Papers that were revealed in 2016 (see Current Policy).
Panama ranks 76 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders press freedom index in 2020 (the full list is here). That means a pickup with over 37 seats in eight years.
Several leading media organizations launched a campaign for freedom of expression in 2011 called Basta ya! (That’s enough!). The campaign was aimed at threats and harassment that police and representatives of President Ricardo Martinelli’s government (2009–2014) were considered to subject journalists to.
Judicial system and legal security
The nine members of the Supreme Court are proposed by the President and approved by the National Assembly for a ten-year term. The justice system is permeated by corruption and subject to political influence.
At one point in 2016, Transparency International called on the entire Supreme Court to resign, due to corruption scandals and the failure to prosecute former President Martinelli (see Calendar).
Prisons are substandard and overcrowding causes severe congestion. More than half of the detainees have not had their case tried in court. The lack of legal security is considered to be one of the country’s biggest human rights problems.
There have also been reports of abuse by members of security forces against participants in protest actions in recent years.