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Panama’s Martinelli lashes out at journalist following corruption accusations

May 20, 2013

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli on Monday sent a volatile tweet targeting a local reporter and a businessman linked to the daily La Prensa following the publication of accusations that the president has ties to several hydroelectric dam contracts in the country.

“For those who don’t know of Santiago Cumbrera’s hatred towards me, he was fired from [editorial group] Espasa for [charging illegal commissions] and sexually accosting women,” Martinelli tweeted, without elaborating on the accusations.

Cumbrera, a former reporter at the daily Panamá América – part of Grupo Espasa – on Monday published a story in La Prensa revealing that employees of Martinelli’s supermarket chain Súper 99 and other close associates are the principal members of companies bidding on hydroelectric projects in Panama.

The accusations come in the midst of a full-on energy crisis in the country. Martinelli’s administration is pushing for more hydroelectric dams to be built to avoid future energy shortages.

“There’s no link [to the hydroelectric concessions]; let’s hope all Panamanians invest more,” said Martinelli, who has maintained an openly confrontational relationship with local journalists since taking office in 2009.

The president also accused La Prensa founder Roberto Eisenmann of publishing negative stories about him in retaliation for Martinelli’s efforts to make Eisenmann “pay taxes.”

“What’s going on here is that the scoundrel and tax cheat, Mr. Eisenmann, the man who doesn’t pay taxes, is impeding the development of this country. … Mr. Eisenmann is a dishonest swindler who doesn’t want to pay taxes,” Martinelli said.

Threats, lawsuits and other legal actions against journalists have skyrocketed under the Martinelli administration, including one journalist being sent to prison.

“Every time corruption committed by Martinelli is revealed, he sends up a smokescreen,”  Filemón Medina, secretary general of Panama’s journalists union, told AFP.

“Martinelli has no idea what being president entails, particularly keeping one’s composure,” Medina said.

A report by watchdog group Reporteros Sin Fronteras (Reporters Without Borders) noted that Panama fell from 55th place to 111th on the group’s ranking of freedom of expression in 179 countries.

In Panama, the report said, an “execrable climate” exists between the government and members of the news media.

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