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September 11, 2014
Can Panamanian journalism get past the plantation mentality?
The Varela administration has had its first scandals, if we want to call them that. We should actually be encouraged by the outcome, but some unfortunate attitudes have been laid bare. The law forbids government ministers from hiring anyone related within three degrees of consanguinity or affinity, yet we had Minister of the Presidency Jaime Alemán put his nephew on the ministry payroll and Minister of Government Milton Henríquez put his sister-in-law on his ministry’s payroll. A fuss was raised and within a few days each of these relatives resigned, without the president having made any public pronouncements about it. That the anti-nepotism was was flouted does not surprise me, especially in the minister of government’s case as historically Henríquez’s party has been a formation without an ideology that mainly exists to get jobs and government contracts for its members. That it was quickly and quietly slapped down I take as a positive sign.
Meanwhile, the law is less clear about the First Lady’s Office, a government outpost to be sure, but strictly speaking First Lady Lorena Castillo de Varela isn’t a government minister, and arguably not a public official of any sort. Telemetro’s Álvaro Alvardo asked the first lady about her sister working in that office, which elicited a furious response about how disrespectful Alvarado was — from a first lady who is educated as a journalist and worked in the field, mostly as a news presenter, for 17 years. Later, the first lady said that her sister was just a volunteer, and her official website was edited to omit a reference to her sister as the “executive director” of that office. (See here and here.)
What is all shows is a presumption on the part of a veteran journalist that a reporter is not supposed to ask a rude question of a public figure about the functions of a government agency. To do that generally means to lose access to the high and mighty, or those who think that they are.
I expect that in the end, the Varela administration will not be able to cut off Álvaro Alvarado. The question is, will Panamanian journalism in general get past the plantation mentality?
Of course, there are rival planters. Over on the Martinelli plantation weird fiction gets spun about the Varelas, but people are pretty sick of that brand at the moment, to the point that to keep circulation numbers up El Panama America is actually being given away. Waiting to meet someone at a donut shop the other day I picked up that publication and its lead story was about how the president visited his ancestral home in Galicia, and met with Catholic Church folks there. The story was not at all compelling, and I think it only got to be the lead as a matter of Martinelli throwing about ethnic slurs about Varela being a Gallego and pretending to be subtle about it.
Throughout the political class — including within the left that didn’t get elected to anything this time — the notion of an independent press does not tend to register in activist minds. A lot of people want to control the press, or suppress any medium that makes them look bad, but the standard presumption is that journalists work for a de facto party organ or a rabiblanco plantation owner, but are “the help” who are expected to write what the boss says and refrain from writing what the boss doesn’t want to see, and those lines usually have far more to do with partisan loyalties or family business interests than with any valid news judgment.
Here at The Panama News I am one person with my point of view, and there are a bunch of contributors who have other points of view. (It will not be readily apparent, but many of the things by other people that are linked to on our TPN Blog page are pointed out to me by other people, as are a lot of the things that I post on The Panama News Facebook Page.) I started out in the US “underground press” and quickly got used to exclusion from the inner circles of power, but also picked up a “fly on the wall” style of observation and a tendency to look at those working the grass roots to estimate what political and economic powers are up to. I try to have an intelligent discussion in the opinion pages, which thus excludes a lot of the bigoted memes that pass for debate these days and includes ideas that are “too controversial” for the corporate mainstream imperative of supporting the status quo.
So can such journalism survive and prosper? I am going on 62 years old and have no children, but I do want to both continue what I am doing and pass on a legacy to a new generation of Panamanians. There are a lot of parts to doing that, and it means swimming against powerful currents in society and educating young people in ways that the schools do not. Meeting the day-to-day expenses is imperative, but then raising substantially more to have a stable physical place, not just for me but for the project, including after I am gone, is my aim of the moment.
It’s September 11 again, an infamous day not only in the United States but also for something that was done 28 years earlier in Latin America. Notice that after 41 years some pompous alleged criminals are being brought to trial for one of the more infamous offenses of Chile’s 9/11, whose death toll was comparable to that of al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States 13 years ago.
This year’s anniversary comes a day after a President Obama who is down in the polls outlined a set of moves to wear down and defeat a particularly vicious set of jihadis, who are among other things anathema to all journalists everywhere. From the veteran representatives of the war materiel industry, we hear that it’s not enough. I lived for many years in Michigan and a former member of that state’s delegation in the US House of Representatives, Pete Hoekstra, complains that what Obama proposes to do will not eliminate radical Islam anytime soon. But then he comes from a milieu in which weird and radical Christian fundamentalism is a powerful force within his Republican Party and by and large those of us who abhor that stuff are not advocating all-out war to extirpate the ideology.
The Islamic state, thanks to US and allied military aid to Iraq and allegedly “moderate” Syrian jihadi factions, is moving in armored columns throughout a wide region. Air strikes can put an end to that. They can’t wipe out a belief system. Special operations raids can bring that executioner with the British accent and Mr. Baghdadi to justice for their horrific crimes, but only the political will of the people who live there can finally defeat the Islamic State. It might actually turn out that the parts of Syria and Iraq that this force has carved out are destined to be a new Sunni-majority country and the United States should not be unduly upset about that.
But if your agenda is to promote weapons sales — as Hoekstra’s solid record for many years in the US Congress suggests — then you will say that Barack Obama isn’t extreme enough.
I was meeting with a contributor in several senses of the word the other day, talking about some better moves for The Panama News on the business side. We did not discuss gossip about Ricky Martin or Rihanna.
I don’t need to own real estate, but I do need a stable place to work and live. So if the offer to buy the present premises is to be taken, shouldn’t it be in the name of a foundation that is not just an alter ego for me? And wouldn’t that make fundraising easier, and provide for continuity for the “cause” — as distinct from the “business” — in its next generation? There are pros and cons about the formal legal existence. Right now The Panama News exists in the informal economy, not making enough money to pay taxes or have to hire a CPA. How long can it go on? Our 20th birthday is in December.
And then the suggestion of a donors’ group, classified by how much people give, came up. I’m a poor man and generally get annoyed by undue economic stratifications that remind me of early elementary school reading groups based on the Prussian competition model — the budgies, robins, eagles and so on.
Ah, but maybe flying things might be the way to go:
The sandflies, who don’t give much individually, but there are swarms of them, enough to drive an elephant insane (which can be a plus for a Democrat);
The tyrant flycatchers, people who can give more and who keep the less desirable insects under ecologically sustainable control;
The resplendent quetzals, the big and rare and beautiful ones who can and do donate a lot; and
The buzzards, people my age and older who put bequests to The Panama News in their wills.
I’ll have to think about it.
I do not expect everyone who reads The Panama News to vote like I do, or think like I do. It would be a boring collection of readers were it so. One of the whole points of independent journalism is to make a space for nonconformism in the world of ideas and in the selection of which information is important.
That said, for US citizens living in Panama, be you Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green, Monarchist, Anarchist, Vegetarian or Libertarian, the date approaches to vote. Washington is gridlocked and you can decide what, if anything, ought to be done about that with your absentee ballots. Go to the Overseas Vote Foundation or Vote From Abroad to get the information you need to register and order your ballot. This year the American Embassy is going to make things a bit easier by having a mailbox from whence you can mail in your ballots.
The November parades are fast approaching, and this year in Panama City there will be only one parade route instead of two, there will be no selection of unlucky government employees who will have to march in ministry delegations and the participation of independent bands will be restored. In other words, the people marching in the capital and around the country will by and large want to be marching and it ought to be a much livelier show of national culture and spirit because of that.
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