PANAMA CITY: A 167-year-old newspaper in Panama that existed even before the country became independent is faced with extinction because its main shareholder has been hit with US sanctions for allegedly laundering drug money.
The daily, La Estrella de Panama, and a sister newspaper, El Siglo, are in "real danger of closing," the head of its publishing company, Eduardo Quiros, told foreign correspondents yesterday.
Both titles are published by Gese, which is part of a business empire owned by Abdul Waked, a Panamanian who also holds Lebanese and Colombian nationalities.
Waked, 66, and a relative, Nidal Ahmed Waked Hatum, 36, were on May 5 designated by the US as major money-launderers for big drug cartels. Waked Hatum was arrested in Colombia.
Their interests, which also span duty free shops, a bank, real estate, and malls, were put on a US sanctions black list that freezes their American assets and locks them out of doing business with Americans.
Though the US Treasury Department gave a special license "intended to allow both Panamanian newspapers to continue printing and operating by authorizing specific activities that would otherwise be prohibited," the writing for them appears to be on the wall.
Gese has seen its advertisers run away and local banks throw up financial obstacles. The group, which has 300 employees, has sacked six percent of its staff.
For La Estrella and El Siglo, the future looks bleak.
La Estrella is the oldest in the Central American country, and was started in 1853, back when Panama was a province of Colombia, before independence in 1903.
"If can't manage to reactivate our financial operations our situation is a situation that is not sustainable in the long-term," Quiros said.
"It's a vicious cycle of starvation in which you end up dying," he said.
The bosses of the newspapers warn that their closure would represent a setback for democracy and freedom of expression in the country, which has enjoyed greater prosperity in the wake of a 1989 US invasion that toppled dictator General Manuel Noriega.