Officials of Panama's major local banks have urged the nation's strongman, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, to lift a ban on opposition media that was imposed last week after security forces arrested a leading critic of the military leader, it was disclosed Sunday.
According to one of the officials, seven bankers flew to the general's beach house in Farallon late Saturday for their first direct talks with Noriega since the current period of political unrest began two months ago.
Banking is a primary industry here. Besides its local banks, Panama is home to one of the Western Hemisphere's most important offshore financial centers, with more than 120 international banks represented here.
Local bankers say there has been a run on their banks, which they fear will spread if the political situation does not stabilize. They say an estimated 5% to 10% of deposits have been withdrawn, which represents an even larger share of the banks' liquidity.
Banks have boarded up their windows against possible violence.
"We place a lot of importance on freedom of the press," said the banker, who asked not to be identified by name. "If the public is not well-informed, there is uncertainty, and if there is uncertainty, the banks are uncomfortable."
Another banker confirmed that the meeting took place but declined to give details. Spokesmen for the military and the presidency would neither confirm nor deny the meeting.
The bankers pressed the media issue because, the one banker said, "we feel publication of the (opposition) newspapers opens the doors for many other things, including dialogue, which may be possible if each side feels the support of its media."
He said that Noriega promised a meeting between President Eric A. Delvalle or Minister of Government and Justice Rodolfo E. Chiari Jr. and the boards of directors of three closed opposition newspapers. On Sunday, directors of La Prensa, the most important opposition paper, said they have heard nothing from the government.
Ricardo Arias Arias, a director of La Prensa, said the board met Sunday morning and agreed it would be willing to the paper reopen under government censorship, which it has faced in the past, but would not exercise any form of self-censorship.
Besides La Prensa and two other opposition newspapers, two radio stations are closed and two television stations are censored. The rest of the media are sympathetic to the government or the Panama Defense Forces, the nation's sole military and police organization, of which Noriega is the commanding officer.
On Saturday, Tom Brown, correspondent for Reuters news agency, left Panama after being ordered out by the government. Brown, a U.S. citizen and the only American foreign correspondent residing in Panama, had been attacked in the government press for his reporting of the political crisis.
Officials issued a statement last week warning that foreign correspondents must have government credentials, but most visiting journalists do not have them. Brown, however, did have the credentials.
Noriega has accused the United States of fomenting the unrest, and on Friday when reporters tried to ask him questions, he said, "The plague of the international press. . . . Respect Panama."
Political turmoil began in June after retired Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, ousted as Noriega's chief of staff in an internal controversy, asserted that he and Noriega had fraudulently engineered the 1984 presidential victory of the official party's slate. He also accused Noriega, among other things, of complicity in a plot to kill the late former strongman, Gen. Omar Torrijos, and of involvement in drug smuggling.
Security forces attacked Diaz's house here last week, arresting him and about 40 of his followers and family members who had been protecting him. On the previous night, the government closed La Prensa and two other newspapers, and ordered the censorship. The radio stations were closed in June.
Since being in jail, Diaz has signed a declaration recanting his allegations.