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Once-Timid Panama Media Do an About-Face and Lash Out at Noriega : Communications: Opposition paper La Prensa will return in January. Politically tinged songs also make a comeback.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A cartoon in a local newspaper Saturday, portrayed Manuel A. Noriega as a vulture hovering menacingly over this capital city. Another publication recounted allegations of his heavy involvement in drugs, graft and torture.

“The narco-trafficker Manuel Noriega is not deserving of political asylum and is a common criminal,” La Estrella de Panama, long the country’s largest newspaper, quoted Noriega critics as charging.

No one ever said the ousted Panamanian dictator was a prince, but it’s been a long time since anyone around here dared print such a notion.

Of all the dramatic turnabouts in Panama in recent days, one of the more astounding involves the Spanish-language media.

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A press that, up to two weeks ago, willingly groveled before Noriega and viciously condemned the United States--one paper even accused President Bush of threatening to freeze the assets of Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran unless he threw last month’s championship fight that he lost to Sugar Ray Leonard--has suddenly joined the chorus calling for Noriega’s head and is wildly applauding the American invasion.

“Now they are putting in the truth, but before they were publishing only the lies of Noriega,” smirked taxi driver Alipio Falconet as he thumbed through the latest copy of La Estrella.

After a few days’ hiatus at the height of the fighting, newspapers have begun to hit the streets with full details of American military sweeps and attempts by political outsiders, once sneered at in the press, to rebuild the shattered government. Two privately owned television channels are back on the air--another two run by Noriega and his military are still dark--and over and over again highlight the same pictures seen by American news audiences of the besieged Vatican embassy where Noriega has taken refuge.

Meanwhile, radio stations quickly dusted off some politically tinged oldies that the Noriega regime had religated to a hit parade of banned music. One of the most requested tunes has been “Disappearances,” a Ruben Blades ballad about repressive regimes and the victims they murder. It was banned here in 1984.

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Noriega’s ouster has triggered the biggest upheaval in the Panamanian media in more than two decades. The new U.S.-backed administration of President Guillermo Endara has already announced that three government-run “scandal sheets” will be returned to their original owners.

More significantly, the editors of La Prensa, a highly respected opposition newspaper often ordered closed by Noriega, have announced that it will hit the newsstands again sometime before the end of January. One hitch: Sometime since the last shutdown in February, 1988, vandals, thought to be Noriega loyalists, sabotaged much of the paper’s composing and word-processing equipment.

Under Noriega and his mentor, the late military strongman Omar Torrijos, the Panamanian press has led a checkered existence. As is the case in many Third World countries, publications and broadcast stations have traditionally been viewed as mouthpieces for one political faction or another. Still, frequent government crackdowns on press freedom have been punctuated by occasional thaws during which conflicting views were tolerated in print and on the air.

As relations with Washington soured after Noriega’s 1988 indictment on U.S. drug-trafficking charges, he tightened the leash on his country’s press for good. La Prensa was closed indefinitely, the government papers turned increasingly strident and La Estrella, historically pro-American and anti-Communist, joined the chorus of anti-Washington criticism.

The government television stations were easy to control, of course. So was the cable television system, owned by Noriega himself, which featured pirated American programming and often distorted the sound and picture when news came on. The government also sometimes jammed the audio portion of news broadcasts on a television station beamed from U.S. military installations here.

Clearly, the most interesting media conversion in post-Noriega Panama involves La Estrella, one of Latin America’s oldest newspapers. Begun as the English-language Star in 1853, it is controlled these days by the wealthy and politically influential Duque clan, a family torn by enough internal strife and bickering to rival the Ewings of “Dallas.”

The president and publisher of La Estrella is Tomas Altamirano Duque, known better by the nickname Fito. In addition to his publishing empire, he was a prominent member of Noriega’s political party, serving four terms in the legislature, and was tabbed before the invasion by Noriega as his choice to head the Panama Canal Commission.

Also sitting on the paper’s board of directors is Carlos Ozores Typaidos. Until the invasion, Ozores served as the vice president of Noriega’s handpicked government.

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Despite those connections, Duque insisted that he had not been a Noriega crony and had only bowed to the strongman’s will to save the paper from the same fate as La Prensa. In 1987, Duque said, Noriega came to him in person and warned bluntly, “Consider yourself censored.” He did, Duque admitted, imposing voluntary restrictions on his publication.

“I don’t think we have a credibility problem,” Duque said of his paper’s new-found anti-Noriega voice. “When Noriega was in what could you do? Nothing. The U.S. created Noriega and they couldn’t do anything to stop him for a long time. How do they expect us to do something?”

Duque insisted that he did more of a public service by remaining open and throwing an occasional bone to Noriega’s critics than standing on principle and being shut down.

Critics, including some in his own family and business, dismissed such suggestions as self-serving nonsense.

Alejandro Duque, the general manager of La Estrella, who has waged a bitter political, personal and financial feud with his cousin Tomas, said readers will have a hard time believing that the paper’s flip-flop is genuine. “We’re going to have weak credibility,” he argued.

He said he already has been notified by an advertising industry trade group that members plan to stop placing ads in the paper unless Tomas Duque and Ozores resign. Alejandro Duque said he plans to demand that family members who hold stock in the company purge the two men before their continued presence does significant damage to the paper.


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