Panama's press, emboldened by protests, faces credibility gap. Papers display tendency to use rumors in place of the facts

Can it be true that military strong man Gen. Manuel Antonia Noriega is having a torrid affair with Miss Panama? Are we honestly to believe that a prominent government critic slept with the archbishop?

And how about the revelation that General Noriega is desperately seeking a European government that will give him asylum?

All three questions - and many more - were raised recently by the Panamanian press, as the political crisis here has heated passions to tempestuous levels. And the rumors on the street that somehow never found their way into print were even wilder.

As Panama has polarized in the wake of criminal allegations against Noriega, the press has led the way. Both pro-government and antigovernment newspapers - slinging the most vicious insults at their opponents - have boldly published headlines and stories without offering the barest shred of evidence to support them.

Panama's newspapers have long played an overtly political role. The three pro-government tabloids emerged from a private publishing company confiscated after Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrara led a coup in 1968.

The papers were founded, says their managing director, Escolastico Calvo, ``to defend the government politically, to defend the peoples' causes.''

Twelve years later, taking advantage of Torrijos's move to liberalize Panama, a group of exiles in Miami launched La Prensa, an opposition paper with equally clear political goals. The paper was born, says Reuben Carles, one of its directors, ``to fight for democracy in this country.'' Winston Robles, La Prensa's news editor, explains that seven years later, it has become Panama's most respected daily and its aims have not changed. ``We hope to maintain our opposition so long as we publish,'' he says.

In the months since the Panamanian crisis broke, the newspapers' political stances have radicalized.

The news editor of El Sigloe, which describes itself as independent, is clear where he stands. ``In this country,'' says Blas Julio, ``to be independent is to be in the opposition.'' As Mr. Julio spoke, workmen behind him were busy installing fireproof doors and fire-escape exits in the newsroom. The paper, he said, had received several anonymous threats ``and we have to take all the precautions we can.''

La Prensa staff members also say they have installed new fire-fighting equipment in case their building is fire bombed.

Though La Prensa has expressed its view of the government in fairly restrained language, opposition tabloids such as El Sigloe and Extra have matched the government press sensation for sensation.

``Information has no value,'' laments Demetrio Olaceregui, a columnist for the pro-government La Republica. ``The press here is a political instrument for political goals. It lies openly, and it distorts the truth.''

``What it shows,'' he adds, ``is utter disrespect for public opinion.''

Mr. Calvo is blunt about why five of Panama's seven dailies feast on scandal and rumor. ``Sensationalism sells newspapers, and there is no limit to what people will believe.''

On the other side of the newpaper war Julio is equally cynical. ``People are so angry, they would believe Noriega eats cockroaches for supper.''

In the absence of much reliable information in the popular press, many people have turned to the rumor mill known here as Radio Bemba (literally ``lip radio'') for a clue as to what is going on. Radio Bemba flourished with a special vigor last month, when opposition papers closed down for 10 days rather than publish under the censorship imposed by a state of emergency. But it has lost none of its imagination since.

``The problem,'' says Mr. Olaceregui, ``is that lies have been prostituted to such an extent that when people have to chose between the truth and falsehoods, they chose to believe falsehoods.''

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