Protests stopped a big mining project in Panama. Why was coverage so scant?

The issue was ignored or covered poorly by news outlets in Panama and in Canada, the country where the company is based. We tried to find out why
People react after Panama's top court ruled unconstitutional a mining contract with Canadian miner First Quantum to operate a copper mine in the country, following weeks of protests against the deal, in Panama City, Panama, November 28, 2023. REUTERS/Aris Martinez

People react after Panama's top court ruled unconstitutional a mining contract with Canadian miner First Quantum Minerals in November 2023. REUTERS/Aris Martínez

1st March 2024

Cobre Panamá is one of the largest open-pit copper mines in Central America and is operated by Canadian mining company First Quantum Minerals (FQM) through its subsidiary Minera Panamá. In October 2023, only six months before a crucial election, the Panamanian government renewed the company's concession for another 20 years. The new contract would have given the government at least $375 million, but the backlash from the public was swift. 

Panamanians took to the streets for over a month, blockading highways and causing major economic disruptions. The anti-mining protests mobilised a significant chunk of the population, from environmental activists to teachers, the youth and even the traditionally apolitical middle class. The reasons were as diverse as the protesting coalition: concerns about environmental damage and political clientelism as well as the classic anticolonial struggle against a transnational corporation. Chants ranged from “Panama’s gold is green” to “This homeland is not for sale, this homeland is defended.” 

The backlash resulted in Panama’s Supreme Court striking down the contract and shutting down the mine, with the Canadian company hoping the country’s new government reconsiders its decision as it heads to an election in May. 

As a Panamanian myself, I was curious to see how international media was covering these events. As I’ve lived in Canada for many years, I was particularly interested in the conversation there since FQM is a Canadian company and Canadian mining abroad is one of the most lucrative ventures for the country. Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for half of Canadian mining assets abroad with a value of $105.6 billion in 2022. 

While international news companies like Deutsche Welle and France24 covered the protests by collaborating with freelancers on the ground, coverage in Canada has been very scant. CBC, the country’s public broadcaster, covered the news only a handful of times, and didn't send any reporters to the country. CTV, the country’s leading TV network, sent one reporter to Panama, but much of their online reporting relied on Reuters and Associated Press. Global News, the third most consumed news outlet in the country according to our Digital News Report, only published one piece by Reuters about the issue. 

This encouraged me to explore the responsibility of international media when covering the impact of their country’s companies abroad, particularly in the Global South. When I spoke with journalists about this, the responsibility of traditional local media came into question too. This piece is based on four interviews with five journalists from Panama and Canada and covers the conflict between journalism and corporate interest, and how coverage can be improved. 

Public relations or journalism?

In the last months of 2023, coverage of the contract and the protests dominated headlines and broadcast news in Panama. But many Panamanians were critical of local coverage, accusing local news outlets of being bought by the mining company.  

Praxis is a Panamanian independent digital news outlet that has been covering Minera Panamá since its launch in 2017. Its founders Luisa Elena Nuccio and Gary Martin told me that the mining company has a very strong communication strategy, including sponsoring outlets and paying for trips for journalists to visit the mine. 

“They have invited us to go to the mine by helicopter, but we never accepted. We were always willing to talk, but we did not want to accept invitations,” Martin explains. “We understood that accepting money from such a big company could put our editorial confidence and our freedom at risk,” Nuccio says.

Freelance journalist Oscar Sulbarán, who has worked in Panama for international outlets like France24 and Voice of America, did accept the invitation. “In 2022 I was part of a group of people who visited the mine at the invitation of the mining company and flew over the site to see what the conditions were like,” he says. He explains that he brought his camera and recording equipment, but he was not allowed to interview people, record freely, or do any sort of reporting. 

“It was an experience, obviously being on location,” he says, “But as a journalist, it didn't mean anything. I didn't publish anything because that ended up being a corporate visit more than anything else.”

We reached out to Minera Panamá for a statement, but they did not respond. 

What local media says

Panamanian freelance journalist Mary Triny Zea, who has worked for both international and local outlets, has covered mining since the beginning of her career. Like Sulbarán, she reported on the protests on the ground for Bloomberg Línea. 

Zea says she saw a lot of criticism on social media from both sides about local coverage. “[They said that] a contextual analysis [was missing], beyond the number of jobs, how much does it affect our GDP, what the company contributes,” she explains. “[They missed reporting that included] all the pieces of the puzzle, a deep analysis of what was happening, what was going to happen, and the consequences of this decision, at an economic and environmental level.”

Armed with his microphone donning a France24 logo, Sulbarán says that people on the ground told him that it was international media that were covering what was really happening, with local reporting seldom delving into the economic and environmental impact of the mine. 

“[Some protesters] would see colleagues from local media and tell them that they were sellouts, that they were at the service of the government and the mining company, and that they were not reporting enough,” he says. Journalism syndicates and the ICHR denounced the verbal hostility towards journalists and the physical attacks they suffered, as many were injured by both protesters and police. 

While violence against journalists is never justified, some Panamanians think local media is failing them. As a result, many turned towards international coverage as an example of how things should be. 

The journalists at independent digital news outlet Praxis point out that the government did not make reporting easy, as it closed itself off from communicating with media outlets. Nuccio explains they are part of WhatsApp channels run by the government, where they receive official statements, but they are unable to ask questions or push back. According to Praxis’ Nuccio, this often results in news reports that merely reproduce official statements. 

In Panama, the lines between media, politics and business are often blurred, with each sector bleeding onto the other. In 2023 the government spent more than $1 million dollars in just three months to pay radio journalists and commentators to "promote" projects and programmes of the current government. 

President Laurentino Cortizo’s administration defended the move as a public subsidy, with party congressman and vice-chairman of the Budget Commission Raúl Pineda saying: "For years, millions of dollars have been spent on TVN and Medcom [who broadcast the two most popular newscasts in the country]. Today these ads are given to journalists who are economically hit after the pandemic. Radio was almost dead."

The government is a big advertiser and it has run ad campaigns to promote the mining contract too. As it’s common in other countries, businesspeople and politicians often invest in the ownership of media outlets. Most infamously, former President and current presidential candidate Ricardo Martinelli was even convicted of money laundering for acquiring a newspaper group with public funds. Martinelli is currently holed up in the Nicaraguan Embassy receiving political asylum from these charges. 

While this intersection of politics, media and business is not unique to Panama, the small size of the country and the amount of wealth concentrated in few hands make this issue even more problematic.

“Panama is a very small country so there are few players,” explains Nuccio. “Before Minera Panamá there was Odebrecht. You would go to events and Odebrecht was there. They were the ones who contributed, donated, and so on.” 

Odebrecht, the biggest engineering and contracting company in Latin America, became embroiled in a region-wide scandal after it was uncovered in 2014 that the company paid over $780 million in bribes to government officials, their representatives and political parties in countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, including Panama. 

“From soccer games to theatre plays, everything was sponsored by Odebrecht. And eventually Odebrecht went down and First Quantum arrived in Panama,” adds Martin. 

How Canadian media covered the issue 

While international outlets like France24, Bloomberg Línea, Deutsche Welle and others were providing in-depth coverage of what was happening in Panama, there were just whispers in the mining company’s home turf. 

First Quantum Minerals, the company running the mine, is a Canadian-based company despite not having a single mining operation in Canada. They are traded in the Toronto Stock Exchange and their main offices are located in Canada. Mary Ng, Canada’s trade minister, even said recently that “First Quantum Minerals is a really important Canadian company.” Despite that, coverage of FQM has been rather scarce. 

Canadian freelance journalist Christopher Pollon has reported on environment and extractive industries for over a decade. He says that coverage of mining in Canada has always been a fixture in the business section of news outlets but not in the way you might expect. 

“It's not so much a deep probing into what this company is doing or if they have done something wrong,” Pollon says. “The focus is, quite often, just how events abroad affecting mining companies might affect their share price, which is disappointing.” 

For example, The Globe and Mail’s mining reporter, Reuters’ Canadian mining reporter, and Bloomberg’s North American metals reporter – all based in Canada – almost exclusively focus on mining in the context of markets. And that is when outlets actually have reporters dedicated to the beat. 

Pollon says he has gravitated towards the mining beat simply because there was no one else doing it. Part of the reason why there is such a lack of coverage in Canada, he says, is because it’s not on the public radar, particularly when it comes to Canadian companies abroad. “There's just a massive disconnect between mining and just regular people,” he explains. “Mining is ubiquitous, right? We can't live without it. But people don't have a direct relationship with mining. So in Canada mining, and especially what Canadian companies are doing abroad, is invisible to most people.”

Gary Martin from Praxis thinks Canadian journalists should look at this much more closely. “I think it is very important for the country and its citizens to be aware of what companies in their country are doing,” he says. 

The reasons behind the lack of interest

There are many reasons that can explain the lack of interest. Several big news organisations are facing major job cuts, for example. As Martin pointed out, Meta blocking news on social media adds to the challenges journalists face. Foreign correspondent positions are dwindling and surviving foreign bureaus are mostly in other Global North countries. 

And yet, if the role of journalism is to hold truth to power, is that role limited to the parameters within the Canadian border? Canadian professor Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, who teaches Latin American and environmental history at McGill University, recently wrote: “What says Canada?...Do we support this or do we stand with the people of Panama? It would be useful if our national media were to provide some serious attention to the case. We could then begin to make up our own minds on the subject.”

While Panamanians have successfully halted operations, Nuccio from Praxis says that more international coverage could have improved local coverage too. “I will never be that person who says, someone has to come from outside to save us,” she says. “But if we had a great coverage of the event, [local] journalists would have woken up.”

Freelance reporter Zea says that what was missing, both locally and internationally, was a centring of voices who these projects affect the most. 

“With extractive megaprojects, beyond what the companies say, how much the stock goes up or down, the pressure to the GDP, it is the people who are around the project that are impacted, either positively or negatively, and those stories have to be heard,” she says.

How journalists should cover mining

Pollon, who has often written about the non-business effects of mining for Canadian media, says that most audiences only pay attention when a destructive event happens. The mining beat in general is difficult simply because mining companies don’t want to talk to you. 

Despite this, he is optimistic and thinks that mining issues will be covered more extensively and with more care in the future. With the world on the cusp of an energy transition away from fossil fuels, Pollon thinks that more people will have to reckon with what it means to mine. 

With an election looming in Panama, the issue of mining will undoubtedly play a big role throughout the campaign. By late November 2023, the government announced that they would be closing the mine after the Panamanian Supreme Court ruled the deal between the government and FQM as unconstitutional. 

All the journalists I spoke with said that future coverage of events like this will have to put into context the power these kinds of big corporations have on a small country. 

Sulbarán says that reporting on mining requires journalists to put facts into context rather than focusing on superficial coverage. Zea thinks it will be important for both local and international media to go beyond numbers and figures and examine how these projects impact communities. 

“For these multinational companies Panama is just one of their investments. So if you tell the story in another way and give visibility, you put in context other realities that are invisible,” she says.

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