Panama  has a relatively free and aggressive press, certainly in comparison with the days of the military dictatorship, which controlled and censored the press either directly or through intimidation and violence.
But Panama continues to be widely criticized for restrictive and antiquated laws that, for instance, make it a criminal offense for a journalist to “insult” public officials, even if the criticism is factually accurate. Newspaper reporters, TV journalists, and editorial cartoonists continue to be arrested and fined for these and other “offenses.”
While journalists are usually released quickly, international press-freedom organizations have denounced the laws and worry about the chilling effect it has on the media. Physical attacks, threats, and harassment of journalists sometimes occur as well. Despite new transparency laws, it remains difficult for journalists to get access to many government documents and records that are publicly available in other countries.
As in the United States and elsewhere, there is also concern about concentration of media ownership in the hands of a powerful few, including those with their own political agendas.
Panama has an abundance of Spanish-language daily newspapers, all headquartered in Panama City , but most are widely available throughout the country. Panama’s various news outlets tend to have allegiances to parties, political stances, and families, which can color what they cover and how they cover it.
The best of the bunch is La Prensa, which is comparable to a major U.S. daily. It has a bewildering array of weekly supplements, on everything from fashion to health, and does the best job of any paper in covering tourism and other topics likely to be of interest to visitors. El Panamá América and La Estrella de Panamá are fallbacks if La Prensa is sold out. Panama also has popular tabloids, notably La Crítica and El Siglo, which specialize in gory, sensationalist crime stories and inflammatory political topics.
Panama no longer has a major daily English-language paper. In 2007, La Estrella introduced an English-language supplement, the Panama Star, in all but its Sunday editions. The best sources for English-language news are online, particularly www.panama-guide.com . Bocas del Toro  (the Bocas Breeze) and Boquete  (the Bajarque Times) now have small, local newspapers in English.
There are also three well-established Chinese-language newspapers that cater to the large Chinese immigrant population.
For years Panama had just two television stations: RPC (channel 4) and TVN (channel 2), as well as the U.S. armed forces station (SCN, channel 8 on the Pacific side of the isthmus and channel 11 on the Caribbean side). The armed forces stations disappeared with the closing of the American bases, but several other networks, including Telemetro (channel 13, which is owned by the company that owns RPC) have popped up in recent years. The entire country is increasingly plugging into “cable” television—actually satellite TV—through DirecTV and the plethora of Spanish- and English-language stations it offers.
The country’s airwaves are crammed with the sounds of radio stations, most offering típico, Latin pop, and mainstream American rock. English-language talk shows, usually aimed at older expatriate residents, are beginning to appear. Radio Metropolis (93.5 FM) has a Sunday night show 6–10 p.m. that can also be heard online at www.pbcpanama.com . Ultra Stereo (98.9 FM) has a morning talk and music show 8–10 a.m. Monday–Friday.
The country code for Panama is 507. Do not dial 507 when making calls within the country. Cellular phone numbers begin with the number “6” and have eight digits compared with seven for landlines. These can be more expensive to call, but they’re often the best way to contact someone.
The emergency number for the police (policía nacional) is 104. The emergency number for the fire department (bomberos) is 103. In smaller communities, these numbers don’t always work; you have to dial a local number instead. Ask a resident or call directory assistance for help. Directory assistance (asistencia al directorio) is 102. The national operator can be reached at 101. To reach the international operator, dial 106.
Panama is finally rolling out an official emergency medical response service, starting with the major urban areas. Dial 911 to call an ambulance (note that this is only for medical help; dial 104 for the police). This service, Sistema Único de Manejo de Emergencias (translation: Unified System for the Management of Emergencies, http://www.sume911.pa/ ) is new, and how well it works will take time to ascertain. If an ambulance doesn’t come fast, your best bet may be to grab a taxi and get to the closest hospital.
Pay phones pop up in the most unlikely places, including dirt-poor villages and islands in the middle of nowhere. Long-distance calls within the country generally cost no more than us$0.15 per minute. Instructions on using modern pay phones are in English and several other languages, but finding one that actually works can sometimes be a problem. Also, many of these phones accept only prepaid calling cards.
Those with an unlocked cell phone should consider buying a local SIM card. They’re available from outlets of Panama’s main telephone service provider, Cable and Wireless (C&W), and from a competing company, Movistar. They cost about US$1 and usually include a usage credit. They’re used in conjunction with C&W’s prepaid Móvil phone cards in denominations up to US$50. These disposable cards contain a code that the user enters into the phone, which is then credited for the amount (instructions are in Spanish and English). Calling rates are quite reasonable, so don’t buy a larger denomination than you’re likely to need. The Móvil cards are easy to find, as they’re sold in stores and vending machines around the country. However, low-denomination credits expire more quickly.
Some Internet cafés offer international calling and fax services. Calls can be quite reasonable (e.g., US$0.15 per minute to the United States), but check carefully before sending or receiving a fax. International fax service isn’t that common at most of these places, and the charges can be steep, especially to send. It’s not unusual to be charged US$1 a page to receive and up to US$5 a page to send, plus international dialing charges. The high-end hotels tend to have business centers with computer and phone services.
The international access code for placing direct calls from Panama is “00” followed by the country code. The country code for the continental United States or Canada is 1, the United Kingdom is 44, Spain is 34, Germany is 49, France is 33, Australia is 61, Costa Rica is 506, Nicaragua is 505, Colombia is 57, and Mexico is 52. Check a local phone book or call the international operator (106) for other access codes and for help making a call.
Mail between Panama and other countries is not too speedy. A postcard sent from Panama takes at least 5–10 days to reach the United States, and longer to more distant destinations. Postcards to the United States cost US$0.25. Airmail letters weighing up to 20 grams (0.7 ounce) cost US$0.35. Add US$0.05 to postcards and airmail letters for Canada addresses, US$0.10 for European ones, and US$0.15 for addresses in Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Some of the more expensive hotels sell stamps. Note that bulky packages sent to or from Panama sometimes get “lost” in the mail.
Do not put tape (Scotch tape, etc.) on an envelope; the post office may refuse to accept it or return international mail that has tape on it. One explanation I’ve heard for this strange rule is that it discourages thieves from opening mail and then resealing the envelope to hide the crime.
Post office hours are generally 7 a.m.–6 p.m. Monday–Friday, 7 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturday. Post offices are closed on Sunday.
Another oddity about mail in Panama is there is no home delivery; even in modern Panama City , everyone must have mail sent to an apartado postal (post-office box). Frustration with slow and sometimes unreliable postal service has driven many who can afford it to subscribe to private mail and courier services, some of which are only slightly more satisfying.
There are a number of international mailing and shipping stores in Panama City . Mail Boxes Etc. has outlets around the city, including one at Vía España and Calle 61 and one in the Albrook Mall next to the Gran Terminal de Transportes. They also have fax services.
Internet cafés are everywhere in Panama. You will have little trouble finding one in the cities, and they’re beginning to pop up in fairly remote areas as well. Charges are rarely more than a dollar or two an hour, often less. Most of these cafés use Windows-based machines. Free Wi-Fi is proliferating all over the country, particularly in mid-price hotels and businesses that cater to tourists. Macintoshes are sometimes available as well.
Panamanian websites are rarely designed to work with any browser but Internet Explorer.