News

December 7, 2016 - Updated on January 6, 2017

RSF’s calls for release of Dutch journalist jailed in Panama

Okke Ornstein
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of Okke Ornstein, a Panama-based Dutch journalist who was arrested last month in Panama City to begin serving the absurdly disproportionate 20-month jail sentence he received at the end of a flawed defamation trial in 2012.

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UPDATE

Dutch Journalist Okke Ornstein was released from jail on 23 december 2016 after his 20 months sentence was commuted by a presidential decree. RSF welcomes the decision that has also put an end to he secondary penalty preventing Okke to work as a journalist in Panama.

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Targeted by the local justice system because of his frequent stories about corruption in Panama, he was detained by immigration officials at Panama City’s Tocumen international airport on his return from a visit to the Netherlands on 15 November. Ironically, this was just before the Global Anti-Corruption Conference that was held in Panama City from 1 to 4 December.


A freelance journalist residing in Panama for the past 15 years, Ornstein has worked for many media outlets including Al Jazeera TV.


A court sentenced him to a total of 20 months in prison (eight months for insult and 12 months for libel) on 14 December 2012 in response to a complaint by Canadian businessman Monte Friesner over a series of articles by Ornstein on one of his blogs, Bananama Republic, in which he writes ironically about questionable business practices and corruption in Panama.


The articles were about allegedly illegal practices (fraud and money laundering) by Pronto Cash, a company created by Friesner in Panama. Friesner is himself the subject of criminal proceedings in Panama in connection with these activities and was convicted of similar activities in the United States in 1995.


Ornstein’s lawyer in the Netherlands, Channa Samkalden, told RSF that he was not given a fair trial and was not given adequate legal aid with his defence. The sentence was nonetheless upheld on appeal in 2015.


The Ornstein family meanwhile questions the timing of his arrest and the lack of cooperation and information from Panama’s judicial authorities. Ornstein never imagined he would end up in prison and did not think he needed to appeal, the family says.


We call on Panama’s justice system to free Okke Ornstein at once and to withdraw the criminal charges against him pending fair judicial proceedings,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America desk.


Criminal defamation prosecutions are unfortunately only too common in Panama and ‘troublesome’ journalists are often taken to court. Such practices must stop because they pose a grave threat to media freedom in this country.


In a statement issued on 1 December, Panama’s foreign ministry insisted that Ornstein’s right to due process was fully respected in accordance with Panama’s laws and that he was systematically represented by a defence lawyer.


This was immediately disputed by Ornstein and his family. According to Ornstein, the lawyer assigned to defend him, Ana González, did not communicate with him sufficiently, never told him about his legal options, and never responded to his queries. He also criticized the lack of a Dutch interpreter at the hearings he attended.


Some of Ornstein’s colleagues and friends – who are campaigning for his release and reporting developments in the case on the FreeOkkeOrnstein.org website – have been unable to visit him in prison while Manuel Succari, his Panamanian lawyer, said prison guards publicly humiliated his daughter.


Ornstein has been the target of other lawsuits in connection with his outspoken criticism of alleged corruption in Panama and is facing an additional 18-month jail sentence in a case brought in December 2015 by Dutch businessman Patrick Visser over his claims on Bananama Republic that Visser’s company Silva Tree was operating a fraudulent carbon offset scheme in Panama.

Three other defamation cases against Ornstein are pending in Panama, which is ranked 91st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.