Dutch Journalist Okke Ornstein Detained and Arrested in Panama
Reporter Faces 20-Month Sentence for Baseless Libel and Slander Case
AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands, November 21, 2016 — Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein was detained and arrested upon arriving at Panama’s Tocumen International Airport on Tuesday, November 15. He is facing a 20-month sentence for libel and slander pertaining to articles he posted on his blog about the dubious business activities of a Canadian citizen, Monte Friesner, in Panama.
The substantive aspects of the case show that there is no ground for the criminal prosecution of Ornstein. Friesner, whose lawsuit led to Ornstein’s conviction in Panama, was himself convicted in the United States—for similar offenses that Ornstein wrote about on his blog.
In 1995, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit determined that Friesner was a “consummate fraud artist” and upheld his conviction of 20 felony counts for wire fraud (United States of America, Plaintiff-appellee, v. Monte Morris Friesner, Defendant-appellant, 61 F.3d 917).
Friesner was also facing criminal prosecution in Panama, where he was under investigation for his business Financeria Pronto Cash, of which the Superintendcía de Bancos de Panamá made a public warning in March 2012: Pronto Cash was not authorized to engage in banking business in the country. It is presumed that Friesner has left Panama.
The Dutch journalist association NVJ condemns Ornstein’s arrest. “A 20-month prison sentence over a series of blog posts is against the fundamental principles of freedom of speech and the freedom of expression, principles that are acknowledged as fundamental rights worldwide,” said Thomas Bruning, Secretary General of NVJ.
On his blog, Ornstein mostly writes stories about corruption and fraud cases. “This prison sentence sends a signal that critical journalism on fraud and corruption is not possible in Panama,” said Bruning. “Ornstein is being punished in a way that does not comply with the principles of a democratic justice system.”
According to Ornstein’s lawyer Channa Samkalden, who is involved from The Netherlands, Ornstein did not get due process and did not receive proper legal aid during the criminal proceedings in Panama.
NVJ is working with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch Embassy in Panama to free Ornstein as soon as possible—and to ensure that he has access to adequate legal representation.
Additionally, the Dutch journalist association is turning to Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bert Koenders, to raise the troubling issues in Ornstein’s case at the highest levels in Panama.
Ornstein is a working journalist of Dutch nationality who currently lives in Panama. He manages the websites www.ornstein.org and www.bananamarepublic.com. The former is about his general journalistic work, while the latter focuses specifically on Panama and more broadly Latin America. On the Bananama Republic blog, Ornstein provocatively discusses background stories and news, particularly in the areas of corruption, fraud and politics.
In 2015, Dutch public-service broadcaster NTR nominated a radio documentary about refugees by Ornstein for the Tegel-prijs in The Netherlands. His in-depth radio investigation “Barro Blanco,” about a hydroelectric dam in Panama that was funded by a Dutch bank and prompted questions in the Dutch Parliament about environmental and social consequences, was nominated for the prestigious Prix-Europa in 2013. Most recently, Ornstein has worked for Dutch public broadcasters and Al-Jazeera.
For more information about Ornstein’s case in Panama, please contact Thomas Bruning, Secretary General of the Dutch journalist association NVJ: Phone: +31 6 20495245; E-mail: TBruning@nvj.nl.