Reporters Without Borders Calls for Panama to Release Ornstein

Reporters Without Borders/Reporteros Sin Fronteros (RSF) is the latest international organization calling for the release of Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein.

An imperfect translation from the original RSF post in Spanish:

On November 15, 2016, journalist Okke Ornstein was arrested and jailed in Panama for a case dating back to 2012, when the reporter was sentenced to 20 months in prison for defamation. Faced with numerous judicial irregularities and a completely disproportionate sentence, RSF demands that he be released immediately.

It is ironic that the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) was held in Panama City from December 1 – 4, 2016. Days before, Ornstein was arrested at Tocumen International Airport, Panama City, when he was returning from a trip to the Netherlands, and was immediately incarcerated. Ornstein is in the spotlight of justice for having denounced in his publications serious cases of corruption in the country.

Ornstein is an independent journalist who has lived in Panama for 15 years. He has worked for numerous media, such as Al-Jazeera. On December 14, 2012, he was sentenced to 20 months’ imprisonment (eight months for insult and twelve for slander), following a lawsuit filed by the Canadian businessman Monte Friesner, for a series of articles the journalist published on Bananama Republic, his blog). Okke Ornstein denounced in them the illicit activities (fraud and money laundering) of Friesner’s company in Panama, ProntoCash. In 1995, the US court had found the Canadian businessman guilty of the same crimes Ornstein wrote about.

On his blog, Ornstein criticized, with irony, dubious business practices and corruption in Panama.

RSF contacted Ornstein’s lawyer in the Netherlands, Channa Samkalden, who claims that the process was not carried out under fair conditions and that her client was not provided with adequate legal assistance to defend himself in Panama. The sentence was appealed, but in 2015 the court confirmed it. Ornstein wonders why he was arrested at this time. Due to his lack of being notified by the Panamanian justice system, Ornstein said he never imagined that he would be imprisoned and did not think it necessary to appeal this sentence.

“RSF asks the Panamanian justice system to immediately release Okke Ornstein and to withdraw the charges against him, pending a fair trial,” said Emmanuel Colombié, head of RSF’s Latin America office. “Criminal prosecutions for defamation are common and journalists considered to be ‘annoying’ are often found before the courts. These practices, which constitute a serious threat to press freedom in the country, must be stopped,” he added.

Panama’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement on on December 1 claiming that the judicial process had been carried out in accordance with due process and that whenever necessary, Ornstein had a legal representative for his defense.

Both Ornstein and his family refute these claims. The journalist explains that the public defense lawyer assigned to him, Ana González, did not communicate sufficiently with him, never informed him of possible legal options and did not respond to his requests. Ornstein also mentioned the lack of a Dutch interpreter during hearings.

People close to Ornstein have mobilized for justice and constantly report on the progress of his case through the website FreeOkkeOrnstein.org. Some recently had trouble visiting the journalist at Renacer Prison. Manuel Succari, Ornstein’s Panamanian lawyer, said that the journalist’s daughter was publicly humiliated by prison guards.

Ornstein has taken a very critical stance against corruption in Panama, and he has been accused of defamation numerous times. In addition to his 20-month prison sentence in the Friesner case, Ornstein faces another 18-month prison sentence, following a lawsuit filed in December 2015 by Patrick Visser, a Dutch businessman who ran a fraudulent carbon emission-reduction scheme operated by his company Silva Tree in Panama. Ornstein was also charged with defamation in three other cases, which have not yet been heard in court.

Panama is ranked 91 among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Rankings published by RSF in 2016.

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