The following text originally appeared on a “For the Press” page that no longer exists, as it was intended primarily for journalists who were traveling to Panama to cover the International Anti-Corruption Conference in December 2016. But the questions remain relevant, particularly in light of Ornstein’s plans to file a case against Panama in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. So we’re salvaging them here.
Serious Questions in Need of Serious Answers
The prosecution of Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein runs deeper than his own personal situation. Ultimately, his wrongful imprisonment sends the signal that Panama’s government does not take its commitments to democratic principles and financial transparency seriously. So while we must ask questions about the ridiculous sentencing and charges against Ornstein, we must also ask about the blatant disregard for international law, civil rights and criminal justice.
- “Time for Justice” is the theme of this year’s International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) being held in Panama, and the conference focus is on “zero tolerance of impunity for corruption.” The Guardian just reported 2 weeks ago that Mossack Fonseca was fined $440,000 in the British Virgin Islands for, among other failures, facilitating money laundering and terrorism financing. In light of the levels of corruption that have been advanced by Mossack Fonseca and revealed in the Panama Papers leak, what specific measures is Panama taking to stop corruption and hold perpetrators accountable?
- Organizations concerned about the chilling effect of criminal libel laws have noted a history of government officials in Panama threatening journalists and newspapers for their watchdog reporting. Reporters Without Borders, for instance, called on Panama to eliminate prison sentences for media offenses 16 years ago. Yet the Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein is at this very moment locked up in Renacer Prison in Gamboa for defamation convictions and charges. How does the Panamanian government reconcile its constitutional protections of the press on paper with its longstanding practice of punishing the press?
- This is not the first time that Ornstein has been harassed in Panama for his work. As the free press organization IFEX reported in 2003, he and Panamanian journalist Carmen Boyd were threatened for exposing a land swindle in San Cristobal. There’s a track record of “shooting the messenger” in Panama. Just last year, the government slapped La Prensa with an outrageous $600,000 fine for investigating state contracts. One has to wonder: Why is the Panamanian government going after journalists instead of those who are committing crimes and perpetuating corruption?
- Banking compliance was a key theme from last year’s IACC in Malaysia. How does Panama envision playing a role in strengthening the international anti-money laundering legal framework?
- Panama is currently paying Bellwether Strategies $50,000 per month to promote its commercial and diplomatic interests. In August of this year, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and top anti-corruption expert Mark Pieth resigned from the committee tasked with analyzing Panama’s shaky ground with financial transparency. They pointed to a lack of transparency within the committee itself as the reason for stepping down. Is Panama more concerned about projecting an image of transparency than it is addressing the issue? Why won’t Panama make the committee’s findings public?
- Does Panama plan to abolish its criminal defamation law and end the prosecution of the press? If so, by what date will that be accomplished?
- Panama typically drops its baseless prison sentences and charges against journalists after being pressured by free press organizations. Several organizations now are calling for the release of Ornstein, and they ask Panama to drop all charges against him. Does Panama consider it politically and legally feasible to keep Ornstein in prison? And if not, what is the plan for his release?