These FAQs pertain to Okke Ornstein’s imprisonment in Panama, before his release in December 2016. Please see the News page for the relevant updates.
Q: What is Ornstein being prosecuted for?
Ornstein is facing a 20-month sentence for libel and slander pertaining to articles he posted on his Bananama Republic blog about the dubious business activities of a Canadian citizen, Monte Friesner, in Panama. (Bananama Republic is not public right now due to the situation.)
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 (see: United States of America, Plaintiff-appellee, v. Monte Morris Friesner, Defendant-appellant, 61 F.3d 917).
Ornstein also faces another conviction for a lawsuit filed by Patrick Visser—just for sharing news that had already been reported by the Christian Science Monitor about Visser’s carbon-offsetting scheme, Silva Tree.
Further, Ornstein is simultaneously dealing with 3 other bogus charges in Panama:
1. a suit filed by Clyde Jenkins—that case is proceeding on December 5, 2016, even though Jenkins died.
2. another Friesner suit
3. a suit filed years ago by a former director at the University of Panama—the court never showed interest in this case until now.
Q: Do free press organizations have anything to say about this?
Organizations that denounce the criminal prosecution of Okke Ornstein: Transparency International, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), NVJ (Dutch Association of Journalists), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), La Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, Fahmy Foundation, Reporters Without Borders/Reporteros Sin Fronteros (RSF).
- Cobus de Swardt, External Managing Director of Transparency International: “Corruption is by its nature secret. Journalists play an important role in showing that the corrupt cannot get away with their crimes. It’s no time to be incarcerating the messengers.”
- Thomas Bruning, Secretary General of NVJ: “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. Ornstein is being punished in a way that does not comply with the principles of a democratic justice system.”
- Philippe Leruth, President of IFJ: “We stand by our colleagues from NVJ and we ask for the 20-month sentence journalist Okke Ornstein is facing to be immediately dropped. Journalists should be able to investigate freely and to inform civil society about all kind of crimes, including fraud and corruption, so that these criminals face the full force of the law. It should be them being detained and not the messenger being punished.”
- Carlos Lauría, Senior Program Coordinator for CPJ in the Americas: “Panamanian authorities should immediately release Okke Ornstein and work to remove outdated criminal defamation penalties from the legal code. Laws that send journalists to prison for something they write or broadcast violate international standards of free expression.”
- Emmanuel Colombié, Head of RSF’s Latin America Office: “RSF asks the Panamanian justice system to immediately release Okke Ornstein and to withdraw the charges against him, pending a fair trial. 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.”
Q: What is Panama’s history with press and civil rights issues?
Organizations that specialize in free press issues offer informative overviews on these overlapping histories in Panama.
In its 2016 Panama report, Freedom House noted that while Panama’s constitution protects the freedoms of speech and the press, the protections largely exist on paper. Libel is a criminal offense, so scrutinizing journalists run the risk of government backlash.
Panama’s early history with prosecuting and threatening journalists is outlined in this 1999 overview by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The report shows a clear pattern of political blowback from the highest offices, up to the presidency.
Reporters Without Borders urged Panama to abolish prison sentences for media offenses in 2000. Its report addressed the legal harassment of media workers, including Manuel Antonio Bernal, who had been sued for critically covering prisoner deaths.
Q: Are those online accusations about Ornstein true?
Ornstein specializes in high-impact investigative journalism—his work has led to arrests, questions in Dutch parliament and the downfall of many frauds and swindles. Ornstein is the most-prosecuted foreign journalist in Panama, largely because of the inconvenient truths he writes on his Bananama Republic blog (not public at this time, due to the ongoing legal situation).
It’s genuinely difficult to keep track of all the smear campaigns against Ornstein, which have included lies about members of his family. The two most notable sources of the spurious claims are Kenneth Rijock, whom Ornstein discusses here, Monte Friesner’s Wanted SA and the now-defunct Panama Guide by Don Winner.
Ornstein has been accused of everything from running phony investments to child porn and killing Friesner’s dog to being an Interpol fugitive in Costa Rica. The UK-based publishing company he co-directed, Paraguas Books, was also targeted.
Anyone with basic media literacy skills can of course see through these ridiculous claims. These fake news smears fail to provide the hallmarks of journalism: verifiable evidence and quotes from credible sources.
Q: Has Ornstein’s work in Panama been targeted in other ways?
In 2003, the free press organization IFEX expressed concerns about threats against him and a Panamanian journalist for exposing a land swindle in San Cristobal. Ornstein’s lawyer was murdered, the Panamanian journalist received dire warnings and Ornstein was followed while driving.
Q: What else has Ornstein investigated in Panama?
It has never been Ornstein’s sole aim to criticize—through his investigations, he sought to help Panama. What’s happening now is “shoot the messenger”: instead of Panamanian authorities going after the people who abuse their country’s laws and court system, they instead prosecute the journalist shedding light on scams.
Here are the most high-profile cases that Ornstein has looked into:
- Winston Spadafora, the former interior minister during Mireya Moscoso’s presidency (he was denied a US visa in 2005), and José Terán, the former health minister under the same administration, were implicated in an ecstasy drug deal with Thea Moear, the Dutch “Godmother.” Ornstein filed stories for Het Parool and RTL.
- Tom McMurrain’s San Cristobal swindles with teak and noni: Eventually, McMurrain was extradited to the US for previous scams. Panama’s then vice-president (under the Moscoso admin), Arturo Vallarino, promoted San Cristobal. Vallarino was Panama’s ambassador to the OAS under the Martinelli presidency.
- Prime Forestry: a Swiss-based forestry scam promoted by President Martín Torrijos, until Swiss authorities shut it down
- Silva Tree: the forestry scam originally reported on by the Christian Science Monitor. Ornstein is being prosecuted for simply sharing the report on his blog, in a suit brought by Patrick Visser.
- Monte Friesner: the Canadian citizen the US called a “consummate fraud artist.” Ornstein faces a 20-month sentence for writing about Friesner on his Banama Republic blog.
- Wesley Snipes was victimized in a tax evasion scheme by a scam artist who was arrested and extradited to the US.
- President Martín Torrijos was involved in narco-kidnapping. Search for “ornstein.org” and “Panama” in the Wikileaks Cablegate archive to find the full story.
- Democrats Abroad Panama: Chairman Sean Hammerle turns out to be an identity thief who runs fake companies.
Q: Does Ornstein have legal and governmental support?
The government entities working on Ornstein’s behalf are the Dutch Embassy in Panama and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.