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Panama: Where Journalism is an ‘Insult against Honor’

Calls continue to grow for the release of a Dutch journalist who was arrested as he stepped off a plane in Panama last month.

Dutch journalist and blogger Okke Ornstein, a resident of the small central American nation, was picked up by police on Nov. 15 and has been in a jail cell ever since. Authorities there had sought his arrest on charges dating back to 2012. He’s now serving a 20-month prison term for “insult” and slander, which are criminal offenses in Panama.

The imprisonment of a foreign journalist is unprecedented even for Panama, which has a track record of prosecuting journalists simply for doing their jobs, journalism advocacy groups say.

“No other journalist or blogger is now jailed in Panama. In the early 2000s, Panama was a country where criminal defamation prosecutions were widespread,” Carlos Lauria, Americas program director with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said by email.

“Panamanian authorities should immediately release Okke Ornstein and work to remove outdated criminal defamation penalties from the legal code.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,” he added.

Ornstein’s arrest is related to a series of articles he published on his blog “Bananama Republic,” which chronicles alleged cases of corruption, fraud and money laundering in Panama. Some of those articles detailed the activities of a businessman named Monte Friesner. The 74-year-old Canadian national is alleged to have set up a bogus sailing business, and later a prepaid credit card company called Pronto Cash. In April 2012, the company was forced to shut down and fined $10,000 USD after an investigation by Panama’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry into allegations of financial fraud.

The Panamanian government, however, allowed Pronto Cash to reopen again in March this year, this time being headed by a woman named Tatiana Viktorovna Nazarova, who is Monte Friesner’s wife, records show.

His questionable business practices were reported in the Panamanian press at the time, but Friesner took special offence to Ornstein’s coverage on his blog. He then filed a lawsuit against Ornstein in court, which sided with Friesner in its ruling. And after a series of unsuccessful appeals, on March 16, 2015, a Panamanian judge sentenced Ornstein to 20 months in prison.

Aside from being found guilty of criminal “insult” and slander, Ornstein was also guilty of “an offense against the honor…of Monte Morris Friesner,” the court ruling states.

It wasn’t the first time that Ornstein’s reportage has gotten him into legal trouble. In April of 2010, the owners of a carbon offsetting business called Silva Tree brought a criminal complaint in a Panamanian court against the journalist. Like Friesner, Patrick Visser and his wife Keren also alleged that he had “offended their honor” — for writing that the business was a scam.

Silva Tree promised lofty returns for investing in a reforestation project in Panama. Their pitch was appealing: invest a little more than $30,000 USD in the tree-planting business, and see a five-fold ROI, as well as a “guaranteed return of 15 percent each year for 20 years,” their sales materials assured. The company claimed it was certified to operate such a business, but in fact, it had yet to receive the required Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) license. And as the Christian Science Monitor reported in 2010, there was no guarantee that the firm would ever be certified.

Since then, Silva Tree has ceased all communications and took down its website.

Ornstein was found guilty of slander and “insult” against the Vissers and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, but that sentence has since been converted to a fine.

Panama a ‘Libel Tourism’ Destination

In a TEDx talk he gave in Panama in November 2014, Ornstein warned of a phenomenon he called “libel tourism.” People who feel offended shop around for a jurisdiction that will take their case, and where it’s easy to get a conviction. It doesn’t matter where the plaintiff is from or what caused them to feel offended. Unfortunately, the central American country’s legal system is set up in such a way to cater to such people, Ornstein said.

“Panama offers this service to anyone who wants it, anywhere in the world, free of charge,” he said. “People can come here and file complaints against journalists anywhere in the world…if it happens to [someone outside Panama] they might go as far as put you on the Interpol Watch List.”

And if this happens, Ornstein explained, a person accused of slander in Panama could be stopped the next time they try to fly anywhere, and then sent to the country to face trial.

His words were almost prophetic; almost exactly two years after the TEDx talk, he would be stopped while getting off a plane.

To complicate matters further, Patrick Visser also filed a civil complaint against Ornstein in a court in the Netherlands, and it was that court case that brought down his ‘Bananama Republic’ website. For years, the blog was the platform from which Ornstein passionately thundered away against any Panamanian or foreigner with even a whiff of shady dealings on them.

Channa Samkalden, Ornstein’s attorney in Amsterdam, said Visser was seeking financial restitution from Ornstein as well.

“[Visser] asked, among other things, for an injunction to remove the posts mentioning them on Ornstein’s blog as well as compensation,” Samkalden said.

Ornstein was unaware of the civil case against him in his home country, and thus unable to file a defense. So the Dutch court ruled in Visser’s favor by default, and the hosting provider took down the ‘Bananama Republic’ site. It was only when Ornstein could no longer access his blog did he become aware of the case against him in the Netherlands.

But Ms. Samkalden has since launched a defense, and hopes to get the court to allow the blog to be reactivated on free expression grounds.

“The court has to make an assessment on the legitimacy of Visser’s claim and the proportionality of the requested infringement of freedom of speech,” she said.

Ornstein Unfazed by Legal Battles

In the four years before his arrest, Ornstein seemed confident — cocky even — that the charges against him in Panama would never get off the ground, because the court was unable to provide an interpreter in his native language. He also thought that such laws would eventually be repealed with the victory of Juan Carlos Varela, who won Panama’s presidential election on May 4, 2014, and had promised to do away with the criminal libel and insult laws.

“Monte Friesner, Patrick Visser…and whatever other crooks and shysters may have filed criminal complaints against yours truly for ‘crimes against the honor,’ have already lost their cases,” Ornstein wrote in a post which can still be found on the Internet, dated May 17, 2014.

“The cases [against me] are doomed,” he stated. “That’s because Martinelli lost the elections and Varela won. And what is Varela going to do? He is going to decriminalize libel and slander. No more ‘crimes against the honor.’ And that will then instantly kill all pending cases.”

But Ornstein couldn’t have been more wrong. In the two-and-a-half years that Varela has been president, he’s yet to do what the journalist had pinned his hopes on, and repeal those laws. Instead, the cases remained active, and in the court’s view, Ornstein had indeed offended Friesner and Visser’s honor.

So when Ornstein disembarked from a transcontinental flight at Panama’s Tocumen International Airport, after having been on assignment reporting on the refugee crisis in Europe, only to be met by police, it must have been the shock of his life.

Now, after spending a month in prison, friends, family and supporters have launched a website called FreeOkkeOrnstein which seeks to raise awareness about the case, condemn Ornstein’s detention and call for his immediate release. A number of press freedom groups have got behind the cause, including the CPJ, Transparency International, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Federation of Journalists, the International Press Institute, and the Dutch Association of Journalists.

The Dutch Embassy in Panama has also been assisting Ornstein with legal representation, and is using diplomatic channels in a bid to convince Panama’s government to set him free.

“Mr. Ornstein is receiving consular assistance, and we are in close contact with his family in Panama and the Netherlands. We have also assisted him in finding a lawyer. We are following the legal proceedings closely,” Netherlands Ambassador Dirk Janssen said by email.

“The embassy is in contact with the Panamanian government about this. Quiet diplomacy is often the best way forward in cases like this,” he said.

‘Doing Well Under the Circumstances’

Ornstein has been moved around since he was nabbed by police on Nov. 15. He spent his first 10 days in a local police jail cell in Panama City. He was then transferred to the notorious La Joya prison, an overcrowded maximum-security facility known to house the country’s most dangerous criminals. But fortunately, he only spent a few hours there.

On Nov. 25, he was moved again, this time to the smaller Renacer prison, the same jail where the aging former military dictator Manuel Noriega served much of his sentence for drug trafficking and human rights abuses during his rule. Noriega has since been allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence in hospital.

Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein pictured in Panama’s Renacer prison where he is currently serving his 20-month prison sentence. (Jan-Albert Hootsen/Committee to Protect Journalists)

“I last went to see [Ornstein], and he is doing well under the circumstances,” Ambassador Jenssen said. “The conditions there are relatively good, and he is being treated well.”

Kimberlyn David, Ornstein’s girlfriend, also said he’s holding up well, but is bored while incarcerated and misses his family. She described the jail’s conditions as “nothing glamorous, concrete building with cheerless lighting, low ceilings and low windows.”

“They bring him an ample breakfast [but] the food is awful, so I’ve been bringing him fresh fruit and packaged foods,” she said.

With mounting pressure from the Dutch Embassy and a number of advocacy groups, Panama’s government has seemed to come down with a case of schizophrenia. On the one hand, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shrugged its shoulders, issuing a statement on Dec. 1 stating that the government “cannot not interfere in judicial processes,” as Ornstein “received due process and legal representation according to the country’s laws.”

But on the other hand, Panama’s president made utterances that perhaps the government’s position wasn’t so strident.

On the same day that the Foreign Ministry issued its press release — and with no small dose of irony — President Varela became aware of Ornstein’s predicament while giving the opening address at the 17th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Panama City.

During his speech, a small group of protesters unfurled a banner that read: “Free Okke Ornstein, International journalist jailed to protect an international criminal,” and silently held it in front of the cameras in the back of the conference hall.

The conference couldn’t have taken place at a better time for Ornstein. After his address, Varela spoke about the journalist’s imprisonment, and hinted that some kind of legal or political intervention could be possible.

“I learned, just like all of you, from the media, of the condemnation of the Dutch journalist. For us undoubtedly, you know that freedom of expression is something that the government respects and defends,” Varela said to a clutch of reporters. “I have asked…the president of the (Supreme) Court to look at the case. Using my constitutional faculties, I will see…if I have a field of action in this matter.”

The fact that someone who has worked to expose corruption was sitting in a jail cell in the same city where an anti-corruption conference was taking place was not lost on the guest speakers.

“Many journalists who fight against corruption have been murdered, persecuted and jailed. And we can’t make reference to this without mentioning the case of the Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein,” the former Peruvian attorney general, Jose Ugaz, said during his address to the conference.

“He was convicted by a court in Panama for writing a number of articles about corruption and was recently given 20 months in prison. I need to say that we call on the authorities, those who defend this decision, to look at it carefully, because freedom of expression can’t be suppressed with prison,” he said to applause from the crowd.

Even if the government doesn’t act, Ornstein may still be able to get out of prison early. There is some indication that his prison term could be commuted to a fine — and a hefty one at that — $3,500. Ornstein’s girlfriend said that he’s not entirely comfortable with this, as it would be a tacit admission of guilt.

He admitted as much in a video filmed by Ms. David during one of her prison visits, and posted to YouTube on Dec. 11.

“The annoying part is that I shouldn’t even be here. I think it’s a good rule of thumb that you don’t lock up journalists, no matter what they’ve been writing,” Ornstein says in the 5-minute video. “And in my case, certainly not, because the only thing I’ve been writing is what I investigated, and which happens to be the truth.”

He continued: “I love my work, and I very much would like [to continue it]. Even in here, I hear so may interesting stories, and to be honest, I often regret not having my microphone or my camera or my laptop, to write down what happened in a lot of people’s lives, because that’s what I do.”

When Ms. David asked him if this issue is bigger than him now, Ornstein replied: “There’s a lot of things that have happened here that have sent shock waves throughout the world — the Panama Papers being one of those things — and it’s not helping the country, trying to suppress that, either by putting a journalist in jail, or by trying to manipulate coverage.

“I think it would be much wiser to take a different approach and deal with reality. If I can be of any service to facilitate a process that changes press laws in Panama, then I would be happy to do so.”