Locking up journalists who expose corruption is a frightening global phenomenon.
Okke Ornstein, a Dutch journalist, was detained and arrested upon arriving at Panama’s Tocumen International Airport on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. He faced 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. Ornstein was released after President Varela signed a decree that reduced his sentence.
The substantive aspects of the case showed that there was 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's blog is not public for now due to ongoing legalities.
Ornstein faced another odd 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. Ornstein's lawyer resolved that conviction by turning it into a fine that has been paid.
A case filed by Clyde Jenkins proceeded, even though Jenkins died in 2014 and despite the fact that the case was past its statue of limitations. The court acquitted Ornstein in a public hearing on December 22, 2016. Ornstein is dealing with 2 other bogus charges in Panama: another by Friesner and a similar suit filed years ago that the court never showed interest in until now. At least a decade old, the latter case is far past its statute of limitations.
Ornstein has faced threats in Panama for his reporting before. In 2003, the free press organization IFEX expressed concerns about threats against him and another journalist for exposing fraud. His work continues to draw smear campaigns by shady types who don't want the journalism spotlight shining on their nefarious activities.
Organizations that called for Ornstein's release: Transparency International, the International Federation of Journalists, NVJ (Dutch Association of Journalists), the Committee to Protect Journalists, La Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, Fahmy Foundation, Reporters Without Borders.