Ornstein, who is known in the Netherlands for his in depth reporting for NPO, says authorities did not provide a translator when he was arrested. (Kimberlyn David)
Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein is detained in Panama over a criminal defamation case. (Kimberlyn David)

Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein jailed in Panama for criminal defamation

New York, November 29, 2016–Authorities in Panama should immediately release Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein, who has been detained since November 15, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Ornstein, a Panama-based journalist who runs the news website Bananama Republic, was arrested in relation to a 2012 criminal defamation conviction when he arrived at Panama City international airport, according to his lawyer, Manuel Succari.

“Panamanian authorities should immediately release Okke Ornstein and work to remove outdated criminal defamation penalties from the legal code,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Laws that send journalists to prison for something they write or broadcast violate international standards of free expression.”

Ornstein was convicted of criminal defamation on December 14, 2012 and sentenced to 20 months in jail after Monte Friesner, a Canadian, filed a complaint over a report by the journalist alleging that Friesner engaged in dubious business practices in Panama, according to news reports and court documents reviewed by CPJ.

Succari said an appeal was rejected in 2013. In 2015, the courts reissued an arrest warrant to keep the case active, although no attempt had been made to arrest Ornstein.

CPJ attempted to reach Friesner via Facebook messenger for comment, but did not immediately receive a response. Attempts by CPJ to reach the office of the Public Prosecutor in Panama for comment were unsuccessful.

The journalist’s family said that Ornstein, who also reports for Dutch outlets and is a stringer for Al-Jazeera, has traveled in and out of Panama regularly since the 2012 conviction and a separate conviction a year later, without being stopped.

Ornstein’s lawyer in the Netherlands, Channa Samkalden, told CPJ that Ornstein was convicted in the second criminal defamation case in 2013 and sentenced to 18 months in prison over reports about the environmental and business practices of a company in Panama. Samkalden said that Ornstein appealed the conviction in 2014. In 2015 a judge replaced the jail term with a fine. In November, a court overturned the appeal ruling and reinstated the prison term after Ornstein allegedly failed to pay the fine of US$3,500, Succari said, but added the journalist had not been formally notified of the change by the courts and is being held only on the 2012 conviction.

The business owners–Patricius Johannes Visser and Keren Visser–also filed a civil complaint in the Netherlands in December 2015, Samkalden said. Ornstein is appealing the default judgment in that case.

Ornstein’s website, Bananama Republic, is currently unavailable. An August 15 post on its Facebook page said the website has been closed pending legal proceedings in the Netherlands.

“It is an extraordinary situation, given that Ornstein has been living in Panama without any problem since the convictions and has left and returned to the country on numerous occasions since then,” his lawyer, Samkalden said.

Kimberlyn David, Ornstein’s partner, told CPJ the journalist is “holding up really well, despite the fact the he knows it is a very challenging situation.” She said Ornstein has been in touch with the Dutch embassy in Panama City.

Courts and lawmakers throughout the Americas have found that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged libel and slander. For a comparative study of criminal defamation laws in the Americas, see CPJ’s campaign, Critics Are Not Criminals.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This alert has been updated to attribute details of Ornstein’s fine for the 2013 criminal defamation case to his lawyer, Succari, and to reflect that Ornstein is appealing a default judgment in the civil case brought by business owners Patricius Johannes Visser and Keren Visser.]