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Journalists threatened for investigating land development company

(PFC/IFEX) - Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein and Panamanian journalist Carmen Boyd, of "El Siglo" newspaper, have been threatened. In addition, Ornstein's lawyer was found dead in early May 2003. The two journalists have been investigating and reporting on the San Cristobal land development company, which is suspected of having swindled foreign investors.

On 22 April, San Cristobal company president Tom McMurrain sent an e-mail to Ornstein telling him that he had him under investigation. McMurrain claimed to know where the journalist lived, what he ate, who his friends were, his licence plate number and the identity of his lawyer. Fourteen days later, Ornstein's layer, Tomás Urriola, who had obtained a work permit for the journalist allowing him to carry out his investigative work in the country, was found dead on a Panama City street. The lawyer had been shot. Although the authorities claim Urriola committed suicide, his family members discount the theory. Ornstein has also reported having been followed while driving in his car.

On the morning of 23 May, Boyd ran into an unknown individual at "El Siglo"'s offices, who warned her, "be careful, something could happen to you." The journalist recently published a series of articles on Ornstein's investigations into the San Cristobal company and the threats he has received. The individual who threatened her had come to the newspaper office to buy copies of the editions in which her articles appeared.

Ornstein notes that McMurrain is facing two orders for his arrest, issued in Atlanta, Georgia, for theft and illicit appropriation of funds. According to Ornstein, a number of his partners and employees are also facing legal action. McMurrain's company has allegedly been swindling foreign investors by selling them land in the Bocas del Toro province, ranging in value from US$71,000 to US$126,000. Ornstein's investigation questioned whether the San Cristobal company owned the rights to the properties and whether the sales were legal. The company promises its clients a return on their investment from the sale of wood and pharmaceutical products that trees planted on their properties will allegedly yield.

Ornstein and Boyd told PFC that they fear for their safety, further to Urriola's death. The journalists said that individuals who work for McMurrain's security company in the Bocas del Toro region have a reputation of being "murderers" among locals.

In a letter to Attorney General José Antonio Sossa, PFC expressed concern over the journalists' safety. The organisation called for "an investigation into San Cristobal's operations, following up on Ornstein's discoveries, and an end to the company's swindling of foreign investors."

For PFC's letter to Sossa and additional information on the case, see:

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