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Panama urged to release Dutch journalist detained over fraud and corruption reports

This statement was originally published on ifj.org on 21 November 2016.

The International and European Federations of Journalists, IFJ and EFJ, together with their affiliate the Dutch Journalists Association (NVJ), have called for the immediate release of a Dutch journalist who faces a 20-month jail sentence.

Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein was detained and arrested upon arriving at Panama's Tocumen International Airport on 15 November. He is facing a 20-month sentence for libel and slander in relation to articles he posted on his blog about the alleged dubious business activities of a Canadian citizen, Monte Friesner, in Panama. The unions claim the libel and slander claims are baseless.

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 offences that Ornstein wrote about on his blog. Friesner was also facing criminal prosecution in Panama, and it is presumed that he has left the country.

“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,” said Thomas Bruning, Secretary General of NVJ.

On his blog, Ornstein mostly writes stories about corruption and fraud cases. “This prison sentence sends a signal that critical journalism on fraud and corruption is not possible in Panama,” added Bruning. “Ornstein is being punished in a way that does not comply with the principles of a democratic justice system”.

“We stand by our colleagues from NVJ and we ask for the 20-month sentence journalist Okke Ornstein is facing to be immediately dropped,” said IFJ President, Philippe Leruth. “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”.

According to Ornstein's lawyer Channa Samkalden, who is involved from The Netherlands, Ornstein did not get due process and did not receive proper legal aid during the criminal proceedings in Panama.

NVJ is working with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch Embassy in Panama to free Ornstein as soon as possible—and to ensure that he has access to adequate legal representation. Additionally, the NVJ has turned to Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bert Koenders, to raise the troubling issues in Ornstein's case at the highest levels in Panama.

In 2015, Dutch public-service broadcaster NTR nominated a radio documentary about refugees by Ornstein for the Tegel-prijs in The Netherlands. His in-depth radio investigation “Barro Blanco,” about a hydroelectric dam in Panama that was funded by a Dutch bank and prompted questions in the Dutch Parliament about environmental and social consequences, was nominated for the prestigious Prix-Europa in 2013. Most recently, Ornstein has worked for Dutch public broadcasters and Al-Jazeera.

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