PANAMA CITY – The president of Transparency International appealed here on Thursday to the Panamanian government to release a Dutch journalist serving prison time for criminal defamation.
“We wish to implore the authorities on whom this decision depends to look at it carefully, because freedom of expression cannot be repressed in prison,” Jose Ugaz said at the start of the 27th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Panama City.
Okke Ornstein was arrested Nov. 15 on arrival at Panama’s Tocumen International Airport and taken to prison pursuant to a pair of convictions for criminal defamation dating from 2012 and 2013, respectively.
The convictions arose from stories Ornstein wrote alleging various forms of misconduct in Panama on the part of businesses owned by Monte Friesner and by Patricius Johannes Visser and Keren Visser.
“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,” the journalist’s lawyer in the Netherlands, Channa Samkalden, told the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Responding to Ugaz’s appeal, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela stressed that the Central American country values both freedom of expression and judicial independence.
“With much respect, because in Panama there is separation of powers, I ask the chief justice to evaluate the case the director of Transparency International has made,” Varela said.
Activists took the opportunity of the opening ceremony to hold up a “Free Ornstein” banner accusing Panama of jailing the journalist “to protect an international criminal.”
Ornstein published his reports on a Web site he created, Bananama Republic, which has been offline since August.