Journalist groups have called for the Panamanian government to release Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein, who was arrested on Nov. 15 on charges of libel and slander for reporting on the activities of a Canadian citizen Monte Friesner.
Both Ornstein and Friesner live in Panama, a popular spot for U.S. and Canadian retirees.
The International and European Federations of Journalists and the Dutch Journalists Association are calling for the immediate release of Ornstein, calling the charges against him "baseless."
Ornstein, based in Panama City, has covered global news events for dozens of media outlets, including Newsmax.
Ornstein was arrested on Nov. 15 as he arrived at Panama's Tocumen International Airport. He faces a 20-month jail sentence for postings he made on his blog, "Banana Republic," in 2012 about the business practices of Friesner. The website DutchNews.nl reports that the sentence has been doubled to 40 months.
"They say it is because the 2012 sentence is only now being carried out," Ornstein's Dutch lawyer Channa Samkalden said. "But he has lived in Panama for year [sic] so we don't know why he has been arrested now."
"The substantive aspects of the case show that there is no ground for the criminal prosecution of Ornstein," the International Federation of Journalists writes on its website. "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."
Panama ranks among the most corrupt nations in the world. Transparency International gives Panama a 39 on a 100-point corruption scale with zero being "Highly Corrupt" and 100 being "Very Clean." The United States ranks 76 on the same scale.
Panama has come under target by Americans and other foreigners who have been charged for "crimes" for matters that in other countries would be civil court matters.
Once a mecca for retirees, the numbers of Americans moving to the Central American country has slowed as claims of legal harassment and fraudulent real estate practices against them have become commonplace.
In April, Britain's Daily Mail warned its citizens about doing business or living in Panama, noting that the country has a deplorable reputation of holding people without charges and has the highest pre-trial detention rate in the world.
NVJ Secretary General Thomas Bruning blasted the arrest, saying, "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."
The sentence "sends a signal that critical journalism on fraud and corruption is not possible in Panama," Bruning said. "Ornstein is being punished in a way that does not comply with the principles of a democratic justice system."
The group is working with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch Embassy in Panama to secure Ornstein's release and make sure he has proper legal representation of the award-nominated journalist.
Samkalden, Ornstein's lawyer in The Netherlands, told The Panama News that he did not get adequate legal aid during the criminal proceedings.
© 2023 Newsmax. All rights reserved.