Freedom of Expression

Press Release R5/17

Office of the Special Rapporteur Commends Panamaís Release of Journalist and Urges the State to repeal criminal defamation laws


January 24, 2017


Washington D.C. The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) commends the December 23 release of Dutch journalist and blogger Okke Ornstein from custody in Panama, and urges the State to take the necessary measures to bring its criminal laws into line with the Inter-American standards on freedom of expression.


According to the information available, on December 23 Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela issued Executive Order No. 429, authorizing the commutation of the 20-months prison sentence imposed against Ornstein. Upon announcing the journalistís release, the government stated that, "The Panamanian State recognizes that freedom of expression is fundamental to democracy, as it fosters the transparency of government activities and promotes the responsibility of public servants for their administration of government business." 


According to the information received, Dutch journalist and blogger Okke Ornstein was arrested on November 15, 2016, upon his arrival at the Tocumen International Airport of Panama. The arrest of the journalist, who directed the Bananama Republic website stemmed from a criminal conviction against him on December 14, 2012, for crimes of defamation. The conviction was confirmed in the second instance on December 5, 2013. The criminal complaint was filed by a Canadian entrepreneur after Ornstein had published a note in which he denounced that this person was supposedly implicated in illegal business practices in Panama. Pursuant to the available information, the Canadian entrepreneur subsequently had been convicted in the United States for crimes of fraud and faced similar criminal charges in Panama.


On December 2, the Office of the Special Rapporteur sent a letter to the Panamanian State expressing its concern over the conviction and arrest of the journalist on charges of criminal defamation (injuria y calumnia), as well as over the imposition of an additional sentence that barred Ornstein from practicing journalism. In its communication, the Office of the Special Rapporteur reminded the State that principle 10 of the Declaration of Principles of the IACHR establishes that "[t]he privacy laws must not inhibit or restrict the investigation and dissemination of information of public interest. The protection of reputation must be guaranteed only through civil penalties, in cases in which the offended person is a public official or a private individual that has become voluntarily involved in matters of public interest".


The State replied to the communication and reported on the efforts and steps taken to guarantee the right to the journalistís freedom of expression, in keeping with the current laws and its international obligations. The Office of the Special Rapporteur and the State began a positive dialogue on the need to move toward bringing national laws into line with the inter-American standards. Panama reported that it was working on an initiative to amend the laws on so-called crimes against honor. At the governmentís request, the Office of the Special Rapporteur forwarded the State a technical note that describes the different decriminalization reforms implemented in the region on this issue.


On other occasions, this office has celebrated progress achieved in Panama in applying the Inter-American standards in the field of expression, particularly in relation to discourses that are specially protected. Thus, in 2005, the Office of the Special Rapporteur celebrated the derogation of articles 307 and 308 of the Criminal Code, which established criminal penalties for the crime of insult. It also recognized the promulgation of the new Criminal Code in 2007, which determined that when the alleged targets of crimes against honor are senior public servants, elected officials or governors, "no criminal penalty shall be imposed".  While it is a positive development, the reform is insufficient. Under the American Convention, not only discourses that refer to "senior public officials" enjoy special protection.


The circulation of information, opinions and ideas referring to the State and about matters of public interest must equally be protected by law. It has also emphasized that freedom of expression is one of the most effective ways to denounce corruption. As the case of journalist Okke Ornstein demonstrated, the existence of criminal defamation offenses under Panamanian law continues to be a concern for this office, as it poses a latent risk to freedom of expression and the debate of matters in the public interest.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the IACHR to encourage hemispheric defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression, considering its fundamental role in the consolidation and development of the democratic system.