Interview with Okke Ornstein: Politicians would print copies of my stories to discuss them angrily in cabinet meetings.
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Translation: Kristina Markalaus
Fairpress brings the interview with Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein who was released from panama’s prison on December 23, 2016 after being arrested on November 15 the same year for articles published on his blog Bananama Republic about the dubious business activities of a Canadian citizen, Monte Friesner, in Panama. On his blog, Ornstein frequently talked about cases of corruption, and his journalistic work has been nominated for awards such as Prix Europa and Tegel.

FP: Can you tell us more about your blog Bananama Republic?

Okke Ornstein: I started it as a place to write about the often surreal and bizarre events in this country. Lots of things happen here that make you think, “this can’t be true,” and I wanted to share that outlook, that amazement. I also included writing about the so-called “expat community” which is mostly American retirees in Hawaiian shirts drinking too much rum, and their often weird antics. And then I started receiving all these tip-offs about the assorted crooks and criminals who flock to this country, and I investigated their activities, how they’d buy political cover for their criminal activities, and wrote about them. I have a long list of cases I uncovered, and it ranges from a former KKK grandmaster selling pyramid scheme investments in a jungle resort to a fugitive tax swindler leading prayer services in a local casino. Stuff you really can’t make up! So all that together painted a very specific picture of Panama that was very different from the promotion and advertising or even the mainstream news.

The tone of the articles was often ironic, sarcastic, or just fiery, a bit like Gawker or Wonkette used to be. I also made fun of things a lot. It has been somewhat of a surprise to see how much influence it had. Politicians would print copies of stories to discuss them angrily in cabinet meetings. One story I did ended up in the wikileaks US embassy cables because it caused such a shitstorm in one of the local election campaigns. Some criminals were arrested, scams closed down, sometimes other media picked up on my stories, and especially shady people and pompous third worldish politicians got very upset when I’d write about them.

FP: Can you tell us about the conditions in jail? Namely, Panama’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement claiming that the government gave you „the treatment you are entitled to as a journalist according to the Government of the Republic of Panama’s firm commitment to respect freedom of expression and human rights.” Can you comment on that?

Okke Ornstein: The government of Panama isn’t committed to freedom of expression. The presisent promised that he’d abolish criminal defamation laws but he hasn’t taken any initiative to do so. In my case, if it weren’t for the media, press organizations and the Dutch embassy in Panama, I would have been transferred to the worst prison in the country and I would still be there. The Panama government has not taken any initiative at all to resolve my situation, nothing. The authorities continue to prosecute me with more bogus cases, they’ve violated the right to due process and a fair trial time and time again, and we are to believe that they’re committed to human rights and free press? Those are just lies.

FP: How has this experience changed you?

Okke Ornstein: I don’t think it has changed me much as a person, but it has changed my life profoundly. I don’t consider Panama safe any more, so I’m no longer going to live and work here. It’s as if I’m going into involuntary exile; all of a sudden I have to take all these decisions about where to go (not sure yet), what to do with all my things, and most importantly, how to maintain my rrlationship with my 14 year old Panamanian daughter Aiysha, who lives here with her mother. It’s all very difficult and painful.

FP: Can you explain the specific terms of your release?

Okke Ornstein: I filed a request with the presidency to reduce my sentence to time served, and that was approved. The conviction still stands. This was the fastest solution but not the best one; I think I was wrongly convicted in the first place and that should have been undone.

FP: You will start a legal case against Panama, is that right? What are your expectations from this legal battle?

Okke Ornstein: Yes, that is correct. I want Panama to undo my convictions, pay back the fines I paid and pay all costs and damages I’ve had to make as a result of the repeated gross violations of my rights and the fact that they have never protected me against threats and harassment. An apology would also be nice. And maybe they’ll finally be forced to abolish their gag laws, that would be terrific.

FP: Do you believe journalists can help reduce corruption? In your opinion, in what way does investigative journalism contribute to the fight against corruption?

Okke Ornstein: Yes. I think that with corruption you have to begin to fight it at the top. I’ve never been that interested in stories about corrupt cops for example, because these cops are corrupt because they enjoy protection from their chiefs, and the chiefs are corrupt because they’re protected by those even higher up. So you have to take away these layers of protection by starting at the top. The case that landed me in jail for example involved two legislators, and one is now a minister and the other is mayor of Panama City, which in Panama is an important post. As long as they sit there, they’ll protect an entire pyramid, a food chain, of corruption below them. That explains the forceful resistance against my articles, the court cases etc. It’s much more than just a story about a Canadian career criminal; there are big corrupt interests behind it; an ecosystem of bribery and graft. Journalism is an important – and often the only – tool against that. The one thing corruption can’t stand is daylight; that secret deals become public. In corrupt countries, journalism is often much better at doing that than the legal system, which is more often than not also corrupt, certainly in Panama.

FP: What advice would you give to young journalists?

Okke Ornstein: I think there is too much news that tries to be the first and not enough that tries to be the best. I hope they will try to be the best, with superior research, more facts, better made cases. I think that reliability, trustworthiness, will be more important than ever in a world where everyone can yell something on the internet. And keep a good sense of humor; it’s a life saver.

Related article: Dutch journalist awaiting verdict for writing about corruption: “The police at the prison in Panama denied Okke’s visitation rights and harassed the friends and family who showed up to see him.”

 

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