President releases journalist who exposed corruption

Expression

On 23rd December, President Juan Carlos Varela signed an executive decree ordering the release of Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein. Ornstein was immediately released, having originally been arrested on 15th November when arriving in Panama, where he resides. He was arrested because of articles he posted on his Bananama Republic blog about the dubious business activities of a Canadian citizen, Monte Friesner, in Panama. The Panamanian government presented the decision to free him as a token of “its firm commitment to respecting the freedom of expression and human rights". In a written statement, President Varela said that

"the Panamanian state recognises that the exercise of the freedom of expression is fundamental for democracy, as it promotes the transparency of state actions and the accountability of public officials."

On the other hand, two Panamanian newspapers - La Estrella and El Siglo - risk imminent closure. On 5th May, the United States' Department of the Treasury included Abdul Waked, a main shareholder of those journals, in its Specially Designated Nationals List. People in the US are prohibited from dealing with anyone on this list, which includes those accused of terrorist, narcotics and trafficking activities. From 6th January onwards, no US citizen or company would be allowed to conduct business with Waked or any company on his name, including the Panamanian newspapers. Both journals feared that as the prohibition went into effect they would have to close due to the financial importance of their business relations with US companies. Panamanian civil society organisations expressed their concern that the closure of two of the oldest journals in the country would amont to a gross violation of the freedom of the press. On 5th January the Department of the Treasury delayed the implementation of the sanction until 13th July, and a public announcement was made that the two newspapers would remain active.


Peaceful Assembly

On 16th January, police used pepper spray to stop a farmers' protest in the Herrera province. The demonstrators were protesting against agricultural imports mainly from the Unted States. A police officer was hit by a rock and four protestors were arrested during the demonstration.

Association

On 3rd December, local activists informed Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, about the harassment and criminalisation suffered by environmental activists in Panama. This includes:

  • the arrest of four local residents of the Pedro Gonzalez Island for protesting against a real estate development project; 
  • a judicial demand from a real estate company against a community association, Vecinos de Coco del Mar, for protesting against one of their projects; 
  • and death threats received by activist Ligia Arreaga, who was forced to leave the country, in connection to her mobilisation efforts against a hydroelectric project in Darien province. 

The Panamanian Human Rights Network released a statement urging the government to introduce measures to protect all the activists involved.

After their meeting, Special Rapporteur Michel Forst commented:

"I have heard that the justice system is plagued by impunity and corruption, and that we have a problem with judges not being appointed because of their merit but because of their connections with political parties."

No actions by the Panamanian government to improve the situation of human rights defenders have yet been reported.