Attacks on the Press 2000: Dominican Republic

THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC’S VIBRANT PRESS WAS TARNISHED by accusations of biased coverage during the May 16 presidential election. The year also saw a landmark conviction in the murder of a journalist, and a proposed bill to enhance freedom of the press.

The ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) lost a three-way race between its own candidate, Danilo Medina, Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate Hipólito Mejía, and former president Joaquín Balaguer, the Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC) candidate. Mejía fell just short of the 50 percent majority necessary to avoid a run-off, but the Central Electoral Board declared him the winner after his opponents withdrew from the race, claiming that a run-off would cause instability and hurt the economy.

Local press coverage of the presidential race was called into question after pro-PLD newspapers portrayed Mejía as violent and unstable. Certain papers also published highly inaccurate opinion polls, raising suspicions that they might have doctored poll results to favor the ruling party.

In a landmark August 4 decision, Judge Katia Miguelina Jiménez delivered stiff prison sentences to three defendants who had been found guilty in the 1975 murder of Orlando Martínez Howley, the director of the magazine Ahora and a columnist for the Santo Domingo daily El Nacional. Retired Air Force general Joaquín Pou Castro and two accomplices were sentenced to the maximum penalty of 30 years in prison, along with a 5 million peso (US$300,000) fine. On December 21, the defendants appealed the decision to a higher court, which had not yet ruled at press time.

The journalist’s family and friends had ignored death threats and pursued the case for years, arguing that Martínez’s murder resulted from the fact that his reporting had angered then-president Balaguer and other senior officials. In 1997, President Leonel Fernández ordered the case moved to trial. Balaguer, who is now 93 years old, was subpoenaed but declined to testify on health grounds, although he was healthy enough to run for president again in 2000. The August judgment was seen as a major victory for the journalist’s family and others who demanded justice for press freedom and other human rights violations committed under Balaguer, president of the Dominican Republic for 22 of the last 40 years.

Investigations into the May 1994 disappearance of columnist and academic Narciso González remained stalled at year’s end. González, a strong critic of the Dominican government and military, was allegedly “disappeared” by the latter after he publicly criticized the tainted elections that brought Balaguer to power. Although former members of the military and the police have been interrogated, no one has been charged in the case, which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights took under review in 1998.

In September, President Mejía submitted a bill to revise the 1962 Law of Expression and Dissemination of Thought, also known as Law 6132. Drafted by local press organizations, newspaper executives, and media law specialists, it widens access to information and provides for civil penalties in cases of defamation committed through the press. Some local journalists criticized the proposal, arguing that there has been insufficient debate on the bill, and little disclosure of its content. The bill was still pending at year’s end.