New York, June 13, 2003—On Wednesday, June 11, state security officials in the Dominican Republic interrogated journalist Marino Zapete Corniel and accused him of insulting President Hipólito Mejía in a series of recent articles.
According to Zapete, at around 6 a.m., four officials from the National Department of Investigations (DNI) and an assistant prosecutor arrived at his home in the capital, Santo Domingo, and asked the journalist to come with them to DNI headquarters to answer some questions. After more than five hours of questioning, the president’s press secretary told DNI director, Gen. Fernando Cruz Méndez, and Zapete that he had orders from the president to release the journalist.
Zapete works for the Miami-based online newspaper Los Nuevos Tiempos Digital and the local weekly Primicias. During the last two months, he wrote a series of articles that appeared in both publications criticizing President Mejía for his handling of the financial collapse of Banco Intercontinental (Baninter), one of the country’s largest banks, saying that its collapse would not have been possible if the government’s Banking Supervision Agency had done its job. Zapete also criticized Mejía for allegedly defending Baninter’s owners and showing little concern for Baninter’s accountholders and Dominican taxpayers, who will have to repay the money the government pumped into Baninter to keep it afloat.
In two of the articles, Zapete claimed that President Mejías was building two mansions in the country using public funds.
According to Zapete, during his interrogation, the DNI asked him about his political preferences and what he thought about Mejía. The DNI interrogators also tried to pressure Zapete to reveal his sources. Zapete told CPJ that he did not disclose his sources and stood by what he wrote.
Before a departure yesterday for an official visit to Puerto Rico, President Mejía told the local press that he was going to file a lawsuit against Zapete.
“Journalists should never be harassed or intimidated for doing their jobs,” said CPJ’s executive director Ann Cooper. “President Mejía as the leader of your country, you are at the center of public debate, and therefore, you must tolerate public scrutiny.”