Attacks on the Press 2003: Dominican Republic

Government efforts aimed at punishing critics led to a deterioration of press freedom in the Dominican Republic in 2003. Moreover, news coverage of scandals involving private financial institutions that own many Dominican media outlets seriously damaged citizens’ confidence in the press.

During 2003, the government of President Hipólito Mejía hardened its stance against critical journalists. In June, officials from the National Department of Investigations (DNI) interrogated journalist Marino Zapete Corniel and accused him of insulting President Mejía in a series of critical articles about the president’s alleged attempts to build two countryside mansions for himself using public funds. DNI officials also tried to pressure Zapete to reveal his sources. In July, police detained Radio Montecristi hosts Horacio Emilio Lemoine and Carlos Martínez after they conducted an on-air poll about Mejía. Lemoine and Martínez were held for more than two days, and their program was suspended for three days.

Coverage of the collapse of Banco Intercontinental (BANINTER), one of the country’s largest banks and owner of the nation’s largest media group, badly damaged the credibility of a large sector of the Dominican media and called into question their independence. In 2002, the nation’s Central Bank had pumped billions of pesos into BANINTER to keep it afloat, to no avail. As a result, in April 2003, the Central Bank took over the failing bank’s operations. A month later, the Central Bank took administrative control over BANINTER’s assets–including media outlets–and asked the Public Prosecutor’s Office to seize or freeze them. In addition, Central Bank officials sued the bank’s owners and several executives on a host of charges, such as fraud and embezzlement. Dominican authorities are expected to auction off all of BANINTER’s assets.

On May 13, when Central Bank Governor José Lois Malkun announced that the government had taken over the administration of BANINTER’s assets, he said the Central Bank had asked the executive branch “to consider as an attack on national security any declaration or statement by anyone aimed at creating uneasiness and uncertainty over the Dominican banking system.” Dominican journalists angrily rejected Malkun’s statements, saying they could lead to censorship.

Media outlets owned by BANINTER immediately published a flurry of editorials and letters claiming that the government’s seizure of news organizations was aimed at using them to advance political interests–including Mejía’s re-election bid in 2004. A May 14 editorial in Listín Diario, the country’s leading daily and a property of BANINTER, argued that, “More than the ownership of a company, what is at stake in these moments is freedom of the press itself, threatened not only through the use of an illegal, dictatorial, and blatant control, but also through attempts to silence those media outlets that dare mention the country’s banking crisis.” The next day, the directors of all the newspapers owned by BANINTER resigned to protest the government’s action.

In the aftermath of BANINTER’s collapse, some Dominican journalists warned that local banks had been buying media outlets during the last few years to shield themselves from negative publicity and to pressure the government and competitors. In addition to Listín Diario, BANINTER had acquired the dailies Última Hora, El Financiero, and El Expreso; several network and cable TV channels; and more than 60 radio stations, some of which were heavily in debt or allegedly involved in financial irregularities, such as getting secret loans from BANINTER, at the time of the Central Bank’s intervention. A month after BANINTER’s assets were seized, Última Hora and El Financiero closed, claiming they weren’t profitable. Some journalists argue that since large banking groups began acquiring media outlets in the 1990s, news-rooms have become increasingly subject to pressure and censorship by management and owners.

In early July, several journalists resigned from the TV channel Telecentro, which was owned by BANINTER and is now run by a government-appointed administrator. The journalists charged that they had been pressured to portray the Mejía administration in a more favorable light.

The legal case surrounding the 1975 murder of journalist Orlando Martínez Howley continued in 2003. In August 2000, a retired air force general and three accomplices were convicted for the killing and sentenced to 30 years in prison each. But in November 2002, the Santo Domingo Appeals Court annulled the sentences because of procedural errors and ordered the defendants retried. The men were retried in July 2003 in the same court, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 to 15 years. Both the journalist’s family and the Public Prosecutor’s Office appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court of Justice, contending that the new sentences were too short compared with the original 30-year sentences. The Supreme Court had not heard the case by year’s end. Martínez’s family and friends have pursued the case for years, arguing that Martínez was killed because his reporting had angered then President Joaquín Balaguer.