Attacks on the Press 2004: Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic suffered an acute economic and social crisis in 2004, with violent crimes occurring almost daily. Criminal gangs escalated attacks against journalists who denounced their activities.

On September 14, two gunmen on a motorcycle attacked two journalists who had reported on a criminal gang in the town of Azua, 75 miles west of the capital, Santo Domingo. Juan Emilio Andújar Matos, the host of Radio Azua’s weekly show “Encuentro Mil 60” (Encounter 1060) and a correspondent for the Santo Domingo-based daily Listín Diario (Listín Daily), was shot in the head and died shortly after. Juan Sánchez, a correspondent for the Santo Domingo-based dailies El Nacional (The National) and Hoy (Today), escaped on his motorcycle and took refuge in the provincial governor’s offices.

Jorge Luis Sención, a reporter with Enriquillo Radio in the town of Tamayo, witnessed the attack, and he was shot minutes later. He later had to have his right forearm amputated. After Andújar’s murder, Sánchez went into hiding, and Sención sought police protection. At year’s end, both Sánchez and Sención remained in hiding. Sánchez told CPJ that he is trying to leave the country.

On September 29, gunmen ambushed Euri Cabral, a well-known journalist with the radio station Z-101 and a friend of newly elected President Leonel Fernández, who began his term in August after winning elections in May. (Fernández also served as president from 1996 to 2000.) The attackers blocked Cabral’s car and fired several shots, shattering the vehicle’s windows. Cabral and a friend escaped unharmed. As one of the hosts of the popular morning radio show “El Gobierno de la Mañana” (The Government of the Morning) on Z-101, and of the Canal 23 TV show “Temas del Día” (Today’s Issues), Cabral helped to bring police and government corruption in the administration of then President Hipólito Mejía to light. In November, Cabral left the country for the United States. On November 26, Hoy quoted Fernández as saying that he had advised Cabral to leave the country with his family.

In September 2004, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that the government must temporarily return control of the daily Listín Diario, which was previously owned by the bankrupt bank Baninter, to the bank’s owners. In 2002, the Dominican Central Bank had pumped hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars into Baninter to keep it afloat; however, in May 2003 authorities seized its assets, including Listín Diario. Asset laundering charges were brought against Baninter’s owners, who, before the bank’s collapse, had built the country’s largest media group.

After taking over the newspaper, the government appointed a management team loyal to Mejía. According to many Dominican journalists, after the takeover, Listín Diario became the Mejía government’s mouthpiece and, in the run-up to the May 16 presidential election, promoted his re-election campaign. According to the Inter-American Press Association, Listín Diario also offered generously low rates to advertisers, undercutting competing newspapers. Government officials rejected the allegation.

Dominican journalists say that the economic crisis has threatened press freedom by reducing advertising and causing media closures, unemployment, and decreased salaries. In addition, the bankruptcy of several large banks that owned news organizations has reduced available advertising. According to some journalists, coverage of financial scandals, including Baninter’s collapse, was timid and minimal. Other journalists voiced concern over the concentration of media in the hands of financial groups that are seen as exclusively interested in profitability, while others said that the media’s politicization and partisanship deprived the public of objective information.

Journalists also cite a lack of timely access to government information as a serious problem. In July, Mejía signed into law an access to information bill that was immediately tested when newspapers formally requested that the National Police disclose the names of police officials accused of misappropriating stolen cars. The National Police refused, saying there was an ongoing investigation. The daily El Día (The Day) appealed to the Ministry of the Interior, which rejected the request on the same grounds. Prosecutors eventually disclosed the names of seven police officers involved.