Dominican Republic: Journalist given six months in jail

New York, January 31, 2012–The six-month jail sentence of Dominican journalist Johnny Alberto Salazar, who was convicted of defaming a local lawyer on January 18, should be revoked on appeal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Salazar, who runs Vida FM radio station and news website Vida Dominicana in the northern town of Nagua, told CPJ that he had used both media outlets to make a series of allegations against Pedro Baldera, a lawyer who also directs a local human rights organization. Salazar said that since January 2011, he had accused Baldera of using the organization to defend criminals with ties to drug traffickers. Baldera denied the accusation and filed a criminal defamation complaint against him in July, Salazar said. The journalist was handed a US$26,000 fine as well as the six-month prison term, news reports said.

On January 18, Judge Salma Bonilla, who prohibited the media from covering the trial, found Salazar guilty of damaging Baldera’s honor, according to news reports. Salazar, who was also a local congressman, said he would appeal the ruling and that he believed the case was politically motivated as Baldera had ties to a rival political party. The journalist also said he had received threats and that his radio station was twice attacked by bombs last year.

“We condemn the prison sentence handed to Johnny Alberto Salazar, and we urge Dominican judicial authorities to reverse his conviction upon appeal,” said CPJ’s senior Americas program coordinator Carlos Lauría. “Journalists should not fear jail time for critical reporting.”

Criminal defamation laws run counter to the emerging consensus in Latin America that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged defamation. In December 2009, the Costa Rican Supreme Court eliminated prison terms for criminal defamation. One month earlier, in November 2009, the Argentine Congress repealed criminal defamation provisions in the penal code. And in April 2009, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal annulled the 1967 Press Law, a measure that had imposed harsh penalties for libel and slander.