Dominican Republic

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC Some isolated events have disturbed the general atmosphere of press freedom. On March 27, a lower court judge sentenced the editor and a reporter of the weekly magazine Rumbo to a year in prison and a fine of 500 pesos ($38), plus 20,000 pesos ($1,500) for each day of delay in the completion of that sentence on charges of defamation. The sentence, which is being appealed, brought a wave of protest from the press and others who recalled that the judge had been criticized by the magazine and had himself initiated the complaint against the weekly. In the run-up to general elections on May 16 with a second round on June 30, most journalists came out in favor of three of the presidential candidates. This caused considerable debate, criticism and counter-criticism among the press corps. Reporters found their work impeded at political party functions. At least two El Siglo columnists complained that their opinion pieces were not published, although they managed to get them published independently in other media. (EI Siglo was taken over by the Central Bank together with a bank that owns the newspaper.) On June 19, Judge Juan Maria Severino sentenced journalist Juan Bolivar Diaz to six months' imprisonment and ordered him to pay a fine of 3 million pesos ($275,000) for libeling another journalist, Generoso Ledesma. Diaz, news director of Noticiero Teleantillas, a television news commentator and a columnist for the magazine Rumbo, had mentioned Ledesma several times in his book "Electoral Trauma" in which he tried to demonstrate fraud in the 1994 general elections. On July 1, the Central Electoral Board took Channel 6 TV off the air for 12 hours and later allowed it to broadcast only the official programs of the electoral board in a nationwide hookup. The station was accused of violating the regulations banning the publication or broadcasting of propaganda or political pronouncements within 24 hours before and 24 hours after national elections. The final round of the presidential elections was held on June 20. Early in September, opposition leader Jose Francisco Petia Gomez, of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRO), declared that he would send to Congress a bill to amend the 1962 Law on Expression and Dissemination of Thought. Petia Gomez contended that a dirty campaign had been mounted against him during the election campaign. The PRO controls the Chamber of Deputies and is the second most powerful party in the Senate. The announcement by Petia Gomez brought a prompt response from journalists and analysts, who said the amendments would pose a threat to freedom of expression. A group of PRO representatives was said to have such a bill ready, practically creating a new law that would be "much more rigid and tougher than the present law," in the words of Petia Gomez himself. On September 26, the daily Listfn Diario, quoting presidential palace sources, reported that "the government has decided to exclude the newspaper El Siglo in any sale the Central Bank might make in the immediate future to the Bancomercio consortium." The report said that the decision was made after a two-hour meeting between president Leonel Fernandez and the editor of El Siglo in which an editorial council for the newspaper was created. The council, made up of the newspaper editor and the finance minister, would determine "the editorial line of the newspaper." This report, which was neither confirmed nor denied by sources within the palace, created considerable concern, as there has been no official government newspaper in the country since the 30-year dictatorship of Rafael L. Trujillo ended in 1961. A bill establishing new official controls on the broadcast media is under consideration in the National Congress. The trial of a policeman for the shooting death of Ultima Hora journalist Juan Carlos Vasquez in June 1995 continues. The shooting occurred during an argument following a traffic accident. The disappearance of journalist and university professor Narciso Gonzalez in May 1994, has still not been solved. His family fears he was killed. The family has filed a formal complaint in court linking members of the military to his disappearance. President Leonel Fernandez, at the time in office for less than two months, promised to have those responsible identified and brought to trial. The March 1974, shooting and murder of journalist Orlando Martinez, editor of the now defunct magazine Ahora, has never been solved, despite the fact that former president Joaquin Balaguer in his book "Memories of a Courtesan in the Trujillo Era" said that he would leave a blank page so that after his death a colleague could fill in the information about Martinez' murder, considering it a state crime committed by the military during the Trujillo regime.