Speech by Hipólito Mejía

President of the Dominican Republic, at the opening ceremony of the Midyear Meeting of the Inter American Press Association Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic March 18, 2002 Welcome to a country where its social, economic and political life is covered by 318 radio stations, 42 TV channels and 12 newspapers, 3 of which began operations during this administration. Welcome to a country where the press has become the most effective sentinel of the government's performance, thus contributing to the transparency people demand in the administration of public resources. Welcome to one of the six Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas rated by Freedom House as countries with freedom of the press. Welcome to the Dominican Republic, the land where it all began. I want to thank the Inter-American Press Society for the privilege of inviting me to speak at the opening of its Half Year Meeting. Standing in front of you today constitutes an excellent opportunity to reiterate my position on an issue that is crucial to the strengthening of democracy: freedom of the press. I have not been, nor ever will be, a scholar. Do not expect from me a thorough presentation on the philosophical, ethical and moral principles that support the rights of a free press. Before you stands a Dominican in the flesh, born in the Dominican countryside and a lover of the land that, when entering in contact with mans hand, produces wealth for those who live in it. I am farmer, whom destiny has taken to the Presidency of the Republic. Throughout my involvement in the political arena, however, I have had to conform a body of convictions on fundamental issues for all of those who lead a public life. One of them is freedom of the press. I am not going to deny the dilemma that we politicians sometimes face when destiny takes us to occupy important positions directing of one of the powers of the State. I refer to the decision of whether to establish a limit on the freedom of press. I firmly believe that the answer to this question is entirely negative. Freedom of the press is precisely that, freedom of the press. When we set limits, it ceases to be so. I know that some of you present here today might think that freedom of the press without limits entails risks, and, in some cases, costs that could have negative repercussions on all the members of society. Possibly some of you have in mind the treatment given by the North American press to the recent ENRON financial scandal. It is not a secret that as the press worked on this case, there was a growing concern about the implications that the work of the free press could have on the credibility of millions of investors in the United States and the rest of the world that have placed a significant portion of their wealth in the stock markets. Many feared that the propagation of this scandal in the press would generate a contagious virus, able to considerably erode the credibility of the stock markets, generating a collapse of great proportions in the world economy. Another example that comes to my mind is the treatment given by the press to the ANTRAX mailed in letters addressed to important people in the United States and the initial panic that this news generated in the North American population. Many thought that the reporting done by the press was magnifying the fear and the uncertainty of the American people. The alternative was the administration and regulation of information. I am completely against everything that represents a barrier or limit to the freedom of expression. I am aware that some subjects are delicate, very delicate. In spite of this, I am among those who think that the benefits generated by freedom of the press to the democratic system that are much higher than the costs that could be derived from those excesses. The free press, ladies and gentlemen, is much more responsible than what it is generally credited for. Why do I think that? Because the press is the first to recognize that credibility and reputation, are the most important assets they have for survival, in a world which is becoming more and more competitive and demanding. The press does not need regulation or limits. It regulates itself. And it does so because it acknowledges the need to protect its credibility and reputation. When these two are lost, there is little that the press can do to avoid an end similar to the ENRON case. The best regulation of the press is the one that it imposes on itself, not the one that the Powers of the State consider appropriate. It has been this way in the past. It is this way in the present; and it will be that way in the future. It is for that reason that I have to be included in the list of those who think that the defense of the freedom of press falls in the realm of things that are morally correct. "The hottest place in Hell is being reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crises", warned the supreme Italian poet 700 years ago. I say to you that in the crusade for freedom of the press, a journey that has led many journalists to prefer to die rather than to yield to intolerance and totalitarianism, there can be no neutrality. There can be no neutrality in the face of 892 assassinations; 448 kidnappings and disappearances; 2,193 beatings, assaults and tortures; and 4,450 arrests and captures of journalists that have taken place in the last two decades all over the world. As you heard, there can be no neutrality. That is why a few weeks after being inaugurated as President, I submitted to Congress a bill that eliminates the last barriers to achieving absolute freedom of the press in the Dominican Republic. Once this Law is approved, the press will have free access to the official information sources, as well as some private ones; the privileges that civil servants have relative to the sanctions established for those who defame them will be eliminated; the previous requirements for the publication of newspapers and magazines will be eliminated; the persecution in the case of allege defamation or insult against civil servants, if the case proves to be true, will be forbidden; the escalated responsibility in case of defamation will be modified, beginning with the author of the defamation and the person who authorized the publication; and more guarantees will be awarded for the exercise of professional secrecy. I want to take advantage of this opportunity you have offered me, to make a confession. There are many Dominicans who think that my frank, open and direct the style with my friends of the media in our many daily encounters, reflects some disagreement in the Government which I preside, with the treatment we receive from the press. Those who think that way are completely mistaken. The worse thing than can happen to a country is a Government confabulated with the press. When that happens, opacity replaces transparency, corruption replaces honesty and the tribunes of totalitarianism replace the forums of democracy. The press, in the specific case of my Government, has provided us with an invaluable service. The Dominican press, ladies and gentlemen, has become the most effective cabinet of sentinels a President can have. The written press, the radio and the television, have conformed a solid triad of jealous sentinels of the action of the Powers of the State. They are doing what they must do, watching that the Government, the legislators and the judges operate with efficiency and transparency. To me, this is an extraordinary service. First, because their work is constant, intense, precise, incisive and, almost always, correct. Second, because they provide it without it costing a cent to the Government. For those who did not know it, now you know why I will never raise my window at the press. That the press sometimes commit errors? If the President, who has much more information at hand than the press, sometimes is mistaken, one should not be surprised if this happens once in a while to some journalists. To make mistakes, is of humans. And, until proven otherwise, both, politicians and journalists belong in that category. When I make a mistake, I rectify it. The Dominican press has also learned to rectify theirs. Before concluding, I want to pause a moment to talk about a subject that concerns us all, including the politicians, the media owners and the journalists. I am referring to the role that can and must be played to raise the importance that is given to constructive discussion and to reduce the hostile dissension in the debate that is presented by the media about the problems that affect the Continent. Latin America and the Caribbean have many problems. The most important, in my opinion, are poverty and inequality. In order to advance in the eradication of poverty and the improvement of income distribution, all Latin American and Caribbean countries have to adopt coherent development strategies. To agree on this strategy and its implementation, the region's political leaders need the participation and collaboration the press. Not to support the Government or the opposition, but to help to determine the truth. Unfortunately, unproductive dissension has become a serious barrier to reaching an agreement on the integral strategy of development that we must implement in each one of our countries, if we want to reduce poverty and backwardness. Dissent, unfortunately, nowadays receives a high degree of weight in the media coverage. What I want to propose today is that we reduce the emphasis on sterile dissension and increase that of constructive discussion. Dissent produces hostile ruptures; discussion, however, gives rise to productive debates. A free society is strengthened by constructive discussion; but is weakened by unproductive dissension. Constructive discussion is the lifeblood of democracy; hostile dissension is its cancer. Those who discuss provide arguments, because they pursue solutions to common problems; dissenters fight, because they seek power for themselves. Even running the risk that the press may turn its back on me, I dare to propose that the media be more open to constructive discussion and less to the unproductive dissension that originates in the intransigence, intolerance and incapacity of some to put the interest of the nation before individual or political interests . If we were able to discuss our proposals openly and transparently, we could design and execute development strategies that will allow our people to advance, progress and prosper. That, my friends of the Inter-American Society of Press, is what I propose to you today. That the press takes advantage of the exceptional power it has, to stimulate constructive discussion about ideas and programs for development. But also, that it uses its power, to close the doors on the hostile dissension that originates in the selfishness that is incompatible with the hopes that millions of Latin Americans have put on the capacity of their leaders, to lead the migration of our nations from backwardness and underdevelopment towards progress and modernity. I have no fear that some of you may feel that you are once again listening to another dreamer of the region, this time from the Dominican Republic. I have no fear because what I have, in fact, is a dream. That is true. I dream of a continent where free press becomes the main ally and supporter of its people on their journey towards progress and prosperity. What I am referring to, it is not an unrealizable dream. Decades before one thought that the right to freedom of the press fell in the scope of the utopia. We have seen that in an increasing number of countries, this utopia has become a reality. In addition to a free press, people from Latin American and the Caribbean, most of which live in poverty and indigence, need a press that is able to guide the discussion of our problems towards paths that lead to the search of the truth and the determination of the solutions. Is this possible? That is the dilemma that I leave before you today, my friends of the press. I am conscious of the magnitude of the crusade towards development and the modernization that we have ahead. But, with the help of a truly free press, committed only with the interests of the majority and not with the interests of economic conglomerates, I am sure that we will progress. And with God's blessing, I have no doubts that we will succeed. Once again, may all of you feel welcome in a country that is poor in terms of its standards of living and well-being, but rich, very rich, in the ability of his people to work and their desire to advance with social justice, which to me is none other than the convergence of political freedom, economic independence, equality of opportunities and, without any doubt, freedom of the press. Thank you very much.