Dominican Republic

IAPA Midyear Meeting 2016
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
April 8-11

In early 2016, after a three-year wait, the Constitutional Court struck down seven articles of the Law on Expression and Dissemination of Thought, partially undoing the framework of criminal penalties on so-called "speech crimes" that has been in place since 1962. This ruling was in response to a claim of unconstitutionality brought by three newspapers, with support from the other members of the Dominican Newspaper Association.

The press hailed the high court's ruling as an initial victory and decided to continue fighting for the complete dismantling of the harmful provisions that remain in effect in this law and in the rest of the Penal Code.

This ruling overturns the "cascade effect" whereby the editor of a publication was deemed responsible for any third party's statement that was shown in court to be defamatory. It also strikes down the provisions that barred media outlets from publishing any "allegations or statements of doubt" that were harmful to the reputation of certain public officials and diplomats, a prohibition that constituted prior restraint.

Another troubling development is the recurrence of physical assaults, threats, and pressures of all kind to which reporters, news photographers, and radio and television commentators are subjected. Such incidents have been on the rise in recent years, coinciding with an increase in the activity of organized crime, gangs and common criminals.

Abuses by police officers and members of the military, including those serving as guards for public officials, have become commonplace as disturbances unfold outside courthouses and at mass gatherings.

Journalists Danny Polanco and Socorro Monegro were injured by gunfire and explosive devices unleashed by police during violent clashes at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo and outside a government office next to the National Palace. The officer who shot Polanco, causing him to lose sight in one eye, was fired and prosecuted, while the commanding officer was placed under arrest for several days.

Death threats against journalists outside the capital have been on the rise as such journalists have reported—in their online, television, radio and print media outlets—on alleged corruption in the handling of public resources by municipal and provincial governments and by agencies of the national government, and also when such journalists have reported on gangs and criminal prosecutions.

The United States embassy denied entry to journalists from Diario Libre at an event to which the press had been invited, triggering condemnation from the domestic and international press.

The newspaper attributed this incident to the fact that it has published a photograph of Ambassador James "Wally" Brewster and his husband, along with a number of other people, in the embassy's pool as part of the "Gay Pride" celebrations. The newspaper's executives filed a complaint with the U.S. State Department, citing the fact that censorship and discrimination against journalists is contrary to the provisions of international treaties and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Meanwhile, the press has continued to demand that the authorities solve the murder of journalist Blas Olivo, which occurred one year ago. The investigation, however, seems to have stalled, raising fears that the case may be set aside if the investigation is not pursued to completion and the evidence is not fully gathered.

After the Olivo killing, five of the 19 suspects were shot and killed by police in various "clashes" while six police officers and members of the military, who were to be held in preemptive custody in various jails, have been excluded from the case file. This has heightened concerns that the murder may go unpunished.

In a separate development, the Dominican authorities announced just this week that they have begun the formal process for the extradition of Matías Avelino Castro, a Dominican national accused of ordering the 2011 killing of journalist José Silvestre in the city of La Romana, a crime for which two people have been sentenced to 30 years in prison. Avelino Castro is currently being held in Colombia pending his extradition back to the Dominican Republic.

The opposition Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) claimed that the government had pressured two private television stations not to air a short documentary containing references to acts of corruption. The stations said that they had not been pressured and that they decided not to air the documentary because some of its content was defamatory. Nonetheless, this development was a cause for concern among the attendees at the meeting.