Media Targeted for Threats, Lawsuits
Elizabeth Eames Roebling
SANTO DOMINGO, Sep 29 (IPS) - Media rights groups in the Dominican Republic are protesting what they say is a climate of legal and physical intimidation of journalists throughout the country."In the last two months, there have been more than 20 cases of journalists being subpoenaed," said Mercedes Castillo, president of the Colegio Dominicano de Periodistas (CDP), which was founded in 1991. "Each case is different, but they merge together to create an atmosphere which limits our ability to pursue our work."
Castillo said that it was not the government itself that was behind the threats but individual judges, private companies, private security firms and drug dealers.
"Reporters and media producers are not only being sued, they are being verbally threatened, both in person and by telephone," she told IPS. "We feel that we are being plunged into a massive wave of intimidation."
She cited the case of one journalist who approached the district attorney in Bani, asking for information on the whereabouts of packets of cocaine and dollars and Euros seized in a recent drug raid. The district attorney allegedly told the reporter to "Go home and look in your own house to find them."
And in early August, a cameraman for the daily news programme "Detrás de las Noticias" (Behind the News), Normando García, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in the city of Santiago, 163 kilometres north of Santo Domingo. García covered drug trafficking and crime, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists is investigating whether his death was in retaliation for his work.
On Sep. 23, more than 300 people assembled in the capital for what the CDP called a "March of Mourning" against assaults on the press. Participants, wearing black, also wore black ribbons around their heads, arms, or, more dramatically, their mouths.
A light rain started as the crowd proceeded along the brick pedestrian walk, El Conde, from the statue of Christopher Columbus to the gilded gates of the Parque Independencia, holding umbrellas and predominantly handmade signs. The Communist Party carried a large printed banner memorialising a few of the many journalists who lost their lives under both long-time dictator Rafael Trujillo and his protégé, Joaquín Balaguer.
The right of free speech and the liberty of the press are guaranteed under the country's constitution of 1973. However, reminders of the era of severe repression were seen in several printed support statements passed around the crowd which contained neither the names nor numbers of contact people.
One sign, asking for a minimum wage of 15,000 pesos per month for journalists (the equivalent of about 428 U.S. dollars) indicated the low salaries for the majority of the profession. Even the threat of the cost of having to defend a court case could be seen as a tool to silence the press.
Huchi Lora, a prominent investigative journalist, took the bullhorn to protest a recent court decision which allowed a private company to enter a journalist's office and take unedited tapes, calling this decision a threat to freedom of the press.
Lora, along with a colleague, Nuna Piera, had been raising questions for months over the quality of the milk supplied by the government to more than 1.5 million children in the public schools, saying that it contained deproteinised whey mixed with salt, a waste product which is fed to pigs.
The journalists based their original claims on a 2007 study done at the University of Santo Domingo which involved samples taken over several months during the 2004-2005 school year. The study found that the milk, which is a mixture of powdered and locally produced whole milk, varied in its protein and fat content over the sample months and fell below the legal guidelines posted by Department of Education.
Both journalists were sued by the milk supplier, Lacteas Dominicana (LADOM), which denied the claims. Lora said that the court's ruling set a dangerous precedent.
The office of the president, in response to the journalists' reports, and subsequent calls from the National Association of Pediatricians along with other civic groups, sent recent samples of milk taken from schools to two laboratories in the country and one in the U.S. state of Florida. They then called a press conference to release the results that all samples conformed to the standards required by law.
The new minister of education, Melanio Paredes, who took office this year, has said that the current contract for the school milk expires in December and all contracts will be under strict review. In addition, the amount of whole milk from local sources required in school milk programme will be raised from 33 percent to 50 percent. A rigid series of inspections of samples will take place over the next quarter.
Manual Frijas, a singer and spokesperson for the Association of Cultural Workers, comprised of singers, composers, musicians, and writers, marched along with six members of his union. He expressed his solidarity with the journalists, saying: "Without the press, there is no truth."
One of the signs held the words from a song written by Frijas: "And what would life be if the singer did not lift his voice in the courts."
Castillo said: "It is a constant fight. We have one battle here, another one there, across the entire country. Now reporters are being harassed in the courts and on the streets. We are here to ask the public to respect the freedom of the press, to let us investigate, to respect our profession, to allow us to do our jobs."