Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Limits on Freedom of the Press

A Bad Case of Quid Pro Quo

Elizabeth Eames Roebling

SANTO DOMINGO, Mar 7 (IPS) - At first glance, the Dominican Republic appears to be a bastion of free information, with seven print dailies and seven national television stations. But journalists here say that more subtle means of coercion have become the norm.

Three years ago, reporters took to the streets to protest a wave of harassment and violence against colleagues. The country's Reporters Without Borders "Press Freedom Index" ranking slipped from a 2008 score of 18.1, placing it at 82nd of 173 countries, to a score of 26.13 and 98th place in 2010.

While murders and physical attacks on media workers have since largely abated, some longtime journalists say that self-censorship and corruption are lingering problems.

"There are many ways that freedom of the press can be curtailed. It can be by way of threat, but it could also be an offer of money or another sort of benefit by means of which information can be silenced," said Manuel Quiroz, editor-in-chief of El Caribe, a daily paper 77 years in publication, who has worked as a journalist for nearly five decades.

"Those who are interested in political power can be featured so that rather than objective information and truth, there is propaganda in favour of those in power," he told IPS. "What is needed is to count on the press executives and journalists who value integrity and have high ethical standards and who have a level of personal and economic independence which allows them to resist whatever type of pressures, of threats, and any sort of temptation."

Juan Bolivar Diaz, press director at the national network Tele Antillas who also writes a twice weekly column in the newspaper Hoy, agrees with Quiroz.

"The government tolerates dissent [but] they try to diminish this dissent by buying off journalists," he said. "Thousands of journalists, including many who are journalists at the daily papers, and at the television stations, and the most important radio stations, are in the pay of the state. There are very few journalists who do not have some sort of income from the state."

Diaz explained that when three banks failed in 2003 and inflation hit 45 percent, business owners were slow to raise salaries and workers in nearly every sector were struggling. He said that representatives from the government would call journalists and offer them a part-time job. An evaluation of salaries at Tele Antillas subsequently revealed that almost all the journalists were in the pay of the government.

"Most of the journalists worked from 8:00 to 4:00. They were told that the new jobs would not take much time, they could come in the afternoons," he said.

"There are some journalists who do some work, since they will not take money without working for it. But the great majority of them do nothing," he contended.

During the time of longtime president JoaquĆ­n Balaguer, Diaz was the victim of a car bombing and was sentenced to six months in prison and fined 200,000 dollars, after being convicted of defaming the head of the company Comunicaciones Ltd., Generoso Ledesma, after a trial that lasted just one and a half hours.

"There is much more freedom now. I walk out on the street and am not afraid of attack or being put in jail," he said. "The issue is not that we do not have freedom of the press. The issue is that freedom is of so little use."

He said that reporters at Tele Antillas exposed a fraud several years ago, in which the minister of health had allowed his brother to sell life insurance to all the ministry's employees. "It was shown that the brother did not have an insurance company, and had never paid a claim. It was shown to be a complete fraud, but the minister kept his job," Diaz said.

This is just one example of the lack of transparency in the government, he told IPS. "Our president, Leonel Fernandez, has a Foundation, Funglode. We do not know where their money comes from or how much it is. The president can travel to a foreign county, at the expense of the nation, and also receive a donation to his private foundation."

"The foundation has a golf tournament every year, with a very high inscription fee. What business here is not going to participate in this? The foundation must have a budget of two or three million dollars a year but we do not know the source of the funding. There is an atmosphere of impunity here."

Diaz contrasts this with what happened when a government official from Costa Rica visited here and was given a membership card to the Cap Cana resort. It was only an entrance pass yet when the news of broke in Costa Rica, there was a scandal and he was forced to return it.