Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Media expressed a wide variety of views, but the government frequently influenced the press, in part through its large advertising budgets. The concentration of media ownership, weaknesses in the judiciary, and political influence also limited media’s independence.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals and groups were generally able to criticize the government publicly and privately without reprisal, although there were several incidents in which authorities intimidated members of the press. In September the new administration allegedly violated freedom of expression when it dismissed a government whistleblower within the Ministry of Culture after she informed media of the allegedly arbitrary dismissal of several civil service staff within the ministry. The Ministry of Culture never directly addressed or explained these dismissals.
In another instance several media outlets reported that press was granted only limited access to public government events. Media outlets with reporters assigned to the national palace stated they were not informed on time nor given access to public meetings held by the president or his cabinet members. When press representatives requested an explanation for these actions, they were told the events were private. Media also highlighted a lack of coordination by the palace communication team in providing the president’s public schedule and convening media to cover meetings. The Abinader administration’s communication team met journalists to hear their complaints and find a solution.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The Dominican Association of Journalists reported at the start of the national COVID-19 lockdown that several journalists from the provinces of Santiago, Bahoruco, Mao, and Santo Domingo were stopped or prevented from transiting freely to report on the pandemic. The association requested the government to instruct police and military officers that journalists were essential workers who could transit after curfew and to avoid any aggression towards them. The government did not make any statement in response to this complaint, but it provided curfew passes for various kinds of workers, including media members, and cases decreased of security forces restricting the movement of journalists. The International Federation of Journalists reported an alleged beating by police officers of a radio journalist who protested for the freedom of a colleague who had allegedly violated the curfew in the province of San Pedro de Macoris. In November the Dominican Association of Journalists announced it would provide stickers and license plates from the organization to identify their members and facilitate identification of journalists by law enforcement.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists and other persons who worked in media were occasionally harassed or physically attacked. Some media outlets reported that journalists, specifically in rural areas, received threats for investigating or denouncing criminal groups and official corruption. Some media outlets omitted the bylines of journalists reporting on drug trafficking and other security matters to protect the individual journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution provides for protection of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and includes a “conscience clause” allowing journalists to refuse reporting assignments. Journalists practiced self-censorship, particularly when coverage could adversely affect the economic or political interests of media owners. Observers suggested the government influenced the press through advertising contracts. In July during the presidential transition period, the government’s communications directorate published expense reports for the outgoing administration. Journalists and observers criticized government spending on advertisements, which according to official figures reached approximately $18.5 million over eight years, describing it as a strategy to influence journalists’ speech.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes defamation and insult, with harsher punishment for offenses committed against public or state figures than for offenses against private individuals. The Dominican Association of Journalists reported that journalists were sued by politicians, government officials, and the private sector to pressure them to stop reporting. The law penalizes libel for statements concerning the private lives of certain public figures, including government officials and foreign heads of state.
In December 2019 the former attorney general’s sister sued a well known journalist for slander after his investigative report alleged that she received no-bid government contracts worth 750 million pesos ($13 million), positioning the company she represented as the sole supplier of asphalt products to the government. The journalist demonstrated that at the time the contracts were signed, the sister was a paid employee of the Ministry of Public Works and Communications. Several preliminary hearings took place during the following months with limited press access, but the trial did not formally start due to COVID-19 restrictions. The lawsuit was withdrawn on August 13, three days before the new administration took office.
In February the Supreme Court upheld a guilty verdict for libel and defamation against a television and online journalist in a case brought by the former president of the lower house of congress. Although it affirmed the verdict, the Supreme Court reduced the damage award from approximately $120,000 to $85,000. The plaintiff, who was the sister of former president Danilo Medina, filed the lawsuit in 2017 alleging the defendant had impugned her honor by insinuating she was involved in a romantic relationship with the former head of the national police.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content without appropriate legal authority; however, there were allegations the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.