Death of Dominican Journalists Shows Dangers of Press Freedom

The murders of two Dominican journalists were caught on Facebook Live earlier this month. The world watched as radio presenter Luis Manuel Medina and producer Leonidas Martinez were killed as they hosted their show for station 103.5 HICC. A third victim, Dayaba Garcia, a secretary, was also shot and underwent emergency surgery for injuries to the abdomen.

The shooting occurred in San Pedro de Macoris, east of the nation’s capital San Domingo. Here, officials picked up three men who were suspected of possible participation shortly after the incident. None of the men have been convicted.

The shooter, however, was identified as 59-year-old José Rodríguez. Rodríguez left the scene after the shooting and was pursued by the police. Once surrounded, the shooter ended his own life. The Guardian reported Rodríguez’s family claims that he went after Medina and Martínez due to their involvement in an allegedly fraudulent land scheme, resulting in a major loss of money for Rodríguez. Though Rodríguez has been described as a “violent drug addict” by local police, his family denies any such characterization.

Medina and Martínez were long time collaborators for the show Milenio Caliente, which they were broadcasting prior to Rodriguez’s attack. The show is popular for its honest and sometimes controversial coverage of social and political issues, as well as for encouraging listeners to call in and debate each other. Topics include corruption within law enforcement and businesses, drug-pushing, and difficulty accessing health care.

Police and media experts cannot confirm whether the attack was a product of Medina and Martínez’s work, or simple vengeance. The show would have celebrated its 25th anniversary this August.

Carlos Lauria, a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) senior program coordinator for the Americas, commented, for an article by the CPJ, “the video appearing to show the journalists’ final moments is a chilling reminder of the dangers that the press can face while reporting the news.”

Though the Dominican police believe this shooting was an attack perpetrated by personal conflict, the fact that two journalists could be shot in broad daylight highlights an underlying issue with press freedom in the Dominican Republic. Though the country has experienced relatively few incidents compared to others in Latin America like Mexico, Guatemala, and Brazil, three other journalists had been murdered in the Dominican Republic prior to this event. The most recent death occurred in 2011 when magazine director and television host of Cana TV, José Agustín Silvestre de los Santos, was abducted and later found with multiple gunshot wounds on the side of a highway outside La Romana, DR. Silvestre had reportedly “accused political figures and a priest of having involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering.”

There have been similar abductions of journalists such as Roberto Sandoval, host of opinion programs on Radio Comercial and Telecable Nacional’s Canal 10. According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sandoval “often report[ed] on crime and [was] critical of Dominican law enforcement.”

The Dominican Republic has a history of questionable press freedom and treatment of journalists. Freedom House ranked the country as partly free in 2016 in terms of freedom of press, giving the Dominican Republic a score of 42 out of 100.

While the updated Dominican Republic Constitution of 2010 grants citizens freedom of expression and access to public information, the major obstacles for journalists in the Dominican Republic are criminal defamation and liability laws. Crimes such as defaming or insulting the head of state are criminalized in the penal code, making it possible for citizens and journalists to be imprisoned for up to a year and lose their voting rights if convicted. Dominican law dictates that newspaper owners must assume the majority of financial damages against editors and journalists in these liability and defamation cases.

These legal limitations on press freedom present frequent issues in court as journalists continue to be brought to trial on accusations of defamation against politicians or private citizens. Such was the case for journalists Enrique Crespo, Ali David Demey, and Anaylis Cañizales who were convicted in July of 2006 for criminal defamation. The CPJ reported that “the Association of Art Reporters accused the three hosts of the cable television show ‘Los Dueños el Circo’ of defamation when they suggested that winners of the group’s annual Casandra Awards had paid off the judges.” The three journalists were fined a collective amount of ten million pesos, or three hundred thousand U.S. dollars.

Freedom House reports that government officials often pressure media organizations to engage in self-censorship to protect their own interests. This coercion typically manifests in the form of intimidation or physical attacks, especially with investigation into corruption and drug trade.

According to Freedom House, such abuses include “police brutality, arbitrary detentions and inspections, equipment confiscations, threats, and verbal and physical harassment in both urban and provincial areas.” Intimidation can also come from within news outlets, since a  majority of the country’s news outlets, like Listin Diario and El Nacional, are either owned by the government or  a few private companies.

Meanwhile, Dominican authorities continue to investigate the murders of Luis Manuel Medina and Leonidas Martinez to determine the true intent behind the attack. Whether Medina and Martinez died for their work or for other reasons, the incident acts as a warning for journalists in the Dominican Republic to be more concerned with their safety.

In an interview with MediaFile, Carlos Lauria stated, “we do not know at this time if this was related to the work of these journalists.”

Though this may be true, it does not negate the very real dangers journalists face when trying to do their job.

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