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Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Dominican Republic Journalist Convicted of Libel

Jhonny Alberto Salazar Faces a Fine and 6 Months in Prison 

By: Nisha Thanki

A Dominican Republic soldier keeps a look out as he stands guard inside the foreign ministry in Santo Domingo. Photo: REUTERS/ Eduardo Munoz

VIENNA, 24 Jan. 2012 - Jhonny Alberto Salazar, a councillor for Nagua and journalist for Vida FM and vidadominicana.com, has been found guilty of libelling lawyer, Pedro Baldera Gomez. Salazar could be the first journalist to go to jail in the Dominican Republic for defamation.

Salazar made comments on his radio station about a number of murders in the area and said that the lawyer, who works for the Human Rights Commission of Nagua, had defended a number of thieves in the area. As a result, the court ordered Salazar to pay a one million Dominican Peso (approx. 20,000 Euros) fine and spend six months in jail. 

The Dominican Association of Journalists (CDP) condemned the decision of the court, claiming that the judgment could have detrimental effects on freedom of the press in the Dominican Republic. Aurelio Henriquez from the CDP told IPI: “We’ve been very concerned because it is a situation that can lead to self-censorship.” He also expressed concern over a number of alleged irregularities in the case: For example, Judge Acosta Bonilla did not allow reporters at the trial nor was the trial recorded - which Henriquez said was unconstitutional.

IPI also spoke to Jhonny Alberto Salazar, who said that he was going to appeal against the charges. He has organised a national press conference in Santo Domingo to raise money for his fine. Salazar was grateful for the solidarity of his fellow citizens, who have donated money for his fine and have even offered to go to jail with him. He argued that the charges were “an attempt to silence us”. He added: “This is all to take me away from my democratically elected position in the council and to silence the broadcaster. In 13 years we have been closed four times.”

Just a few months earlier, Salazar had told CDP that he had been receiving threats from the government because of his reports on the radio in which he had criticised several key government figures. Salazar’s radio station is co-owned by Father Rogelio Cruz, who is a social activist, and the two are well-known in Nagua for community and social work. Salazar, as a councilman himself, believes that people should get more from their local council and as such has found himself targeted. In August, 2011 he was suspended from his job. In February and December of the same year, the broadcaster was bombed. In one of the two attacks, a bomb was thrown into a room in which a special community lesson with children was taking place.

Salazar’s case is not an exception. Numerous journalists have found themselves in danger because of criticism of the government and officials. Several journalists have been accused of slander and defamation in the Dominican Republic. For example, in May, 2011 the late José Agustíne Silvestre, a Dominican journalist and director of “La Voz de la Verdad”, was accused of defamation after linking a government official to drug trafficking.

Defamation laws in the Dominican Republic are stricter when the case concerns the reputation of public or state figures, and defendants are not given the opportunity to defend their claims. These laws mean that it is particularly difficult for journalists to pursue stories because of the potential consequences, which, as we can see with Salazar’s case, can be grave.

Henriquez told IPI: “Although the law is old (from the 19th Century) it has never been used to imprison a journalist. It has been used against individuals, asking for compensation, but they have never been arrested. The problem is that if they apply this sentence, other courts will also make such rulings.” A bill has been proposed to change the defamation laws in the Dominican Republic; it has yet to be approved by Congress.

IPI Press Freedom Manager, Anthony Mills, said, “We urge the Dominican authorities to drop the charges against Jhonny Alberto Salazar. Journalists should never be criminally prosecuted because of their work.”