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Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Police in Dominican Republic Raid Newspaper Offices

Attorney-General Sends in SWAT Team over Hacking Scandal Linked to Corruption Allegations 

By: Scott Griffen, IPI Associate

Dominican Republic First Lady Margarita Cedeño de Fernández attends the opening session of the World Food Day on October 16, 2009 at the FAO headquarters in Rome. AFP PHOTO / Filippo MONTEFORTE.

VIENNA, Feb 15, 2012 - Police in the Dominican Republic last Friday used a SWAT team to raid the home and offices of a prominent journalist as part of an investigation into an alleged spying scandal targeting high-ranking public officials.

The journalist in question, Guillermo Gómez, producer of the television program Aeromundo and owner of the digital newspaper El Siglo 21, called the raids "a crude attack on freedom of expression in the Dominican Republic," according to national media reports.

Ordered by the Attorney General's Office, the raids are believed to be in connection with an investigation led by state security services into an alleged hacking campaign that targeted the e-mail accounts of several government officials, including first lady and vice-presidential candidate Margarita Cedeño de Fernández.

Aurelio Henríquez, president of the Dominican Journalists Association, told the International Press Institute (IPI) that the government believes that El Siglo 21 accessed the accounts in order to gather information for a series on official corruption that was to be published in February and March of this year.

Police during the raid seized the paper's servers, ostensibly in an attempt to determine whether the hacking could be traced back to them, Henríquez said.

Gómez has denied obtaining the information illegally, maintaining that his sources are members of the government of President Leonel Fernández, including military and police officials, the newspaper Listín reported on Monday. 

According to media reports, the government's investigation was prompted by the Internet circulation of a private e-mail exchange between Cedeño de Fernández and Rosa Hernández de Grullón, the country's ambassador to UNESCO and wife of the president of Banco Popular.

First published by the blogger Margarita Cordero, the e-mails appeared to reveal that Hernández succeeded in supplying the first lady with 1.6 million pesos (approx. 34,000 EUR) in depositor money - in addition to a half-million euro apartment in Paris - to further the first lady's vice-presidential campaign.  According to the e-mails, Hernández received permission from her husband for the transaction, which was approved by the bank's vice president, Nicolas Vargas, in an e-mail on 7 April 2011.

El Siglo 21 had already published 3 articles in its planned series before announcing unexpectedly on 9 February - the day before the raid - that the series would be discontinued.  National media reported that Dominican Republic authorities removed the published pieces from the web.  The paper's website remains down following the loss of its server. 

Radhamés Gómez Sánchez, director of El Siglo 21, said the raids reflected the actions of a government "desperate to hold on to power" but vowed that the authorities would not succeed in "silencing those dedicated to democracy and freedom of expression."

IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said: "While we understand the desire of the Dominican Republic prosecutor's office to ascertain how these e-mails and other documents were obtained, we would like to remind the authorities that journalists have a right to investigate matters of public interest, including any links to alleged corruption."