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Thursday, 08 March 2012

Dominican Republic First Lady Files Forgery Charges against Journalist

Marco Martínez Had Reported on an Alleged Secret Bank Account in Denmark 

By: Scott Griffen, IPI Associate

Dominican Republic First Lady Margarita Cedeño de Fernández attends the ceremony for her nomination as an FAO special ambassador on October 16, 2009 at the FAO headquarters in Rome. AFP PHOTO / Filippo MONTEFORTE.

VIENNA, Mar. 8, 2012 - The Dominican Republic's first lady, Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, has filed criminal forgery charges against a television commentator who alleged that she has millions of euros stashed away in a Danish bank account.

According to Dominican media, Fernández's attorney, Luis Miguel Pereira, on Tuesday officially accused the journalist, Marco Martínez of Canal 55, of falsifying documents in order to attack the honour and reputation of the first lady, who is currently running for vice president.

Pereira told the media that a conviction on defamation alone would be insufficient for the alleged harm done.  "Media reporting with the intention of confusing people with falsified documents, that is much more serious," he said.

Martínez has remained largely silent since Tuesday's announcment, issuing only a short statement saying he needed to review the indictment.   Last week, however, he repeated the original allegation, insisting, "All the documents are there.  I made the corresponding accusation.  I will not recant."

Martínez faces up to five years in prison if convicted, media reports say.  Cedeño de Fernández is additionally seeking 10 million pesos (€190,000) in damages­­ - a sum her lawyer said she would donate to local hospitals.

Tuesday's announcement was the latest volley in a back-and-forth of competing claims between Martínez and the Cedeño de Fernández after the journalist on Feb. 15 alleged on television that the first lady had €43 million in a Danske Bank account (he later said the amount was €73 million).

In a video posted on her official YouTube channel the next day, Cedeño de Fernández, at times appearing to fight back tears, called the allegations a "terrible slander."  Declaring her intention to sue those behind the rumours, she added, "as a mother, as a wife, and as a first lady I will never permit garbage to be thrown upon me."

On 22 February the country's banking superintendent announced that Denmark's Financial Services Agency (FSA) had provided him with a certification - which does not appear to have been made public - that Cedeño de Fernández did not have an account with Danske Bank, Dominican media reported.

Reached by the International Press Institute (IPI), the Danish FSA declined to discuss the case and was unable to confirm or deny the existence of such a certification.  Likewise, a Danske Bank representative told IPI company policy prevented him from commenting on the alleged bank account.  

Martínez later poured doubt upon the superintendent's announcement, saying, "if they really wanted to disprove the information they should present an official document from Danske Bank and not an apparent e-mail message without any visible certification."

Tuesday's announcement comes less than a month after Dominican Republic police sent a SWAT team to raid the home and offices of a prominent journalist accused of participating in an alleged hacking campaign that targeted government officials, including Cedeño de Fernández.

The government's investigation on that occasion was prompted by a leaked e-mail exchange that appeared to suggest the wife of the president of Banco Popular had supplied Cedeño de Fernández with 1.6 million pesos (approx. €34,000) - as well as a half-million euro apartment in Paris - to further the latter's vice-presidential campaign.

In January, a radio journalist in the Dominican Republic was convicted in a libel case brought by a local lawyer and sentenced six months in jail and ordered to pay a fine of one million pesos - 2,000 times the maximum allowed under the country's laws.