SANTO DOMINGO -- A fading black and white photo of Nuria Piera’s father hangs above her glass-top desk in the studios where she produces a weekly investigative television news program.
Piera was just eight when José Enrique Piera, also a television journalist, was killed in 1970. Growing up, she believed he was a casualty of the tit-for-tat political violence that marked the times. But as an adult, she learned her father was likely murdered for exposing a dirty land deal that involved allegedly corrupt government officials.
More than three decades after her father’s murder, Piera now faces death threaths of her own. During the run-up to the recent Dominican presidential election, Piera reported that an influential senator had allegedly sent millions in kickbacks to Haitian politicians in exchange for millions in post-earthquake reconstruction contracts. Days after the report aired in April, a Dominican senator announced that he had learned of a plot to kill Piera.
From the time the report aired until the elections, bodyguards accompanied Piera throughout her day. Her daughter received armed escorts to school and home.
Although Piera downplayed the threat, others feared for her life. A group of journalists rallied around her, calling for authorities to stand up for reporters in the face of danger.
“What they do and what they threaten to do is not going to stop me from continuing to do this,” Piera said in a recent interview with The Miami Herald. “They don’t scare me.”
Yet, as the incident made clear, practicing investigative journalism here is not all that much safer than it was when Piera’s father was killed. Journalists and free press advocates said archaic defamation laws, threats of violence or death, and a lack of independence threaten journalistic freedom in the Dominican Republic.
Reporters in other Latin American countries, such as Mexico, are in far graver danger than those working in the Dominican Republic. But press freedom organizations said they are concerned about a recent crackdown on journalists.
“Until last year, the situation in the Dominican Republic for journalist had been OK,” said Mariela Hoyer, press freedom advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI). “In the last year, it’s gotten considerably worse.”
In August, television journalist José Silvestre was abducted and killed after reporting on drug trafficking and alleged links to businessmen in the eastern city of La Romana. Silvestre’s body was discovered with two bullet wounds to his abdomen. Police arrested five men.
The fear of criminal prosecution is often more of a deterrent than death threats. Like many other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic has criminal defamation laws under which journalists found guilty of libel or slander can receive jail terms and harsh financial penalties.
In January, Johnny Alberto Salazar, who ran radio station Vida FM in the northern town of Nagua, was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 1 million Dominican pesos (US$26,000) after a judge found him guilty of damaging a local lawyer’s reputation.
A delegation from the IPI is set to visit the Dominican Republic and a handful of other Caribbean countries this month to push governments to do away criminal defamation laws, Hoyer said. The visit comes weeks before the organization is to hold its annual congress in Trinidad, its first in the Caribbean.