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.
“Addressing the criminal defamation laws would be a very important step” for press freedom, Hoyer said. “It would show the government is serious.”
A former TV child star, Piera started an investigative news magazine called “Nuria” 25 years ago. She has rankled officials and politicians with her investigative reports, such as those that helped expose a corrupt lottery system where government officials fixed the outcome and reaped the profits.
Her latest corruption investigation began after a trusted source showed up with the Excel spreadsheets containing the financial ledgers of companies owned by Sen. Felix Bautista.
Bautista had been a controversial figure in Dominican politics for years, rising from the levels of party politics to senator in a decade, with his companies earning millions along the way. Piera, her sister and a trusted employee pored over the registries at her office, a windowless, blood orange room adorned with journalism awards and artwork.
“We saw millions and millions of dollars in transfers,” she said. “Many of the records were routine business entries. But a lot of money had been funneled through his businesses to win contracts in other places.”
Some $2.5 million of those transfers showed up in the registries with the description of having been delivered to “MMartelly.” She based allegations about the involvement of Haitian President Michel Martelly and others on those entries.
Her staff verified the veracity of other records by checking with local merchants who’d done business with the Bautista’s companies, she said. She declined to provide copies of the ledgers to The Herald because she feared her source would be revealed.
Weeks later, she took to the airways on her normal Monday evening timeslot and dropped a bombshell: Bautista had sent millions in kickbacks to Haitian presidential candidates, including Martelly before and even after he won the election, and received lucrative construction contracts in exchange, she alleged.
Bautista, who has denied any impropriety, did not return calls left at his office. Martelly has denied the report.
The legality of Bautista’s transfers is unclear. Although a Dominican prosecutor took up the case, the office declined to comment on the status of the investigation.
In Haiti, the Dominican contracts were at the center of a contentions dispute between former Prime Minister Garry Conille and Martelly. Conille, who abruptly resigned after only four months, had called for an investigation into the no-bid contracts, saying that Haiti had broken its own procurement laws when it awarded them to Bautista’s companies.
Conille’s successor, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, has said publicly that he will continue the investigations into the Dominican contracts and will honor the recommendations of the commission investigating the matter.
Donors have told the Haitian government that it has to do a proper job of handling the contracts’ investigation or risk losing support from donors and investors.
In the Dominican Republic, little has come of Piera’s allegations.
“In terms of an investigation, no, nothing will happen,” Piera said dismissively. “I didn’t expect anything to happen. I’ve been around long enough.”