Two journalists were shot dead during a live broadcast in the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. Officials say the police have arrested three men in connection with the incident, but no charges have been filed against them yet.
The attackers burst into the 103.5 FM studio as radio personality Luis Manuel Medina was reading the news live on air, letting loose several shots according to station employees. Director and producer Leonidas Martinez was killed in his adjacent office at the station. Station secretary Dayaba Garcia was also injured in the incident, but officials on site were able to transport her to the hospital where she received emergency surgery.
Medina, the host of the news program Milenio Caliente - or Hot Millennium - was mid-broadcast when gunfire could be heard during the Facebook Live video, followed by a woman screaming, “Shots! Shots! Shots!” before the transmission abruptly cuts off.
“Two people have died and one has been injured,” national police spokesman William Alcantara confirmed with reporters, but noted that they have not yet determined the motive behind the brutal attack during the middle of the day. The shooting occurred in San Pedro de Macoris, a small city 45 miles east of the capital, Santo Domingo. The radio station is located in a shopping mall.
Media rights watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has released comments about how journalists who tackle corruption and drug trafficking in the Dominican Republic often fall victim to attacks. Although small in numbers compared to other countries in the region like Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala, harassment and even death threats are common for those covering crime and politics. Medina, 47, and Martinez, 60, were longtime collaborators for Milenio Caliente, which in August would be celebrating 25 years on the air. It is a popular breakfast show known for coverage of social issues and political analysis. Medina was a supporter of sharing diverse opinions and refused to shy away from controversial topics. He often encouraged callers to reach out to discuss current events, and even to show up at the station to denounce local drug pushers, dishonest businesses, or problems accessing health care. At the time of death, Medina had been criticizing pollution problems at Laguna Mallen, a lake in San Pedro which is supposed to be a protected natural resort.
While murders are rare, harassment and intimidation of journalists reporting on organized crime and corruption are common in the Dominican Republic. Olivo de Leon, from the College of Journalism, knew both men, and said the attack has shocked the country.
“For gunmen to open fire in a media outlet like this is unprecedented,” De Leon told the Guardian, “The authorities must investigate to determine not just the killers but also the intellectual authors so that we know why they were murdered. Impunity in this case will generate fear among journalists, making them scared to speak out and do their jobs. The government must guarantee freedom of expression.”
Many have worried that the police will brush off this incident as well. Due to this increasing pressure, officials have identified a local man named José Rodríguez, 59, as one of the men involved from CCTV footage.
“He was not a hitman,” said Alcantara, who described the murders of Medina and Garcia as “personal conflict.” They describe Rodríguez as a violent drug addict who had been deported from the US. He allegedly started shooting at officers in San Pedro, who then returned fire, but Rodríguez then shot himself in the head instead of surrendering to police. The attorney general’s office is expected to announce the conclusions of its investigation next week, but a spokesman has already told some reporters that they found nothing to indicate a link to Medina and Martínez’s work.
Their fellow journalists disagree. In a column for the Avento digital newspaper, political and media analyst Mario Rivadulla, is not settling for this naming of one suspect and calling for a full investigation. “The motives were surely professional,” Rivadulla wrote, “Some spurious interest, some local mafia, some dirty business laid bare by Leo and Luis Manuel...It is the price of exercising one of the most dangerous professions in the world.”
Marino Zapete, host of El Jarabe, an online news program said that while Rodríguez may have pulled the trigger, police still needed to investigate who might have ordered the murders. “From the beginning, dissident journalists like me were worried that the material author would end up dead and with that, an investigation into possible intellectual authors and the truth behind the killings would also end. What I feared most, is exactly what happened,” he said.
In 2013, reporters who spoke out against a controversial court ruling stripping Dominicans of Haitian descent of citizenship suffered vicious harassment and death threats, but authorities did not deem these campaigns worth investigating. In 2014, a newspaper reporter was shot at while covering a story, and a television cameraman was shot dead in broad daylight. In 2015, Blas Olivo, press director of the Dominican Agribusiness Association, was killed, but the police wrote off the incident as a robbery gone wrong, despite the fact that neither the victim’s car nor his phone was stolen. This case remains open, with no suspects identified. In a report released the same year, RSF stated that, “Freedom of information is also weakened by continuing impunity for crimes of violence against media personnel and the concentration of media ownership in few hands.”
This tragedy is incredibly disturbing. Freedom of the press is essential, and we can only hope that the police follow through with a full investigation. The small coastal town of San Pedro is in mourning, but journalists around the world are demanding a fair and full investigation into the murders of their colleagues.