Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Media expressed a wide variety of views, but the government frequently influenced the press, in part through its large advertising budgets. The concentration of media ownership, weaknesses in the judiciary, and political influence also limited media’s independence.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals and groups were generally able to criticize the government publicly and privately without reprisal, although there were several incidents in which authorities intimidated members of the press. In September the new administration allegedly violated freedom of expression when it dismissed a government whistleblower within the Ministry of Culture after she informed media of the allegedly arbitrary dismissal of several civil service staff within the ministry. The Ministry of Culture never directly addressed or explained these dismissals.
In another instance several media outlets reported that press was granted only limited access to public government events. Media outlets with reporters assigned to the national palace stated they were not informed on time nor given access to public meetings held by the president or his cabinet members. When press representatives requested an explanation for these actions, they were told the events were private. Media also highlighted a lack of coordination by the palace communication team in providing the president’s public schedule and convening media to cover meetings. The Abinader administration’s communication team met journalists to hear their complaints and find a solution.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The Dominican Association of Journalists reported at the start of the national COVID-19 lockdown that several journalists from the provinces of Santiago, Bahoruco, Mao, and Santo Domingo were stopped or prevented from transiting freely to report on the pandemic. The association requested the government to instruct police and military officers that journalists were essential workers who could transit after curfew and to avoid any aggression towards them. The government did not make any statement in response to this complaint, but it provided curfew passes for various kinds of workers, including media members, and cases decreased of security forces restricting the movement of journalists. The International Federation of Journalists reported an alleged beating by police officers of a radio journalist who protested for the freedom of a colleague who had allegedly violated the curfew in the province of San Pedro de Macoris. In November the Dominican Association of Journalists announced it would provide stickers and license plates from the organization to identify their members and facilitate identification of journalists by law enforcement.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists and other persons who worked in media were occasionally harassed or physically attacked. Some media outlets reported that journalists, specifically in rural areas, received threats for investigating or denouncing criminal groups and official corruption. Some media outlets omitted the bylines of journalists reporting on drug trafficking and other security matters to protect the individual journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution provides for protection of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and includes a “conscience clause” allowing journalists to refuse reporting assignments. Journalists practiced self-censorship, particularly when coverage could adversely affect the economic or political interests of media owners. Observers suggested the government influenced the press through advertising contracts. In July during the presidential transition period, the government’s communications directorate published expense reports for the outgoing administration. Journalists and observers criticized government spending on advertisements, which according to official figures reached approximately $18.5 million over eight years, describing it as a strategy to influence journalists’ speech.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes defamation and insult, with harsher punishment for offenses committed against public or state figures than for offenses against private individuals. The Dominican Association of Journalists reported that journalists were sued by politicians, government officials, and the private sector to pressure them to stop reporting. The law penalizes libel for statements concerning the private lives of certain public figures, including government officials and foreign heads of state.
In December 2019 the former attorney general’s sister sued a well known journalist for slander after his investigative report alleged that she received no-bid government contracts worth 750 million pesos ($13 million), positioning the company she represented as the sole supplier of asphalt products to the government. The journalist demonstrated that at the time the contracts were signed, the sister was a paid employee of the Ministry of Public Works and Communications. Several preliminary hearings took place during the following months with limited press access, but the trial did not formally start due to COVID-19 restrictions. The lawsuit was withdrawn on August 13, three days before the new administration took office.
In February the Supreme Court upheld a guilty verdict for libel and defamation against a television and online journalist in a case brought by the former president of the lower house of congress. Although it affirmed the verdict, the Supreme Court reduced the damage award from approximately $120,000 to $85,000. The plaintiff, who was the sister of former president Danilo Medina, filed the lawsuit in 2017 alleging the defendant had impugned her honor by insinuating she was involved in a romantic relationship with the former head of the national police.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content without appropriate legal authority; however, there were allegations the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
In June, Afro-Dominican and nationalist groups clashed at a Santo Domingo vigil organized in solidarity with worldwide Black Lives Matter protests. Police dispersed the crowd and arrested organizers of both groups for violating government restrictions on public events during the coronavirus pandemic. Civil society observers denounced perceived unequal treatment during the arrests, stating police treated the Afro-Dominican leaders more roughly. The head of the attorney general’s Human Rights Office intervened to ensure the quick release of leaders from both groups and no charges were filed.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions.
In-country Movement: Civil society representatives reported that citizens of Haitian descent, those perceived to be Haitian, and Haitian migrants faced obstacles while traveling within the country. NGO representatives reported that security forces at times asked travelers to show immigration and citizenship documents at road checkpoints throughout the country. Citizens of Haitian descent and migrants without valid identity documents reported fear of swift deportation when traveling within the country, especially near the border with Haiti (see also section 1.d.).
The government cooperated in a limited manner with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Government officials reported 14,050 Venezuelans migrants, of whom 60 percent had expired documentation, registered under a temporary status with the government. The government and NGOs estimated an additional 100,000 Venezuelans lived in the country in an irregular migration status. In December 2019 the government instituted a regulation requiring Venezuelans to apply for a tourist visa before entering the country. Previously, Venezuelans needed only a valid passport and could receive a tourist visa at the point of entry. Many Venezuelans resident in the country entered legally before the new regulation and stayed longer than the three-month allowance.
The government did not issue guidelines to facilitate the regularization of status for Venezuelans living in the country. The inability to apply for in-country adjustment of status hindered Venezuelans’ access to basic services and increased their vulnerability to labor exploitation and trafficking. Venezuelan refugee and immigrant associations, with the support of the IOM, UNHCR, and Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V Platform), coordinated with the government and civil society organizations to provide public-health and legal services for Venezuelan refugees and migrants. The R4V Platform is a regional interagency platform, led by IOM and UNHCR, for coordinating the humanitarian response for refugees and migrants from Venezuela.
Refoulement: There were reports of persons potentially in need of international protection being denied admission at the point of entry and subsequently being deported to their countries of origin without being granted access to the asylum process (see also section 1.d.).
Access to Asylum: Presidential decrees from the 1980s established a system for granting asylum or refugee status; however, the system was not implemented through legislation and regulations. The constitution prohibits administrative detention for asylum seekers, and the law establishes that asylum seekers should not be detained under any circumstance. The system for providing protection to refugees was not effectively implemented. The government recognized and issued identity documents to very few refugees during the past few years. Rejection rates for asylum claims were close to 100 percent, and asylum applications often remained pending for several years.
The National Commission for Refugees (CONARE), an interministerial body led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is responsible for adjudicating asylum claims. The adjudication process requires individuals to apply for asylum within 15 days of arrival in the country. If an asylum seeker is in the country for more than 15 days without applying for asylum, the individual permanently loses the right to apply for asylum. The law also rejects any asylum application from an individual who was in, or who proceeds from, a foreign country where the individual could have sought asylum. Thus the government makes inadmissibility determinations administratively before an asylum interview or evaluation by CONARE.
NGOs working with refugees and asylum seekers reported there was no information posted at ports of entry to provide notice of the right to seek asylum, or of the timeline and process for doing so. Furthermore, NGO representatives reported that immigration officials did not appear to understand how to handle asylum cases consistent with the country’s international commitments. By law the government must provide due process to asylum seekers. Persons expressing a fear of return to their country of nationality or habitual residence should be allowed to apply for asylum under the proper procedures. Nonetheless, there was generally neither judicial review of deportation orders nor any third-party review of “credible fear” determinations.
UN officials reported asylum seekers were not properly notified of inadmissibility decisions. CONARE did not provide rejected asylum seekers with details of the grounds for the rejection of their asylum application or with information on the appeal process. Rejected applicants received a letter saying they had 30 days to leave the country voluntarily. According to government policy, from the time they receive the notice of denial, rejected asylum seekers have seven days to file an appeal. The notice-of-denial letter does not mention this right of appeal.
UN officials stated a lack of due process in migration procedures resulted in arbitrary detention of persons of concern with no administrative or judicial review (see also section 1.d.). As a result, asylum seekers and refugees in the country were at risk of refoulement and prolonged detention.
UNHCR sponsored training for government authorities designed to ensure that asylum procedures were fair, efficient, and gender sensitive. Nevertheless, no significant improvements were observed in the system. According to refugee NGOs, CONARE does not acknowledge that the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of refugee applies to persons who express a well founded fear of persecution perpetrated by nonstate agents. This lack of acknowledgement had a detrimental effect on persons fleeing sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation, and discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Freedom of Movement: Persons claiming asylum often waited months to receive a certificate as an asylum seeker and to be registered in the government database. The certificate had to be renewed every 30 days in the national office in Santo Domingo, forcing asylum seekers who lived outside Santo Domingo to return monthly to the capital, accompanied by all their family members, or lose their claim to asylum. Asylum seekers with pending cases only had this certificate, or sometimes nothing at all, to present to avoid deportation. This restricted their freedom of movement. In cases where asylum seekers were detained for lack of documentation, refugee and human rights organizations were able to advocate for their release.
Some refugees recognized by CONARE were either issued travel documents that were not accepted in visa application processes, or they were not issued travel documents at all.
Employment: The government prohibited asylum seekers with pending cases from working. This situation was complicated by the long, sometimes indefinite waiting periods for pending asylum cases to be resolved. Lack of documentation also made it difficult for refugees to find employment. Employment was, nonetheless, a requirement by the government for renewing refugees’ temporary residency cards.
Access to Basic Services: Approved refugees have the same rights and responsibilities as legal migrants with temporary residence permits. Approved refugees have the right to education, employment, health care, and other social services. Nonetheless, refugee organizations reported that problems remained. Only those refugees able to afford health insurance were able to access adequate health care. Refugees reported their government-issued identification numbers were sometimes not recognized, and thus they could not open a bank account or enter service contracts for basic utilities. Refugees sometimes had to rely on friends or family for such services.
Temporary Protection: A plan adopted in 2013, and which remained in force until 2014, enabled undocumented migrants in the country to apply for temporary legal residency. Although the exact number of undocumented migrants was unknown, the law granted temporary residency status to more than 260,000 applicants, 97 percent of whom were Haitian. As of August 2018, 196,000 persons had renewed temporary status, which was due to expire in 2020. Civil society organizations expressed concern that many plan participants lacked passports, which could hinder their ability to renew their status. Government and business closures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 made it more difficult for recipients of this temporary protection to renew their status.
No temporary residence documents were granted to asylum seekers; those found to be admissible to the process were issued a certificate that provided them with protection from deportation but did not confer other rights. This certificate often took months to be delivered to asylum seekers. Due in part to this delay, both refugees and asylum seekers lived on the margins of the migration system. Foreigners often were asked to present legal migration documents to obtain legal assistance or to access the judicial system; therefore, the many refugees and asylum seekers who lacked these documents were unable to access legal help for situations they faced under criminal, labor, family, or civil law.
Refugees recognized by CONARE must undergo annual re-evaluation of their need for international protection, a procedure counter to international standards. Refugees were issued one-year temporary residence permits that could not be converted to a permanent residence permit.
A constitutional change in 2010 and a 2013 Constitutional Tribunal ruling revised the country’s citizenship laws. One effect was to strip retroactively Dominican citizenship from approximately 135,000 persons, mostly the children of undocumented Haitian migrants, who previously had Dominican citizenship by virtue of the jus soli (citizenship by birth within the country) policy in place since 1929.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that these legal revisions led to statelessness for the persons who lost their Dominican citizenship. UN officials and NGOs stated the legal changes had a disproportionate and negative impact on women and their children. They reported that mothers, especially unmarried mothers of Haitian origin, were unable to register their children on an equal basis with the fathers. The law requires a different birth certificate for foreign women who do not have documentation of legal residency. This led to discrimination in the ability of children born to foreign women and Dominican citizen fathers to obtain Dominican nationality, especially if they were of Haitian descent. This was not true in the reverse situation when children were born to a Dominican citizen mother and a foreign-born father.
These obstacles to timely birth registration, which is necessary to determine citizenship, put at risk children’s access to a wide range of rights, including the right to nationality, to a name and identity, and to equality before the law.
A 2014 law creates a mechanism to provide citizenship papers or a naturalization process to stateless persons. The exact mechanism depends on the documentary status of the individual prior to the 2010 change in the constitution. In practice the new documentation mechanism was only partially successful. Many stateless persons did not register for the mechanism before its deadline.
In July the outgoing government approved the naturalization of 750 individuals, the majority of whom were minors who were stripped of their citizenship by the 2013 Constitutional Tribunal ruling and who were known as Group B. These 750 persons from Group B were the first to be approved for naturalization since the 2014 law was passed.
Through a mechanism outlined in the law for individuals with other circumstances (commonly known as Group A), the government identified and then issued birth certificates and national identity documents to approximately 26,000 individuals. The government identified an additional 34,900 individuals as potentially being part of Group A. As of December these individuals had not received an identity document confirming their Dominican nationality due to apparent concerns regarding the nature of the underlying documentation establishing citizenship. This placed them at a high risk of statelessness. The pool of individuals identified as potentially part of Group A extended back to individuals born as early as 1929. Because a number of those individuals had died or moved out of the country in the ensuing decades, the remaining number of eligible Group A individuals was likely substantially smaller than the 35,000 persons identified by the Central Electoral Board (JCE).
According to observers, many stateless individuals falling under the Group B profile were unable or unwilling to register for the naturalization process during the 180-day application window. As of October there was no way for this group to secure Dominican nationality. In addition there were other individuals born in the country at specific times and in specific circumstances connected to their parents who were in legal limbo related to their citizenship.
Dominican-born persons without citizenship or identity documents faced obstacles traveling both within and outside the country. Beginning in 2015, authorities attempted to deport some of these persons but were prevented by UN agency intervention. Stateless persons do not have access to electoral participation, formal-sector jobs, marriage registration, birth registration, formal loans, judicial procedures, state social protection programs, and property ownership. Their access to primary public education and health care was limited. In addition those able to receive an education do not receive official recognition, such as a diploma, for completed schooling.