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 concentration of media ownership, weaknesses in the judiciary, and political influence limited the media’s independence.
Freedom of Expression: 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 a television news program hosted by a well known journalist was canceled two days after presenting an investigative report alleging that the attorney general’s sister received no-bid government contracts worth 750 million pesos ($15 million), positioning her as the sole supplier of asphalt products to the government. The program demonstrated that at the time the contracts were signed, the sister was drawing a salary as an employee of the Ministry of Public Works. The journalist alleged his program was canceled after the attorney general called the station owner and threatened legal action. On September 30, the journalists’ association held a press conference denouncing political interference to silence reporting on corruption.
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 or official corruption. In October a local television commentator in Monte Plata Province reported he received threats due to his coverage critical of local politicians’ connections with narcotics traffickers. The Inter American Press Association reported journalists suffered violent attacks from military and police security details of government officials, particularly while covering civil-society-led protests.
Some media outlets chose to omit 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. A prominent journalist who hosted a highly rated news and commentary television show stated that her exit from traditional media was one example of the government’s influence on media outlets. She highlighted that the government spent close to 12.5 million pesos ($250,000 daily) in advertisements.
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 College 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 July the Constitutional Tribunal annulled an article in the electoral law that set prison sentences of three to 10 years for defamatory and libelous messages and for false campaigns published through media that damage the honor and privacy of political candidates. The tribunal ruled the article violated the right to freedom of speech established in the constitution. The tribunal also declared unconstitutional a paragraph in the law that penalized the publication of negative messages on social media that damage the public image of candidates.
d. Freedom of Movement
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 a Haitian, and Haitian migrants faced obstacles while traveling within the country. NGOs 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.).
f. Protection of Refugees
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 and NGOs estimated between 40,000 and 100,000 Venezuelans lived in the country. In December the government instituted a regulation requiring Venezuelans to apply for a tourist visa before entry into 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 immigrant associations, with the support of the IOM, coordinated with Dominican government entities to provide public-health and essential legal services for Venezuelan immigrants.
Refoulement: Although the constitution prohibits administrative detention and the law establishes that asylum seekers should not be detained under any circumstance, 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: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status. While the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, it did not effectively implement it. The government recognized and issued identity documents to very few refugees during the past few years. The government did not respond to requests for the current number of asylum seekers.
The National Office of Refugees in the Migration Directorate of the National Commission for Refugees (CONARE) is an interministerial body responsible for adjudicating asylum claims. The law 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 and does not apply 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.
According to refugee NGOs, 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, NGOs 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 give 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. Government policy is that from the time they receive the notice of denial, rejected asylum seekers have seven days to file an appeal. The letter providing the notice of denial does not mention this right of appeal.
UN officials said 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.
During the year government authorities participated in UNHCR-sponsored training designed to ensure that asylum procedures are fair, efficient, and gender-sensitive. Reports of discriminatory practices against female asylum seekers and refugees continued, however. The country failed to implement a gender-sensitive identification system for female asylum seekers and refugees, including potential victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation.
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 must be renewed every 30 days in the national office in Santo Domingo, forcing asylum seekers who live outside Santo Domingo to return to the capital monthly or lose their claim to asylum. Asylum seekers with pending cases only had this certificate, or nothing at all, to present to avoid deportation. This restricted their freedom of movement. In cases where approved asylum seekers were detained for lack of documentation, refugee 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 for the government to renew 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 access 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 had to rely on friends or family for such services.
Temporary Protection: The law enables 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 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.
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 access the judicial system; therefore, many refugees and asylum seekers were unable to access legal help for situations they faced under criminal, labor, family, or civil law.
Refugees recognized by CONARE underwent 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.
g. Stateless Persons
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 had previously been conferred Dominican citizenship by virtue of jus soli (birthright citizenship) since 1929. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found that these legal revisions led to statelessness for the persons who lost their Dominican citizenship. UN officials and NGOs said the legal changes had a disproportionate and negative impact on women and their children, in part because the law treats foreign-born mothers differently than foreign-born fathers.
The government subsequently passed a law creating a mechanism to provide citizenship papers or a naturalization process to stateless persons. The exact mechanism depended on the documentary status of the individual at the time the citizenship law changed. In practice the new documentation mechanism was only partially successful. Many stateless persons did not register for the mechanism before the deadline.
Dominican-born persons without citizenship or identity documents faced obstacles traveling both within and outside the country. Authorities attempted to deport some of these persons between 2015 and 2019 but were prevented by IOM intervention. The stateless persons had limited access to electoral participation, formal-sector jobs, public education, marriage and birth registration, formal financial services such as loans, court and judicial procedures, and ownership of land and property.
The government agreed in 2017 to address 12 priority issues related to these stateless persons. In March the IACHR noted that the government had partially implemented solutions to this list of issues.