Attacks on the Press 2000: Haiti

HAITIAN JOURNALISM RECEIVED A TERRIBLE BLOW in the April assassination of Jean Léopold Dominique, the country’s most prominent journalist and a veteran advocate of free speech. On April 3, an unidentified gunman shot Dominique seven times as he entered Radio Haïti Inter’s courtyard for his morning broadcast. Security guard Jean-Claude Louissaint was also shot dead in the attack.

The 69-year-old Dominique was a close friend and political advisor to President René Préval, and virtually the only reporter in Haiti who dared to do serious investigative work. In an April 4 letter to Préval, CPJ called for a full investigation and insisted that the perpetrators be brought to justice. In July, the government appointed the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux to provide legal support for the investigation. (The same legal team worked on a trial that resulted in the November convictions of more than 50 former high-ranking paramilitary and army soldiers for involvement in a 1994 slum massacre.) And in September, the justice minister appointed a new judge because of delays in the investigation.

Michele Montas, Dominique’s widow and the director of Radio Haïti Inter, told CPJ that four suspects had been arrested so far. One of them apparently died of heart failure after surgery for minor bullet wounds, and his body later mysteriously disappeared from the local morgue.

In Haiti, where as many as eight out of every 10 people cannot read and the price of a television set can exceed the average yearly wage, radio remains the primary medium, with dozens of FM stations on the air. Many stations are partisan, and virtually none do investigative work because of the risks involved. The country has two major dailies, Le Matin and Le Nouvelliste, along with three partisan weeklies distributed in both the United States and Haiti-Haïti-Observateur, Haïti Progrès, and Haïti En Marche. The one-year-old Haitian Times, which is edited by former New York Times reporter Garry Pierre-Pierre, aims to inform English-speaking Haitians at home and abroad about current events in Haiti and among the Haitian diaspora.

Haiti’s already turbulent political climate was further rocked by the violence surrounding legislative and presidential elections held in May and November, which yielded an overwhelming victory for former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his ruling Lavalas Family (FL) party. Aristide, whose inauguration was set for February 7, was re-elected on November 26 with 92 percent of the vote in a national election shunned by international allies and major opposition parties, after Haiti failed to rectify tainted results from parliamentary elections held on May 21.

Press freedom violations linked to election violence and intimidation drove several reporters into exile. Radio Vision 2000 newscasters Daly Valet and Donald Jean moved to Canada in May after receiving numerous threats for critical coverage of the government and the FL. (One of their colleagues at the station, reporter Léontes Dorzilme, went into hiding for about a month). On April 8, the day of Dominique’s state funeral, a pro-Lavalas mob that had just burned down the nearby headquarters of an opposition party went on to Radio Vision 2000, screaming incendiary slogans and calling for Valet and Dorzilme. And after the highly controversial May elections, callers demanded that radio stations not use the term “contested” when referring to the polls.

On the day of the presidential election, November 26, several radio stations received threats after they reported low voter turnout in the capital and outer provinces. Some anonymous callers ordered stations not to comment on the elections. The private station Radio Galaxie, which received calls telling it to report high voter turnout, closed down midway through the voting and did not resume broadcasting until four days later.

After the election, half a dozen news outlets started receiving regular anonymous threats warning them not to criticize the government or Aristide’s FL party. Radio Caraïbes, which was receiving threats almost every day at year’s end, stopped broadcasting for nearly three weeks after a caller said, “If you don’t close down, we will force you to close.” The call followed a broadcast of the station’s weekly political news program “Ranmase” (“Summary”), during which members of an opposition group criticized the government and questioned the legitimacy of the November 26 election.

In January, Préval rescinded a promise to sign the Declaration of Chapultepec, an affirmation of press freedom principles sponsored by the Miami-based Inter American Press Association that has been signed by numerous Latin American heads of state.

Jean Léopold Dominique, Radio Haïti Inter

Dominique, the outspoken owner and director of the independent station Radio Haïti Inter, was shot dead by an unknown gunman who also killed the station’s security guard, Jean Claude Louissaint.

Shortly after 6 a.m. on April 3, Dominique arrived at Radio Haïti Inter to host the 7 a.m. news program, according to CPJ sources in Haiti. After Louissaint opened the gate to the station’s premises, which are along the road from Port-au-Prince to the suburb of Pétion-Ville, Dominique parked his car inside. As he was about to enter the radio station, a single gunman entered the compound on foot and shot him seven times. The gunman then fired two shots at Louissaint before escaping in a Jeep Cherokee whose driver had been waiting for him outside the compound.

The assassin was said to have been spotted near the station before Dominique’s arrival, although his weapon was not visible at that time. Minutes after the attack, Dominique’s wife, Michele Montas, arrived at the station in a separate car and found the wounded bodies of her husband and Louissaint. Both victims died of their wounds in the Haitian Community Hospital in Pétion-Ville.

Dominique, 69, was Haiti’s most prominent political journalist and a veteran advocate of free speech. He was also considered one of President René Préval’s close political allies. In an April 4 letter to President Préval, CPJ expressed its deep sorrow over the assassination and called on him to ensure that its perpetrators were brought to justice. At year’s end, police were holding four suspects in the murders, according to Montas.

Gérard Denoze, Radio Plus

Two gunmen shot and killed Denoze, a sports presenter for the station Radio Plus, in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Carrefour.

The director of Radio Plus, Jean Lucien Prussien, told CPJ that Denoze had taken a communal taxi at around 3:30-3:45 p.m., heading towards his home in Carrefour. About a mile from Denoze’s home, the two gunmen jumped on the taxi and told all the passengers to get off.

When Denoze moved to comply, the gunmen told him, “You have to stop, mister, it’s you we need.” They shot him in the neck, stomach, and abdomen, and then fled the scene, shooting in the air to keep bystanders at a distance. The police arrived nearly an hour later and detained the taxi driver. A street vendor witnessed the crime, according to Prussien.

Denoze had worked with Radio Plus since 1997. He presented a sports program every morning except Sunday, when he commented on live sporting events. His work had no political content whatsoever, according to Prussien.

The director declined to speculate on the motive for the killing. According to other sources, however, Denoze was rumored to have received threats after he allegedly embezzled money from a sports tournament that he had helped organize.