Demonstrators burn signs with images of Haitian President Michel Martelly during a protest in Port-au-Prince on February 7, 2012. (AP/Ramon Espinosa)
Demonstrators burn signs with images of Haitian President Michel Martelly during a protest in Port-au-Prince on February 7, 2012. (AP/Ramon Espinosa)

Was letter to Haiti website just part of Martelly’s theatrics?

As a former entertainer better known as “Sweet Micky,” it is perhaps unsurprising that Haitian President Michel Martelly has been theatrical at times in his dealings with the press. At one media event in October, the President answered a critical question posed by a journalist by telling him, “I curse your mother,” according to press reports. On another occasion in late December, Martelly was so elated by a supporter’s sign that instructed the press to “give the president a chance,” that he told the citizen, “You deserve US$100,000.” The man received a free motorcycle instead, Radio Kiskeya reported.

The Haitian press corps has not been so amused, however. After a series of events that allegedly included more verbal attacks, Martelly’s refusal to answer questions from journalists with media outlets who have been critical of him, and some rough treatment of a reporter by the President’s bodyguards, according to the Haitian Journalists Association, reporters decided they had had enough earlier this month. On February 7, the journalists made what they classified as Martelly’s lack of respect for the press a central issue of a large general protest against the president in the capital Port-au-Prince.

It was in this context that a strange letter arrived at the offices of the news website Defend Haiti in Orlando in January. The letter accused Defend Haiti, which is directed towards the English-speaking Haitian Diaspora, of defaming the Haitian government in its January 6 article “Haiti: Digicel CEO Wants to Know Where the Education Money.” In the article, Defend Haiti jumped on the final quote in a profile of telecommunications company Digicel Chairman Denis O’Brien in The New York Times. The Times’ piece addressed a scandal surrounding the recently created National Education Fund, a controversial entity that was created outside of the legislative process to put Haitian children in school for free and is funded by a new tax on international calls and money transfers, according to Defend Haiti. On reports that the fund was allegedly missing $26 million, The Times quoted O’Brien as saying, “I’ve spoken with President Martelly about this, and there will be an audit. I will make it my business that it will be audited, one way or the other.”

Defend Haiti, which has been critical of Martelly, summarized the O’Brien profile and quoted various Haitian public officials who have questioned the fund. In response to the controversy over O’Brien’s remark, Digicel, which according to The New York Times is the biggest foreign investor in Haiti in the country’s history, released a statement on January 10 that sought to backtrack from O’Brien’s statement. As published on Defend Haiti, the company said: “Digicel finds it important to clarify to the public in general that it never had the intention to suggest that any funds were misused. It is happy with the Government of Haiti’s commitment at the highest level to follow through on its promise to publish audited reports of the education fund’s proceeds.”

Despite Defend Haiti‘s publication of Digicel’s comments, the news site received the letter three days later from a Miami law firm that said it represented the government of Haiti and accused the site of “maliciously publishing the …comments knowing that Digicel has publicly clarified the scope of its comments published in your article.” (A copy of the letter was provided to CPJ). After accusing Defend Haiti of factually misrepresenting the state of the fund, it demanded that the site retract its article within five days of the correspondence. “If this smear campaign against the Haitian government or the Free Education initiative continues,” the letter warns, “we will have no other choice but to seek redress for injury and assert our legal and equitable rights.”

Samuel Maxime, Defend Haiti‘s founder and editor-in-chief and a Haitian based in Orlando, said that after receiving the letter the publication sought its own legal counsel, which responded to the accusations in a letter directed to the law firm two weeks later. Since then, despite the ominous nature of the letter’s warning, he has heard nothing. Bewildered in general by the situation, Maxime can only assume the letter was an empty threat meant to intimidate him. As to why the President of Haiti would go out of his way to threaten litigation against an Orlando-based publication that, by his own characterization, mainly compiles news from other sources and translates it into English, he is left to wonder. He speculates that his publication might have been targeted because of its international audience — which might matter to a government that is actively focused on encouraging foreign investment — but can’t be sure.

On the other hand, he knows that his location in the U.S. may also offer him a level of protection. His Haitian colleagues response to the ordeal, he said, was a blasé, “Wow, that’s it?” citing the direct intimidation they often face. While violence against the press in Haiti has been uncommon in recent years, a radio station was destroyed by arsonists in April, and five journalists have been killed in direct relation to their journalism since 2000, CPJ research shows.

In general, Maxime is loath to give too much significance to the mysterious letter, whose angry threats seem to have dissipated into the ether as suddenly and inexplicably as they arrived. Despite the often freewheeling nature of the press in Haiti (where the debate is frequently lively if not always well-sourced), defamation lawsuits against the press are not common, a journalist in the country said. Unlike in Ecuador, where criminal and civil defamation lawsuits have recently become a favorite tool of President Correa to silence any journalist who dares to criticize him, Martelly has been content to stick to more traditionally patronizing ways of engaging his critics, i.e. taunting or just outright ignoring them.

But while the letter may turn out to be only an empty threat, its consequences and the intention it represents may be more insidious.

As Maxime concedes, speaking of the National Education Fund, “We’ve dropped the story for the most part.”

UPDATE: This post has been corrected to reflect that Defend Haiti is based in Orlando, not Miami as previously published.