Miami, October 6, 2023—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the criminal defamation suit filed by the owner of the rum company Rhum Barbancourt against the independent news website AyiboPost and its editor-in-chief, Widlore Mérancourt, and calls on Haitian authorities to repeal the country’s punitive criminal defamation laws, the organization said Friday.
On September 14, lawyers for Barbancourt owner and CEO, Delphine Gardère, filed a lawsuit against the AyiboPost and Mérancourt in the Court of First Instance in Port-au-Prince, the capital, alleging that a June 7 AyiboPost report by Mérancourt about the company made defamatory allegations about Gardère’s election as president of the Franco-Haitian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“We are gravely concerned by Barbancourt’s seemingly punitive legal attack against the AyiboPost and its editor-in-chief, Widlore Mérancourt. Lobbing accusations at a respected journalist as a means of discrediting his work is deeply concerning behavior from one of Haiti’s largest companies,” said Cristina Zahar, CPJ’s program coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, in São Paulo. “Haitian judicial authorities should protect journalists, who already work in a precarious safety environment, and the government should repeal Haiti’s draconian criminal defamation laws.”
The lawsuit, which has been viewed by CPJ, cites the Haitian penal code, the press law of 1929, and the decree of July 1986 on the press and repression of press offenses. The lawsuit seeks a punishment of three years imprisonment, plus a fine of 500 gourdes ($US4) fine and $10,000 in legal costs, to be paid in U.S. dollars. In accordance with Article 28 of the Haitian penal code, it also seeks to prohibit Mérancourt from exercising his political and civil rights for five years, which would include voting or running for office and carrying arms.
The lawsuit accuses Mérancourt, who is also a correspondent for The Washington Post, of using “false journalistic credentials.” It also claims that the AyiboPost is not a legally registered media company under Haitian law, and therefore neither Mérancourt nor the news outlet are protected under the Haitian Constitution of 1987, which recognizes the right of journalists not to reveal their sources.
In an email sent to CPJ by her public relations firm, Gardère claimed that there were inaccuracies in the article, including AyiboPost’s description of a personal dispute with her mother over the family’s finances, which was later resolved.
AyiboPost’s attorney Samuel Madistin told CPJ by phone that the lawsuit was “an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression, which is the basis of any democratic society.”
Madistin said that Haitian law does not require journalists or online media outlets to register with the state. “Refusal to reveal one’s sources cannot be equated with a press offense, let alone defamation,” he said.
Prior to the article’s publication, AyiboPost declined Gardère’s request to review a draft of the article and find out who the sources were, according to emails reviewed by CPJ.
Barbancourt is one of Haiti’s most successful companies, producing a high-quality rum brand recognized around the world. Gardère is the company’s sole owner after wresting control of the family-owned business in a disputed inheritance battle in June.
Wealthy companies such as Barbancourt enjoy enormous influence in Haiti, especially due to the local media’s heavy dependence on advertising revenue. Haiti’s legal system is frequently used by businesses and wealthy families, as well as the government, to silence critics.
The Haitian media is especially vulnerable in a country that has had no elected government for more than two years, with the prime minister effectively ruling by decree. The current situation is aggravated by the collapse of government control in large parts of Port-au-Prince, which have fallen under gang control. In a last-ditch effort to restore security, the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution on October 2 to send an international police force to the country for one year.
Mérancourt has not been notified of any court date to hear Gardère’s complaint.