In Libel Case, Federal Judge Ursula Ungaro Bars Newspaper From Covering the Haitian Prime Minister

On February 6, in the federal courthouse in Miami, District Judge Ursula Ungaro handed down a ruling that would dismay law experts across the region. In a defamation lawsuit filed by Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe of Haiti against the American editor and owner of the Haiti Observateur newspaper, Ungaro banned the editor from printing Lamothe's name following a "scandalous" article. Ungaro declared Leo Joseph was "permanently restrained from publishing communications regarding [Lamothe] in either [his] professional, personal or political life."

Miami attorney Sandy Bohrer, who practices libel law and represents both New Times and the Miami Herald, was mystified. "There isn't precedent for this decision," he said. "I've just never heard of anything like it." The First Amendment and libel laws generally give publishers wide latitude to write about public figures.

And though Joseph is now fighting Ungaro's judgment, he says it could vanquish the controversial paper, which has its highest readership in South Florida. "Maybe this will end us," said the 74-year-old Joseph, gray-haired and irascible.

Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe
Africa Renewal/Flickr CC
Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe

This isn't French-language Haiti Observateur's first scrap. "The paper has always been antiestablishment," Joseph said. This recent battle, however, is different. It has entangled some of the nation's most important characters — from rappers to diplomats to presidents — and ushered the widely influential weekly into quite possibly its most contentious conflict to date.

The paper's first high-powered foe was Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who swept into office in 1971, the same year the Brooklyn-based Observateur materialized on newsstands. Baby Doc, like his father before, executed dissidents and starved his people while leading an opulent lifestyle full of expensive cars and mansions. "We were very, very much against Baby Doc," says Joseph, who led the paper with his brother, Raymond Joseph. "Every article that we did was not friendly to Baby Doc. He was a dictator and a human rights violator."

By the time Duvalier fled to France in 1986 under pressure from President Ronald Reagan, Haiti Observateur's circulation had ballooned from a smattering of newsstands in New York and Miami to 70,000 issues. It came to represent the voice of Haitian immigrants peering into their bedeviled nation. Its ethos remained consistent. "No matter who's president or is in charge, Haiti Observateur challenges them," says Jan Mapou, owner of the Miami Haitian bookstore Libreri Mapou, which has sold the paper for decades.

The Observateur opened bureaus in Port-au-Prince, Paris, and Montreal. "Wherever Haitians were, the Haiti Observateur was," says Jean-Junior Joseph, press secretary to former Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis. "It's not the New York Times, but it's important."

So important, in fact, that it propelled Joseph's brother into larger roles. In 2004, Raymond Joseph left the paper and later became Haitian ambassador to the United States. He served in that position until 2010 when, in the chaotic months following the earthquake that devastated the nation, he decided to run for president. It was a crowded and strange field: Raymond Joseph's nephew, musician Wyclef Jean, was also running. As was a singer named Michel Martelly — better known as "Sweet Micky." After Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council rejected both Jean and Raymond Joseph, without explanation, the Haitian people overwhelmingly voted Sweet Micky into office.

Meanwhile, the Haiti Observateur foundered. Also in 2010, it closed for eight months amid the economic downturn. "It was the same thing as every newspaper: money problems," Joseph said. "We lost our lease and couldn't publish for a long time." Joseph moved the operation into his Brooklyn apartment, where it remains today, and launched a clunky website. Then, with a newspaper written almost entirely by himself, he started going after Haiti's freshman president.

In October 2012, Haiti was roiled by the arrest of a prominent, handsome businessman named Clifford Brandt, who'd kidnapped a rival's adult son and daughter. Soon after, Joseph published a report linking Martelly with the salacious abduction — parts of which turned out to be false. "A mistake was made," Joseph said.

The journalist wrote that Martelly's wife, Sophia, had benefited from his crimes. Then he went further. Saying his informants were "U.S. Federal Agents," Joseph alleged that Martelly's supporters were behind the kidnapping. "We have been informed that businessmen closely associated with Michel Martelly's presidential campaign, and who are no less influential in this government, have been arrested or are wanted by the police," the story said. Named as conspirators were two prominent Haitian businessmen, Stanley Handal and Dimitri Vorbe, as well as president Martelly's son — who soon after released a popular rap song. "Some say I'm a kidnapper," Olivier Martelly sang. "Some believe; some don't."

This year, each of the three named men claimed innocence and sued Joseph for defamation in separate lawsuits in Miami federal court. The journalist — meanwhile hammering out additional pieces at his Brooklyn hovel — ignored the lawsuits, and the court has already entered default judgments against Joseph on two of the three suits. (Martelly's lawsuit is still pending.)

"I don't know what kind of political agenda Mr. Joseph has, but he doesn't even live in Haiti and he sits up there in New York sending out these missives," said West Palm Beach attorney Gary Betensky, who represents the two Haitian businessmen. "We're going to pursue him vigorously whether he hides or appears. He knows about the lawsuits, but, the coward that he is, he hasn't appeared in federal court."

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