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.
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."
Around the same time he published the kidnapping story, Joseph also authored an unattributed article alleging Prime Minister Lamothe had colluded with the Haitian general consulate to embezzle more than $20 million from the sale of a government-owned company called Haitel. "Lamothe, the big shot in the efforts to sell Haitel, divided up the sum to be collected as if the company belonged to him," Joseph wrote. "Since his name begins with the letter L, he gave himself the lion's share."
Although the accuracy of this story isn't clear — Haitel CEO Franck Cine told New Times it is true; Haitian General Consul Charles Forbin told New Times it isn't — Lamothe cited it as the basis of a libel suit he filed soon after against Joseph.
Which the editor, again, ignored. Because he never responded to the legal complaint or showed up in court, in February, Judge Ungaro inked a default judgment that found him guilty of defaming the prime minister, saying Joseph had "conjured to destroy" Lamothe. "His publication is replete with statements that are outrageous, scandalous and reminiscent of a tabloid publication," Ungaro wrote.
But it was her ban on Joseph's right to publish the prime minister's name that sparked most dismay among local law scholars. "It was constitutionally overbroad and violated the First Amendment," said Caroline Mala Corbin, a Constitution academic at the University of Miami. "You can't bar people from speaking. That would restrict speech that may not be defamatory."
Even the prime minister's lawyers weren't convinced it would stand. "The judgment was obviously reviewed by a judge and decided by a judge," said attorney Miguel Armenteros. "But there's a chance of anything. It could be overturned." He added: "Look, this thing may be going to trial."
Attorney Sandy Bohrer, now defending the Brooklyn journalist, moved in early March to vacate Ungaro's default judgment. He questioned the constitutionality of Ungaro's decision. Joseph contends that he wasn't properly served and that he'd thought the whole thing was "a joke." (Though Joseph did publish a column late last year saying Lamothe's lawyers had sent him a letter threatening legal action.) Ungaro did not respond to requests for comment.
Either way, Joseph says he won't stop publishing stories about the prime minister. "Can you tell me not to put his name in the article?" Joseph said. "No judge can tell me to do that. He is the prime minister, and I cannot omit the prime minister's name."
Last week, Joseph ran another thinly sourced, front-page feature beneath a banner headline. "The Martelly-Lamothe regime," it says in boldface, "one political catastrophe."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.