The Haitian Senate recently passed a new law making it a criminal offense punishable by one to three years in prison for anyone who publishes statements that impugn the reputation of any Haitian citizen. Omega has reviewed the new law, and we conclude that it is the worst piece of legislation ever written because it is designed to place a chilling effect on the rights of free speech and freedom of the press. I am taking the liberty of informing the Haitian Senate about what is wrong with their current legislation. We wish they had talked to us before passing this bill; we would have schooled them on how to write an effective defamation law.

Most countries have laws against defamation, but in authoritarian countries, those laws are meant to protect dictators and authoritarian figures. They are not meant to promote freedom of expression, freedom of the press, democracy and transparency in government. Defamation, libel, and slander can be very devastating to a person, and they can also be costly in terms of reputation, employment and stress, especially in the brave new world of the internet where anyone can publish anything about anyone at any time whether true or false. However, any law against defamation must balance the right of the individual to be free from libel and slander versus the right of the media to write about issues affecting citizens.

Typically, non-public figures are afforded greater protection against defamation than public figures. Public figures include politicians, actors, and anyone else who involves themselves in public discourse. For example, every senator or government bureaucrat is a public figure. Every journalist like myself who injects himself in public discourse becomes a public figure. The problem is that the current defamation law does not make a distinction between public and private figures.

That distinction is critical for many reasons. First, public officials should not be allowed to hide behind defamation laws while committing crimes against the country. One who made the decision to serve the public and gain public trust must not be allowed the cover of criminal law against statements made in good faith because of their deficient performance in their duties as government officials. Second, Haitian public figures would use the new law in an attempt to silence the truth about their illegal and unethical behaviors. The Haitian law on defamation should have made that distinction. It is an important and crucial distinction based on the notion that a private citizen who is minding his own business should not be subject to libel and slander unless the so-called libelous statement is in the public interest to know.

In the United States, more than any other country, the law of defamation is well-developed, so I want to use the United States as an example. In New York Times v. Sullivan, the United States Supreme Court held that for a public figure to prevail in a civil lawsuit for defamation, that person must prove that the newspaper published patently false information with the malicious intent to defame the person. In other words, the newspaper must know that the information published was false and that it published it anyway for the purpose of destroying the person’s reputation. Also, in the United States, truth is an affirmative defense to defamation.

Omeganews nd prof Duverger  were sued in Miami Federal Court by Salim Succar (former advisor to Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe) for defamation of character. In court, Omega was able to show that the article subject of the lawsuit was true. The writer wrote an article accusing Salim Succar of being a gun dealer in violation of the U.S. embargo against Haiti. Mr. Succar promptly sued, arguing this writer was lying, but since truth is a defense, we were able to prove that our statements were true. Now, under the new law of defamation in Haiti, there is no such defense. That defense is also crucial. In a society determined to move towards development, truth is important. A person who violated the public trust should not expect any protection against being defamed. The person defamed himself or herself by stealing government money.

Recently, Omega has been writing about the PetroCaribe Funds where over a dozen Haitian bureaucrats, including two Presidents and four Prime Ministers, committed graft while in office. The truth of the facts has been established by the Haitian Senate report on corruption. Under this new defamation law, a person can certainly be liable criminally for writing about the report and the facts that Prime Minister Bellerive and President Martelly and Minister Wilson Laleau allegedly embezzled government money. The worse part of the law is that instead of civil liability, the law provides for criminal liability where a person found guilty can be sentenced to between one to three years in prison.

The Haitian law against defamation covers all kinds of publications, whether foreign or domestic, no matter where and how the information is published. As long as the person aggrieved can demonstrate that a statement that was published impugned the person’s reputation, the person can initiate a criminal case against the presumed guilty party. For, example, if Omega were to publish an article about any Haitian citizen (though the statements are true), but as long as they impugn the person’s reputation, that person would have a case for criminal prosecution under the law against the writer or the newspaper.

That kind of legislation is wrong because it defeats the purpose of the press and its ability to do its job without worrying about criminal prosecution. Like most things in Haiti, the Senate had not contacted anyone or sought any feedback from the media or other experts on defamation or free speech. The law as it reads is simply a vile attempt on the part of those who want to continue stealing government money to do so with the confidence that no one would write about it. The Haitian media in Haiti rarely investigate government corruption, and part of the problem is that most Haitian Politi-chiens bribe the media for positive reporting. Omega cannot be bribed or bought, and it remains one of the only true sources of information about corruption in Haiti.

With all the problems Haiti faces, corruption and nepotism are the most devastating. The Haitian parliament should spend its time drafting legislation with teeth to prevent corruption, not wasting time seeking to stop the press from doing its job. The current law dealing with corruption, embezzlement, and theft of government property is not strong enough. My advice to the Haitian parliament – please, next time give us a call, and we will teach you how to draft meaningful legislation.

Omega Staff Writer

Next Article on Minister Wilson Laleau

Print Friendly, PDF & Email