Haiti remembers Jean Léopold Dominique, a symbol of press freedom

He was gunned down on April 3, 2000, at 69.

*By Javier Valdivia, Special to the Inter American Press Association (IAPA)

Miami (April 5, 2023) - On April 3, Haiti remembered journalist Jean Léopold Dominique, whose murder 23 years ago - still unsolved - made him the symbol of press freedom in his country.

Trade organizations, the government, and the main body for the defense of citizens' rights agreed to call on the Haitian justice system to "assume its responsibility" to punish those guilty of Dominique's crime and to ensure that his death did not go unpunished.

Dominique, who was equally opposed to the Duvalier dictatorship and the charismatic leader Jean Bertrand Aristide, was gunned down on April 3, 2000, at 69, when he was arriving at Radio Haitï Inter, the radio station he owned.

Dominique's death caused a great commotion. The then President René Préval declared three days of official mourning, and 16,000 people attended his funeral in the Haitian capital. Michèle Montas, his widow, and their three daughters were forced to flee three years later to the U.S. after the murder of their bodyguard and repeated threats against them.

The Association of Haitian Journalists (AJH) questioned that the perpetrators of Dominique's death "walk free in the streets." It denounced the inaction of the authorities, "which only encourages the murderers of our colleagues to kill with impunity in the country."

In a communiqué, the AJH pointed out that "the press workers question the real will of those in power to clear up cases of murder of journalists, including that of Dominique."

For his part, Jacques Sampeur, president of the National Association of Haitian Media (ANMH), said that "this shameful and scandalous affair" has severe consequences for the future of the judicial system and of their society.

"If a journalist of the stature of Jean Léopold Dominique, murdered in broad daylight in such a spectacular manner, does not get justice, no one else will. It is an obstruction to the rule of law, a free opening granted to impunity by our leaders, past or present, so there will never be a precedent," Sampeur said.

In almost two decades, some twenty people were interviewed by the local justice system, including former President Préval and Aristide. Several people were arrested, some witnesses or those involved died or were killed, and at least 75% of the physical file disappeared from the courts of justice.

In Aristide's last term (2000 - 2004), six other people were arrested, but three escaped from prison, and to date, no one has been convicted.

In this regard, the organization SOS Journalists urged the political and judicial authorities, in particular the judges of the Court of Cassation (Supreme), to assume their responsibility "to put an end to this shameful and intolerable denial of justice" which prevents the country from transforming itself into a valid rule of law.

Guyler C. Delva, secretary general of SOS Journalistes, also drew attention to other files of murdered journalists whose cases are still open. "This scandalous impunity that must end because it largely fuels the corruption and insecurity that has already claimed so many victims among the population."

The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse left the country in a new political crisis due to the power vacuum disputed by fierce opposition. In addition, the current Prime Minister Ariel Henry, whose nomination, presented by the President two days before his death, could not be ratified by the Parliament.

The country lives in a climate of constant insecurity due to the actions of armed gangs that control a large part of the capital Port-au-Prince, and in which press workers are easy targets for attacks, kidnappings, and murders.

At least nine journalists were murdered last year in Haiti, the worst year for the practice of journalism in the continent only after Mexico, according to IAPA.

So far this year, three journalists have been kidnapped and released after payment of their ransom. They are: Lebrun Saint-Hubert, president and general director of community radio 2000; Jean Thony Lorthé, host of the program "Rafrechi Memwa," broadcast by Radio Vision 2000, and Sandra Duvivier, a well-known cultural journalist, cameraman, and member of the staff of Telemax, TV channel 5.

Two other journalists, Edner Décime of the AlterPresse agency and Oscar Joseph, long-time coordinator of audiovisual programs for the Ministry of Education, were kidnapped and later released in 2022.

A resolution on Haiti approved by the IAPA during its 78th General Assembly in Spain last October stressed that the climate of violence and the political, economic, and security crisis in which this country is plunged keep journalists in a situation of defenselessness and high risk.

The IAPA called on the government to guarantee the preservation of freedom of expression and the free and safe exercise of journalism and urged the press organizations of the Americas to express their solidarity and support for journalists and media outlets that continue to carry out their news mission despite the high-risk circumstances.

"They murdered a man, but not a profession, not a thought," said the head of the Citizen Protection Office, Renan Hédouville, in a statement on the 23rd anniversary of Dominique's assassination.

"Dominique was a human rights defender who used the microphone to fight for the weakest," stressed the Ministry of Culture and Communication in a tweet that also saluted the journalist's memory.

In 2014, judge Ivickel Dabrésil presented a report that implicated 14 collaborators of former president Aristide in the death of Dominique, among them a former senator, Mirlande Libérus Pavert, pointed out as the mastermind of the crime.

Libérus, who Aristide defended, was accused of planning Dominique's assassination by Oriel Jean, former presidential security chief of the ex-governor, who also testified in court.

Jean assured that the former senator, who resides in the United States, had the mission to "silence" the journalist because he interfered with the interests of Lavalás to retain power in 2000.

The report of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Court of Appeals of Port-au-Prince, in charge of Dabrésil, also involved the Vodou priestess Annette Auguste, alias Sô Ann, a militant of the Lavalás party, founded by Aristide, and the former vice-mayor of Port-au-Prince, Gabriel Harold Sévère.

*Javier Valdivia is a Miami-based journalist. He is an expert on Haiti. He was Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Listín Diario newspaper in the Dominican Republic. A former Chinese state agency Xinhua correspondent in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.