Reporters Without Borders said today a decision by Radio Haiti Inter to shut down because of threats to its staff was a "serious blow" to press freedom in the country. He accused the government of being largely responsible.
Station director Michèle Montas (cf. foto), whose husband Jean Dominique, the radio’s owner, was shot dead three years ago, announced on the air on 21 February that it was closing down the next
day. "Three of our people have already been killed and we don’t want to lose anyone else," she said.
"The station’s enforced closure is a serious blow to press freedom and news diversity in Haiti," said Reporters Without Border secretary-general Robert Ménard. "The government is largely responsible because it has not made any serious investigation of the regular threats and attacks on the staff."
"Virtually all government institutions have blocked the enquiry into the murder of Dominique and the station’s watchman, who were killed on 3 April 2000. The failure to punish those responsible has allowed the station’s enemies to continue their attacks on the people who work for it. This climate of impunity created by the authorities allows killers to dictate to the society," he said.
The closure came after serious threats were made to the station’s journalists and technical staff, who wrote to the management on 1 February expressing their great concern about many recent incidents.
Montas said they had received anonymous phone calls threatening them with the same fate as Maxime Séïde, Montas’ bodyguard who was killed last Christmas Day when gunmen attacked her house. They had also been abused while reporting and watched by vehicles without number-plates lurking near the radio station.
Montas said the station was only closing temporarily and that staff would continue to work on in-depth subjects that would be broadcast on other stations or on Radio Haiti Inter when the situation had improved. "We’ll be back," she said.
She condemned the general atmosphere of intolerance and impunity in the country. "Our silence will continue to raise the issue of various freedoms - freedom to inform the public and freedom of expression, that are currently threatened by people who think they are above the law."
She said the fight to punish those who killed Dominique would never be abandoned despite the obstacles and pressures exerted on the investigation into his death and that of the station’s gatekeeper, Jean-Claude Louissant, who was murdered at the same time.
Threats against the station had increased, she said, after it was announced that the killers would soon be charged. Since then, proceedings seem to have come to a halt and the investigating judge has not taken action to permit formal charges to be publicly made.
The outspoken Dominique, Haiti’s best-known journalist and political commentator, was shot dead, along with Louissant, in the courtyard of the radio station as he arrived for work. He had been critical of supporters of the former Duvalier dictatorship, military figures, the country’s wealthy families and, not long before his death, of those in President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ruling Fanmi Lavalas party who he suspected of wanting to "turn the movement away from its ideals."
The murder investigation was handed in September 2000 to Judge Claudy Gassant after another judge, Jean-Sénat Fleury, resigned from the case after being threatened. Gassant’s mandate was not immediately renewed by Aristide when it expired on 3 January 2002 and he fled to the United States. He had received much pressure after deciding to charge a former military officer, Dany Toussaint, who is a Fanmi Lavalas senator.
The justice ministry has never given the investigating judge adequate protection despite the threats and police have refused to carry out arrest warrants. Police are also suspected of handing over a major suspect to a mob that chopped him to death.
The senate has refused to lift Toussaint’s parliamentary immunity so that he could be properly investigated. Only pressure by Haitian civil society and international organisations has prevented the case from being closed.