U.S. judge backtracks in Haiti’s PM defamation case

Haiti Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

MIAMI (AP) – A federal judge in Florida is backtracking on a ruling that barred a Haitian-American journalist from writing about Haiti’s prime minister, who had sued the reporter for defamation.

U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro reversed course in a ruling Tuesday, lifting the prohibition. Ungaro also ordered Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe and South Florida businessman Patrice Baker to file an amended complaint detailing facts that support their allegations that Leo Joseph’s reporting was false or made with reckless disregard for the truth.

The attorneys representing Lamothe and Baker did not immediately respond to messages left Thursday by The Associated Press. They have until April 19 to file the amended complaint.

“The ruling was in everyone’s favor,” said Joseph’s attorney, Scott Ponce. “The First Amendment says you can’t have an order prohibiting you from speaking on a subject. It was an important ruling to get the prior restraint set aside.”

Ungaro had issued a default ruling in February in favor of Lamothe and Baker, who sued Joseph in federal court in September over his reporting for the New York-based Haiti-Observateur.

The lawsuit said Joseph had published false and malicious reports about Lamothe’s role in the sale of a telecommunications company. Ungaro initially said she agreed with Lamothe and Baker, and she also prohibited Joseph from ever again writing about either man in their professional, personal or political lives.

Lamothe and Baker had asked Ungaro for a default judgment because Joseph failed to enter a plea or otherwise respond to the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, Ungaro wrote that the plaintiffs must provide evidence to support taking the extraordinary step of banning Joseph from ever again writing about Lamothe and Baker.

Joseph has stood by his reporting on the sale of Haitel, which shut down last year after it couldn’t pay its debts. Haiti’s government then acquired the company.

Lamothe, a former telecommunications executive, took office in May, filling a nearly three-month vacancy after President Michel Martelly’s first prime minister resigned after just four months on the job.

Haiti-Observateur has been publishing since 1971 and serves Haiti’s large diaspora communities in New York, Florida, Montreal and the Caribbean. On its website, the paper says it has a weekly circulation of 75,000.

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