Liliane Pierre-Paul, a famed Haitian radio journalist and outspoken champion of press freedom and democracy, has died. She was 70.
Pierre-Paul was at home in the hills above Port-au-Prince preparing to head down to her Kiskeya radio station Monday to do her popular 4 p.m. show on news and current affairs when she suffered a heart attack, her son, Harold Isaac, confirmed.
Radio Kiskeya later announced her death on air.
“My mother lived her life with dignity, integrity and solidarity to the Haitian people and its struggle for democracy, in a career that spanned nearly 50 years,” Isaac told the Miami Herald.
A well-known radio broadcaster, Pierre-Paul was an award-winning journalist, radio station owner and human-rights activist who was respected and revered for her no-nonsense demeanor. Gutsy and outspoken, she wasn’t afraid to expose social problems or injustice —whether they were being carried out by a military junta or a president — in a country plagued by political turmoil and corruption, and often run by despots.
“Liliane will always be remembered for her courage, her determination, her profound beliefs in the democratic ideals so many died for,” said Michèle Montas, a retired Haitian journalist and the widow of famed Haitian journalist Jean Léopold Dominique.
Montas first met Pierre-Paul 40 years ago when the latter was just starting out as a young reporter at Radio Haiti Inter in the late 1970’s under the dictatorship of President-for-Life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
“At the time, a few voices were trying to open the space for free speech after the brutal rule of Francois Duvalier. The Creole news programs Liliane anchored with Kompè Filo, an iconic Haitian journalist, were at the forefront of our struggle against the dictatorship,” Montas said. “She experienced jail and exile when the democratic movement at the time was crushed and Radio Haiti was destroyed by the political police.”
Pierre-Paul refused to be silenced despite being placed on government hit lists and threatened with death, her friends and colleagues remarked Monday.
“Death will not silence that voice,” said Montas, a spokeswoman for former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Along with Montas and other journalists, Pierre-Paul was rounded up on Nov. 28, 1980, in what has since become known as “Black Friday.” As she and Montas shared a small cell at the Casernes Dessalines on the grounds of the National Palace, the two listened, Montas recalled, “to the arrival of other journalists, political leaders, human rights activists marking the end of an era.”
Tortured and forced into a six-year exile, Pierre-Paul landed first in Venezuela before making her way to Canada. In 1986, she returned to Haiti, where she continued to work at Radio Haiti Inter, anchoring the 4 p.m. news in Haitian-Creole.
Pierre-Paul once again found herself on the other side of power when a military junta toppled the country’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991. Placed on a hit list again, she fled into hiding.
Pierre-Paul’s reputation as a vocal critic of Haitian government corruption, ineptness and waste continued well into the post-earthquake election of Haitian President Michel Martelly. Angered by her commentary and criticism, a combative Martelly made her the focus of a risqué Carnival tune as he prepared to end his controversial presidency.
Days before leaving office in 2016, Martelly, a carnival singer known as ”Sweet Micky,” released a sexually charged rant targeting Pierre-Paul and his critics. The song was titled “Bal Bannan nan” (Give Her the Banana).
In reply to the mocking, Pierre-Paul told the Miami Herald that Martelly had reached “the lowest level ever” by a Haitian government.
“Martelly’s regime has finished the decline of the Republic of Haiti. It’s the lowest level ever reached by a Haitian government,” she said. “Martelly is the ‘Legal Bandit’ transported from entertainment to governance that resulted in nepotism, mafia and overall vulgar rule.”
Dr. Laurinus “Larry” Pierre, a Miami physician and Haitian rights advocates, called Pierre-Paul’s death “shocking.”
“It’s a big loss for the country,” Pierre, a longtime friend, said. “She really devoted her life to seeing change in the country.”
That devotion earned Pierre-Paul a Courage in Journalism Award in 1990 from the International Women’s Media Foundation. She was the first journalist from Haiti to receive the award. Pierre-Paul also received the Roc Cadet de SOS Liberte award in 2014.
Her devotion to press freedom was recently on display when she joined several other Haitian journalists and human rights activists during a protest in Port-au-Prince to demand the release of Pierre-Louis Opont. A television station owner and former head of Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council, Opont was kidnapped by a powerful armed gang more than a month ago and remains in captivity. His wife is Marie Lucie Bonhomme, a prominent radio journalist.
‘Engaged in a battle for democracy against fascism’
Born in the coastal commune of Petit-Goâve, just south of the Haitian capital, Pierre-Paul began her rise in journalism while working for Radio-Haiti Inter. The independent radio station was owned by the agronomist Haitian journalist Jean Leopold, who was later murdered. She described her role and that of the radio station as being “engaged in a battle for democracy against fascism.”
She eventually left over a labor dispute and along with two fellow journalists, Marvel Dandin and the late Sony Bastien, co-founded Radio Kiskeya on May 7, 1994. She became vice-president and director of programming, focusing her reporting in the early days on women’s issues.
While many Haitian media outlets focus on sensationalism, Pierre-Paul relied on facts as she delivered both the news and her commentary in Haitian-Creole, which she referred to as “the language of the country.”
“The elite despised me, considered me very low level,” she once said. “They didn’t take into account what I was doing because I was not speaking and writing in French. They used to not even consider me a journalist, not someone even to be reckoned with.”
Her radio station, which she still co-owned with Dandin at the time of her death, at one point employed more than 100 journalists, technicians and others under its brand, which also included a television station.
Having survived torture, exile, death threats and attacks on her character, Pierre-Paul faced in 2018 one of her greatest challenges: rebuilding her radio station after it was nearly gutted just days before Christmas.
A fire broke out while the station was on the air, destroying both the first and second floor, where Pierre-Paul kept a trove of personal documents and portraits that grateful listeners had painted of her over the years. Despite the set-back, she continued to go on the air, informing the public in hopes of doing what she once described as fomenting “ a revolutionary movement” that would lead to “illiterate but informed citizens.”
Pierre-Paul was preceded in death by her husband Anthony Barbier, who had served as general secretary of the National Palace under Provisional President Jocelerme Privert. In addition to her son Isaac and his wife Gessika, she is survived by daughter Djuly and grandchildren Ryan, Jesslay, Jayden and Rebecca.