- Haiti's journalists are now enjoying a freedom from the intimidation and repression that for 40 years were the norm. During the Duvalier family dictatorship, and the military regimes that followed, beatings and assassinations were the omnipresent threats facing any sector of the media that dared to challenge the status quo. According to the following report, since the UN intervention and the return to democratic government in 1994, the situation has improved significantly
The story of Radio Haiti illustrates the dangers that the progressive media in Haiti have had to face. In the 1970s the station pioneered the broadcasting of domestic news and the use of eyewitness reports. Another innovation was the introduction of broadcasts in Creole, the language spoken by the country's poor majority. The Duvalier dictatorship responded in 1980 by sending its paramilitary force, the Tontons Macoutes, to ransack the station. Haiti Inter was forced to shut down, and only resumed transmission six years later following the departure of Baby Doc Duvalier.
Over the next five years Haiti Inter was attacked six times by the military because of its determination to report the unfolding struggle for a participatory democracy. Then came the September 1991 military coup d'état against the hugely popular new President Aristide. Soldiers shot at the station building, gunmen broke into the house of director, Jean Dominique, and Haiti Inter closed again.
Now the station is back on the air and is quickly regaining its reputation as the best purveyor of up to the minute news and in depth analysis. During the eighteen months since US troops arrived to restore President Aristide to office, radio stations and the print media have been free from the threat of physical attacks. The Haitian military has been abolished and the right-wing paramilitaries that supported the former regimes are keeping a low profile.
Ronald Colbert, a prominent member of GRALIP (Groupe de réflexion et d'action pour la liberté de la presse), formed in 1991 to campaign against attacks on journalists following the military coup d'état, gives an upbeat assessment. 'There have been no major problems since the return of President Aristide, and I don't think things will change much for press freedom even after the departure of the UN troops.'
While welcoming the improvement, Colbert stresses that the Haitian media still faces immense challenges. Newspapers are available only in the capital, Port-au-Prince and a few provincial towns, and are written mostly in French, a language that few ordinary Haitians can read. As for radio he says, 'There has been an explosion in the number of stations on the FM wavelength since the end of the coup regime, but since Haiti is such a mountainous country their signals can't travel very far. The countryside where the majority of the population live is not well informed.'
For Jean-Yves Urfie, the director of Libete, the only Haitian newspaper to publish entirely in Creole, the last year has been one of recovery. 'We have to fight in difficult conditions because firstly the Haitian press is not like that in other countries. We don't have schools for journalists. Here we learn our trade by working. Secondly, the economic conditions are very bad, so most journalists get a very low salary. For example, I, as the director, get a salary of under US$300 a month, and I know radio journalists who only earn US$50 a month.'
Freelance journalist, Roosevelt Jean-François, who has worked for the national Haitian television, and the Haitian weekly, Haiti en Marche, points out that the low salaries for journalists have a negative effect on the development of the Haitian media 'I know colleagues who start out as journalists, get training and experience, and then move on to a different profession. They get better paid jobs in public relations or with non-governmental organisations.'
Poverty and market forces
For the commercial media outfits, and the journalists who they employ, the problem of generating income is a pressing concern. In spite of all the political upheaval of the last decade, the country's wealth continues to be concentrated in the hands of a very small elite, and it is to this sector that the commercial media must look for advertising revenue. That this is the very same sector which opposed the movement towards democracy in the 1980s, and supported the 1991 coup d'état, presents progressive commercial ventures such as Libete and Radio Haiti Inter with a serious problem.
Haiti Inter's Jean Dominique admits his station is feeling the pinch. 'We are with the poor people, those "in the street", and because of that, advertising, which is our sole source of revenue, is nearly completely absent. There is a practical boycott by the business community and we are suffering.'
Dominique hopes that, in spite of political antagonism, the business sector will eventually succumb to market forces. 'It is bad commercial policy. We have regained our audience. We are number one with the people, and if the elite mean business and not politics, they will have to deal with a radio station that can reach the majority.'
Urfie, too, believes that the circulation of Libete - at 25,000 in October 1994 the largest in Haitian history, before a global increase in paper costs forced a reduction - will be hard for advertisers to resist. In the short term he is pinning his hopes on the new publishing house he has set up in conjunction with the progressive Catholic monthly, Bon Nouvel, and the monthly revue, Rencontre, produced by a Haitian NGO.
The Bwa Kayman Fondasyon has been provided with its own printing press by the European Union, and once this is up and running in June the production costs of Libete will be substantially reduced. 'At the moment we have to get the paper printed at the commercial rate which is high. When we have our own press we can double the number of pages in the paper which will mean more revenue from advertising.'
While the commercial media, concentrated in Port-au-Prince, struggle to move from survival to consolidation, Haiti's alternative media are striving to fill the void in news, discussion, and analysis of the political conjuncture out in the countryside. The Centre for Research and Action for l Development (CRAD) produces a monthly cassette of news and analysis which is sent out to church and women's groups, and peasant organisations. The Tet Kole peasant movement is working on opening up three local community stations, and Radyo Vwa Peyizan, the station of the Papay Peasant Movement, celebrated its first anniversary in March 1996.
Bazelais Jean-Baptiste, the director of Radyo Vwa Peyizan (Voice of the Peasant), says the station, based in the country's remote Central Plateau, is now broadcasting an average of seven hours a day. With only a 100-watt transmitter and a staff of volunteers, Jean-Baptiste admits the station is far from perfect. But he is adamant that there is a need for it. 'Our station is working for the peasants and with a peasant's perspective. The commercial stations have to rely on advertising revenue, so they are not totally free.'
Another new initiative has been set up by the Haitian Information Bureau, a news service projecting the voice of the grassroots and democratic organisations. As well as a biweekly newsletter, Haiti Info, produced in English and distributed in Haiti to foreign and local NGOs, it has recently opened a video library. Tapes featuring the experiences of other countries in similar or related situations to Haiti have been collected and are lent out to grassroots organisations. The subjects covered range from a documentary about the peasant guerrilla uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, to a report about the M11 anti-road protest in Britain.
Charles Arthur is the editor of Haiti Briefing, the newsletter of the Haiti Support Group, based in London. He is the author of After the Dance, the Drum is Heavy, (1995), a book analysing Haiti in the year following the UN intervention.