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Haiti in the 2005 World Press Freedom Review

The Haiti chapter in the 2005 World Press Freedom Review from International Press Institute

By Charles Arthur

Published by AlterPresse on March 30, 2006

The repercussions of the armed revolt and collapse of the Lavalas Family party government in early 2004 continued to be felt, as armed groups, many of them with political affiliations, challenged the authority of the interim government and frequently clashed with the national police force and troops of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Throughout the year, the sprawling slum areas of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, were the scenes of repeated, violent clashes, in which hundreds of people lost their lives. The situation in the rest of the country was less violent, and in many regional towns became less tense from March and April onwards after the MINUSTAH finally moved to displace groups of former soldiers and their allies. These groups had held de facto power in many towns for more than a year.

As in previous years, many media outfits were active participants in a volatile and polarised political scene. Others were drawn into the controversy and conflict, whether politically engaged or not, merely by carrying out the task of attempting to report on the unfolding events. The main, Port-au-Prince-based media houses - grouped in the National Association of Haitian Media (Association Nationale des Médias Haïtiens, ANMH) - continued to take an open position of support for the ouster of the Lavalas Family government and of extreme hostility to the large swathes of the poor population who continued to voice support for the exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The ANMH radio stations in particular exercised a clear editorial line favouring the Group of 184, a political platform led by the country’s small private sector. At the same time, these stations’ news broadcasts consistently described opponents of the interim government, living in shanty-towns, such as Bel Air and Cité Soleil, as "outlaws" and "terrorists". In reporting on violent incidents and alleged human rights abuses, information supplied by the police and comments given by political party leaders frequently took priority over hard news-gathering.

A group of smaller media outfits - some of them sympathetic to the ousted government, others attempting to steer an independent line - attempted to report the news from a different perspective, sending news crews to the scene of events and interviewing eye-witnesses and community leaders in the shanty-towns. By the end of the year, a clear division had emerged, with one section of the media slanting its broadcasts in such a way as to appeal to the preconceived opinions and hardening prejudices of the small middle and upper classes, and another actively seeking the voices of ordinary people and those critical of the interim government, and thereby appealing more to the majority poor population. The latter group, composed of 10 radio stations, three television channels, one newspaper and one news agency, coalesced into the Haitian Independent Media Association (Association des Médias Indépendants d’Haïti, AMIH). Against this backdrop, abuses of media workers’ rights and infringements of media freedom were all too commonplace.

On 14 January, a series of incidents in Port-au-Prince established a pattern of relations for the media scene over the rest of the year. In the Village de Dieu shanty-town police allegedly shot dead Abdias Jean, a reporter covering a police operation against an armed gang. Eyewitnesses say Jean informed the police of his profession but that the police shot him dead because they did not want further media coverage of alleged human rights abuses committed during their operations. During the same police operation, officers also mistreated a news crew from the private television broadcaster, Radio Télé Ginen, confiscating a video camera, and only returning it several hours later without the cassette containing video of the police action. According to the director of Radio Télé Ginen, the police reprimanded the station for interviewing a masked gang member, and for concentrating on filming police actions and ignoring crimes committed by the gangsters. On the same day, in the troubled shanty-town of Bel Air, in another part of the capital, Claude Bernard Sérant and Jonel Juste, two journalists from the Le Nouvelliste newspaper, were badly beaten by supporters of the deposed President Aristide. The attackers denounced the journalists’ paper, and the other ANMH media houses, for supporting the anti-Aristide movement.

News of the attack on the Le Nouvelliste journalists reinforced the reluctance of journalists from outfits known for their opposition to the former government to enter poorer areas of the city for fear of reprisals from Aristide supporters. Meanwhile, both the police force and representatives of the interim government kept up their criticism of the media whose journalists were prepared to go into poorer areas of the capital. Although the authorities stated they were concerned with the incitement of further violence and disorder, the fact that many gangsters, and many of the inhabitants of the shanty-towns, claimed allegiance to the ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, led to allegations of censorship, and, in particular, of an attempt to impede critical coverage of police operations.

A drive-by shooting on 4 February, when Radio Megastar journalist, Raoul Saint-Louis, suffered a bullet wound to his hand as he talked outside the station with his wife and several colleagues, was interpreted by the station’s staff as a direct consequence of public criticism of the station by the police force spokesperson. Jessie Cameau Coicou had denounced Megastar for interviewing what she described as "bandits." Responding to the criticism, Megastar’s Jean Myrtho Muraille said, "We will continue to defend the weakest ones, to denounce summary executions, and to allow the disadvantaged to speak." Two days after that comment was reported by another station, the Megastar offices were raided by a group of heavily armed police. There was no apparent motive for the police deployment, and no arrests were made.

The numerous threats issued by the government communications agency (Conseil National des Telecommunications, CONATEL) to Radio Solidarité to change its frequency were also interpreted as the exercising of less than subtle pressure on a station critical of the interim government and the police force. There was no apparent technical reason for the request to change a frequency that the station had been using for the previous six years of its existence. Media freedom advocates also expressed concerns about the late February decision by the directorate of the capital’s main public hospital to put an end to journalists’ right to enter the emergency ward, the morgue or the statistics office in search of information. The decision that henceforth journalists would have to apply for special permission to enter the premises suggested that the authorities wanted to obstruct media coverage of the mounting casualties from the continuing violence in the city shanty-towns.

The issue rumbled on all year, and flared up again in July, when the interim government’s council of ministers threatened to impose sanctions on media outlets and journalists promoting "hatred" or interviewing "outlaws". In protest, on 5 August, newsrooms of the dozen radio and television stations belonging to the AMIH stopped all newscasts for a day. Guyler Delva, head of the Association des Journalistes haïtiens (Haitian Journalists’ Association, AJH) described the threat of sanctions as political persecution designed to intimidate the media. In an interview with Radio Solidarité, Delva said, "How can one know if the person being interviewed is a criminal, if that person has not yet been arrested, put on trial, or found guilty." Delva, who frequently clashed with the authorities over issues of media freedom during the year, was himself the victim on 3 October when presidential body-guards beat him and Méroné Jean Wilkens, of Radio Métropole, as they arrived to cover the re-opening of the judicial courts.

Two other journalists lost their lives during the year. On 20 March, Laraque Robenson, a reporter for Tele Contact radio in the south-western town of Petit-Goâve, was hit by cross-fire as he covered a clash between United Nations peacekeepers and a group of former soldiers. He received medical care in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, but died of his wounds on 4 April. On 14 July, Jacques Roche, a well-known journalist and political activist, was kidnapped, and four days later found dead, having been tortured and shot several times. According to some reports, part of the ransom demand was paid, but the kidnappers decided to kill him when they discovered he hosted a television talk-show organised by members of the Group of 184.

During the course of yet another year, the government failed to take any initiatives to advance the judicial investigations into the earlier murders of journalists, Brignol Lindor and Jean Dominique.

In October, more than one hundred journalists and media owners signed a code of conduct for the election period, but by the year’s end, politically-biased and heavily slanted news continued to be the norm, and investigative journalism remained sadly, more or less, non-existent.

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