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Haiti: How can the media contribute to peace?

P-au-P., 14 Oct. 08 [AlterPresse] --- In Haiti, today, it is no longer a question of informing or communicating in a context of civil or military dictatorship, of armed confrontation or open conflict. Instead, a situation of peace reigns, made fragile by dithering on the political calendar, institutional weaknesses, insecurity, impunity and mass poverty.

Since 2006 Haiti has entered into a period of peace, or at least of minor turbulence, following the last presidential elections which enabled René Préval to come back to power. During those two years, despite the persistence of huge economic and social challenges, political violence has decreased and the perspective of authoritarian power has changed.
Journalists question the Minister for Women’s Affairs, Marie Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue.

This marks a break with the crisis period of the early part of the decade, which saw the fall of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide (February 2004) under pressure from internal and external forces, followed by the arrival of international forces, relieved in June 2004 by the United Nations’ Mission for Stabilisation in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

The Haitian situation has developed over the last four years in the context of a multinational military presence, seen by many as a necessary condition for building peace, but by others as useless, expensive and an infringement of the country’s sovereignty.

This context obviously conditions how the media work, the mass media serving as intermediaries not only between national actors but also between national and international protagonists all the while taking into account changes in the socio-political reality.

Long history of media involvement in the nation’s future

From the middle of the 1970s the media were traditionally implicated in the defence of rights. At that time, peace under the Duvalier dictatorship was thought of as a ‘cemetery peace’. The media set themselves the task of overcoming freedom of opinion and expression at the cost of blood and extensive damage to technical installations.

Numerous journalists have met a tragic fate in Haiti over the past 30 years or more, because of their recklessness, their belief in the cause of democracy, progress and social justice. They did, however, succeed in revolutionising the press and changing its connection with day-to-day reality in a period marked by a succession of volatile situations and moments of stability.

Under the Duvalier dictatorship, what was known as the ‘independent press’, led by the private radio station Radio Haiti Inter, developed a tendency to counter power by providing, in addition to information on the socio-political reality of the country, a space for critical reflection and denunciation of authoritarian and corrupt practices.

This work was carried hand-in-hand with the promotion of national and universal cultural values, in particular the promotion of Créole, the spoken language understood by all Haitians, which until then had been excluded from the media sphere, intellectual circles and political discourse. The ‘independent’ journalists and media of the time in this way contributed to bringing the majority of the Haitian population out of silence, encouraging citizens’ expression and action which led to the fall of the dictatorship in 1986 and paved the way for democracy, development and peace.

Authoritarian traditions are hardy and the Haitian press has had to face the repeated attacks from military and civil powers which punctuated subsequent years characterised by instability. Every time the nightmare would begin again, without being able to erase freedom of opinion and expression considered as givens, even during the bloody military coup d’état 1991 to 1994, during which many people were killed. We then saw the installation of community radio networks throughout the country developing participatory and neighbourhood communication experiences.

The regime of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide (2001-04), who reinstated the authoritarian practices of the past, was crushed by an armed rebellion accompanied by mediated social mobilisation. The media and journalists were conscious of playing a major part in searching for peace without authoritarianism. But this situation also showed that, in some cases, the media could go too far in directly intervening in favour of one sector or the other in strongly polarised situations, affecting their capacity as credible intermediaries.

At the same time, changes in the media environment have not been without consequences. Apart from the media explosion at the beginning of the 1990s, mass media ownership has witnessed important changes with the expansion of business logic at the level of media structures and the beginnings of media concentration.

Media in the face of the conflict/peace problem

In 2008, the media find themselves at the centre of a very complicated Haitian problem, made up of liberating spirits at the same time as all kinds of weighty issues based on multiple interests, national as well as international. In the general situation of the country, which presents big economic and social challenges, they are heavily courted by various actors and must therefore respond to contradictory demands.

The social sectors want to become stronger as actors and develop their capacity to speak in the construction of a different society. The business sectors as well as the political sectors will not relinquish their control of public life and capacity to impose their thinking on the construction of the future. The same is even truer of the international sectors on the ground.

In this complex situation, playing a role in favour of peace requires capacity and efforts from the media and journalists which exceed the demands they have faced in previous years. They ought to be able to cultivate and reaffirm their editorial independence, articulated in the public and collective interest and not in defence of individual interests; give value to the social context when the neoliberal context stresses the economy in a society in which the State does not fulfill its role in providing social services; adopt a humble attitude and accept questioning of their practices in the light of communication rights.

At the same time, communication practitioners should understand that they cannot take the place of the economic, political and social actors and that the latter have the capacity to fully meet their commitments, leaving the media to accomplish their mission freely and responsibly. [gp apr 14/10/08 09:00]

Translated and originally published by WACC