Attacks on Haiti’s press dropped significantly, even as its streets were ravaged by violence—but journalists said the decline was attributable to widespread self-censorship. Haiti’s media continued to operate in a polarized environment, which both skewed and limited coverage of the government and street gangs.
René Préval, an agronomist who served as president of Haiti between 1996 and 2001, became the first democratically elected leader since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in February 2004. Despite Préval’s appeals for peace, scores of people were kidnapped at gunpoint on the streets of Port-au-Prince. More than 100 abductions were reported in the first six months of the year alone, The Miami Herald reported.
The Haitian press has been divided between media outlets sympathetic to Aristide’s Lavalas political party and those who supported his ouster. There were some small signs of improvement during the year. Press freedom advocate Guyler Delva, director of the local press group SOS Journalistes, and other journalists said some news outlets had begun pursuing a more neutral approach.
For the time being, though, local journalists said the polarization had affected their ability to gather the news, particularly in gang-controlled areas of the capital such as Bel Air, Cité Soleil, and Solino. Only journalists perceived as Lavalas supporters had safe access to such neighborhoods.
“Some media outlets refer to the people who live in the slums as bandits, and that is not true,” said Georges Venel Remarais, director general of Radio Solidarité and the news agency Agence Haïtienne de Presse. “Not everyone living in the poor neighborhoods is a bandit; we give them a voice and they trust us.”
Journalists viewed as anti-Lavalas stayed out of the neighborhoods in fear of retaliation. As a result, most media outlets relied on secondhand information while reporting on gang-related crime, said Richard Widmaier, director of the Port-au-Prince-based Radio Métropole.
The Haitian press rarely conducted in-depth reporting on other critical issues, such as the rampant drug trade. In a climate of violence and unrest, journalists were afraid of being recognized as members of the media and took precautions to ensure their safety. For instance, reporters avoided carrying tape recorders or press credentials in the streets of Port-au-Prince, said Radio Kiskeya’s news director, Marvel Dandin.
Since taking office in May, Préval’s administration maintained a good relationship with the press. Yet some media directors in Port-au-Prince said that government information was difficult to obtain, which meant little in-depth analysis of the administration’s efforts to restore peace and functioning democratic institutions. “This is not a government set on harming the press,” Dandin said. “However, it is not engaged in facilitating an open exchange of information.”
The country’s overburdened and dysfunctional judicial system failed to make progress in two high-profile slayings. On January 12, a Port-au-Prince judge dropped murder charges against Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, who had been accused of involvement in the murder of Jacques Roche, cultural editor of the Port-au-Prince daily Le Matin. Roche was kidnapped and tortured in July 2005; his bullet-ravaged body was later found in a Port-au-Prince shantytown. According to press reports, the kidnappers who seized Roche sold the journalist to a gang that wanted him dead for sympathizing with an anti-Aristide group. It’s not clear whether the murder was connected to his work, and CPJ continued to investigate.
The April 2000 murder of Jean Léopold Dominique, owner of Radio Haïti-Inter and one of the country’s most renowned journalists, also remained unsolved. Beset by problems at the onset, the investigation into Dominique’s murder has stagnated entirely since 2002. In April, CPJ called on Préval to make the murder investigation a priority of his administration. Dominique’s widow, journalist Michèle Montas, visited Haiti for the first time since threats forced her into exile three years ago. During her visit, the government expressed strong interest in expediting her husband’s murder investigation, Montas said.
Like Montas, many of Haiti’s veteran journalists were forced to flee during the last decade following physical attacks and death threats. As a result, many young journalists lack training and experience.
“There is an urgent need to restructure the journalistic profession,” Delva said. Better training is desperately needed in the country’s interior, where community-based radio stations are booming, Widmaier added. Provincial journalists, who often lack basic services such as electricity, are especially vulnerable to political and gang pressure that, in turn, causes self-censorship and the loss of neutrality.