Information spreads quickly around Haiti, through the famed “telejole” circuit—word of mouth—and the radio. But incisive and credible news is harder to come by. One scorching afternoon last summer, I was interviewing people made homeless by the earthquake in a relocation camp outside the capital. Jean Roosevelt, a former journalist (often a loosely defined profession) who was working as a politician’s spokesman when the quake struck, said that conditions in the camp had been inexplicably getting worse: the government cut off food distribution, and the shelters promised by humanitarian agencies had yet to appear. His friend, Franklin Duperval, was fanning himself with a publication someone had distributed in the camp. On its cover was a story about a recent storm that stripped away several hundred tents in the camp, and another about the recovery commission—co-chaired by Bill Clinton—responsible for approving reconstruction projects. Neither had heard anything about the commission or its plans.
“We have no information, just this,” said Roosevelt, pointing to the newspaper, which I knew was published by a group of spirited young journalists trying to provide the information Roosevelt wanted. But neither man had heard of the paper before. Suspicious both of politicians and the press, they assumed it was just a political ploy. “We never see journalists here,” said Duperval. “We’ve been abandoned. We are nearing an election. People lie, and we’re afraid to be manipulated by politicians.”
There’s an opportunity for journalists to contribute to Haiti’s “cultural reconstruction,” said Robert Shaw, who consulted on International Media Support (IMS) development projects there. But it’s a long-term project, limited by low expectations and resources. Traveling around the rubble-strewn capital is costly enough, and reporting in the countryside is even more so. Well-budgeted outlets are few and far between, said Shaw, and much of their ad revenue is tied to authorities unlikely to be eager about muckrakers. One daily, Le Matin, has become a weekly. Michel said he and others at Le Nouveliste are taking four month rotating furloughs.
Nongovernmental organizations like the UN and Internews offer survivors basic, useful, information, but do not build the foundation of a sustainable independent press. Meanwhile, Haitian reporters are tasked with untangling an immensely complicated reconstruction process that, despite billions of dollars pledged, has shown little visible sign of progress. “We hear about conferences, meetings, seminars, but we see very little being done,” said Michel. His role as a journalist, he said, is to cover the continued plight of the displaced, and to uncover what the government and foreign NGOs are doing about it.
In order to stay in business to cover the challenging story of their country’s reconstruction, Haitian media outlets must find ways to diversify their income while raising the bar in a media culture unaccustomed to “journalism that goes beyond the day-to-day,” according to Shaw.
Incisive and ethical reporting is the end goal. But to reach that goal, media development organizations can’t ignore the financial realities, according to Silvio Waisbord, a professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. Waisbord taught health journalism workshops around Latin America for a decade, covering the basics of health policy, the importance of using multiple sources, and doing more than simply reprinting press releases from the local ministry of health. Reporters left the workshops with a better grasp of the ideal, he said, but no clearer idea about how to achieve it. “At the end of the day, you go back to doing the job you’re expected to do with the resources you have,” Waisbord said. He worried that all he had produced was more frustrated journalists.
“In many countries, the issue is really business management,” he said. “How do you run a successful media organization? How do you handle advertising? Incorporate new online platforms? Structure your business efficiently? Once upon a time, we probably had a better sense of how to get it done in this country.” Many developing-world press freedom enthusiasts, he said, tend to overlook the business side of the media, promoting a lofty conception of journalism without regard for its effects. For decades, Western donors have poured money into media development assistance abroad—most notably in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union—without measuring its impact.