After the quake, Chery returned from his work as a Brooklyn newspaper deliveryman to train journalists in Haiti. He found a proliferation of new radio stations and web outlets, but observed that fearful reporters still turned a blind eye to red line issues like kidnapping, embezzlement, and trafficking in guns and drugs. Chery believes that Dominique’s legacy, though inspirational, is also a grim reminder of what can happen to reporters who push too hard; his death was a message, a public execution for which justice was never served. “That means,” he said, “at any time they can redo that crime to anybody else.”
“Press freedom is huge here and everybody says what he wants,” said Georges Michel, a veteran reporter at the French language newspaper, Le Nouvelliste. “We don’t have state terror cracking down on journalists anymore. We may have one of us being shot from time to time. But this happens everywhere. . . . That doesn’t stop the living ones to continue working.”
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.