PORT-AU-PRINCE – Haiti’s oldest newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, is reviving gradually. The publication was out of action for more than a month after a devastating earthquake struck the Caribbean nation on January 12.
Determined to get some reporting done in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, editor Max Chauvet and a small team wandered about shooting video on handycams and uploading footage on the newspaper’s Web site.
The Haitian media—television, print, and radio—ceased operations for weeks following the earthquake that killed thousands, displaced a million people, and wrecked large parts of the capital city, Port-au Prince.
For the most part, the Haitian journalists had to step back and see their national crisis covered solely by the international reporters that poured in. They have only now begun to recuperate from the damages to their capital, infrastructure, and staff. “It’s too bad that at a time where the press has such an important role that the press is so weak at the same time,” Chauvet said.
With most of the foreign reporters on their way out, the local media now has important work ahead in terms of covering how the government manages the post-quake situation, which could take years.
“It’s a very important time for the press in Haiti, because there is going to be a very important debate about what we want to do with our society,” said Chauvet.
“Are we going to do the same thing we’ve done for the last twenty-one years, the consequence of which [is that] we are the poorest country in the world, with all the inequality and everything?” he continued.
As the large-scale recovery operations begin, a good portion of Le Nouvelliste’s coverage will focus on Haiti’s economic revival. The money reporter for the newspaper, Frantz Duval, is gearing up for an intensive period for his beat.
“My main job for the six months to come is to watch if the government and international community make the right [decisions] for the poor people,” he said.
The 111-year-old family newspaper, founded by Chauvet’s great-great-grandfather, is bruised but recuperating. The printing press is busted, but its building is still standing with cracks on its exterior. Most of the houses in the surrounding neighborhood have been destroyed, including the presidential palace and parts of the central prison.
The office, however, cannot be occupied until it is declared safe. The newspaper did not lose any of its employees, but many of them lost their homes while others were too traumatized to work.
“We’ve been working with a small group,” said Chauvet. “Young journalists are always ready to go and do what ever they have to do inform.”
Twenty-seven-year-old education reporter Valery Daudier, whose family members were killed in the quake, confessed that while he feels better, some of his colleagues need more time to recover. “For the first few weeks I had a head problem, but now things are getting back to normal,” he said, speaking through a translator.
It will, however, take a long time for the paper to return to its pre-earthquake form. “It’s not starting from scratch,” Chauvet said. “From a medium-sized paper for Haiti we will be a small—a very small—paper when we start back.”
The biggest problem Le Nouvelliste and other media organizations face is that, inevitably, many of their best journalists get picked up by the U.N. and other international organizations.
“I can understand them going and looking for much better jobs because those international organizations …you cannot complete with them, they pay three, four, five times more,” Chauvet said.
Pointing out that the U.N. peacekeeping body (MINUSTAH) radio picked up the best local reporters, the editor said, “While these organizations are supposedly here to help us at the same time they are weakening some of our institutions.”
“I’m complaining about it, but it happens all the world. They come to help you but normally they take your best and it makes you weaker,” he added.
While there are plenty of radio stations and television channels in Haiti, there are only two national dailies, which sell for around fifteen Haitian gourdes—less than forty cents. Radio is the most popular source of information.
Since 1992, five journalists have been killed there, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2008, RefWorld, an organization that provides information to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), found Haiti’s press to be “partly free.”
“The constitution explicitly upholds the rights of journalists to freely exercise their profession and forbids censorship except in the case of war. However, in practice, widespread poverty, a corrupt judiciary, and a tradition of excessively partial media coverage mean that journalists operate in extremely difficult conditions,” the organization said.
The absence of a strong civil society in Haiti makes the media the primary “voice” of the public, according to Chauvet, who noted that while his newspaper circulation was average it was read by the most influential “decision makers” in the country.
Still, after more than a hundred years of existence, Le Nouvelliste has only 50,000 subscribers. “We have to live with what we have….We have to live with the human resources we have, we have to the earnings that we have,” the editor said. “Compared to the situation where Haiti is, the press is doing a good job.”