Haiti: Covering a chaotic nation, with deadly consequences

On the early morning of March 14, 2018, photojournalist Vladjimir Legagneur left home for an assignment in Martissant, a sprawling neighborhood in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince that has been referred to as “ground zero” for warring gangs. He was documenting the aftermath of violent confrontations between gangs and police.  

Legagneur and his wife, Fleurette Guerrier, had agreed to check in every two hours while he was out. Everything was fine when they spoke around noon. But the next time she called, her husband did not answer. Guerrier filed a missing-person report two days, and countless calls, later. 

A few days later, police searched the neighborhood. They found partial human remains in the area Legagneur was visiting. The person was not easily identifiable, and the DNA results were never made public. A ransom was never issued, so many presume him dead as a result of gang violence.  

In the three years since his disappearance, six journalists have been killed in Haiti: Pétion Rospide in June 2019, Néhémie Joseph that October, Diego Charles in June 2021, and, recently, Wilguens Louissaint and John Wesley Amady this January. In late February, a journalist named Maxihen Lazzare was killed by police while covering factory workers on strike.

Many others have experienced threats, physical violence, and kidnapping. On February 3, news outlet Radio Télé Zenith’s office was attacked with bullets and Molotov cocktails. “Haiti is a minefield,” said Harold Isaac, a journalist based in Port-au-Prince who works for the Associated Press. “The minute you start reporting news, there are so many threats, because it casts light on people that don’t necessarily enjoy that.” The people Isaac is referring to are armed groups, such as the G9, a federation of nine of Port-au-Prince’s most powerful gangs. 

But the motivations behind these attacks are also entangled with the city’s powerful politicians and wealthy elite. It’s been a long-standing practice for them to enlist the help of gangs, hiring them for security or to suppress opposition.

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This complex network of power has left a degraded press covering an even more degraded government. Few protections exist for journalists outside of media associations that can help provide legal assistance or advocacy. The country itself is experiencing a dearth of essential public services. “It’s the kind of situation where almost nothing is functioning,” said Monique Clesca, a former journalist and UN official, who is now a member of the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis

Last July the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated by gunmen in his home in Port-au-Prince. An investigation of Moïse’s assassination considers the current prime minister, Ariel Henry, suspicious. A former justice ministry official, Joseph Felix Badio, is wanted by Haitian authorities for his alleged role in orchestrating it. 

Haitian outlets such as Ayibopost have been covering the investigation, but that comes with great risk for local reporters. A journalist based in Port-au-Prince speaking on background described the corruption that is typically breaking news in international outlets as “un secret de polichinelle”—an open secret—in Haiti. 

“It goes back to the Papa Doc years,” Garry Pierre-Pierre, founder and editor of the New York–based Haitian Times, said. Nicknamed “Papa Doc” for his medical career, former president François Duvalier was known to take out political opponents as well as arrest and exile journalists who were critical of him. 

“People just self-censored,” Pierre-Pierre said of this time. “There was no independent news.” It wasn’t until 1986, when Duvalier’s successor (his son Jean-Claude) was exiled from the country, that an independent press began to take shape in Haiti. 

Eventually, in the early nineties, Jean-Bertrand Aristide—Haiti’s first democratically elected president—provided more stability to the fledgling media industry. “Then, four, five years ago, gang violence became increasingly more prominent,” Pierre-Pierre said. 

“Haitian media, in large part, depends on private enterprise to generate advertising revenue,” Edlene Verna, who is a radio journalist in Haiti, told Voice of America in a 2020 interview. In practice, photojournalist Dieu Nalio Chery told CJR, “everyone has…a political leader that buys them or sponsors them to stay alive.”

Even those journalists working with international outlets are not free from these pressures. “In Haiti, images and news play a big role for politicians because a lot of money [for the government] comes from the international community,” Chery said. “They want us to take pictures of the nice places—beaches, things like that—but that’s not our objective.” Gang members have also tried to shape their media image with reporters, by trading access to their territory for influence over the way they are seen. Jimmy Chérizier, the G9 leader, has tried to portray himself, in the media, as a revolutionary who is against politics and the minority wealthy elite. His ties to senior political officials have been well documented.

Chery’s own career took a detour when he was on assignment for the AP last March. He was covering a violent protest that included a rogue police squad called Fantom 509, notorious for violence against gangs and civilians alike. The group attempted to loot a car dealership owned by Reginald Boulos, a prominent business owner in Haiti who had paid G9 members to protect his shop, Chery said. Someone started shooting. The car dealership was engulfed in fire. Chery’s photos of the events ran soon after. Within three days, he was informed by colleagues that the G9 was looking for him; Boulos was running for president, and Chery’s photos tying his business to the group were a problem.

Chery was initially hesitant to leave––“My career is in Haiti,” he said––but quickly realized he had little choice. His blood pressure shot up, and he was experiencing heightened anxiety––fearing for his wife and children when they would leave their house for work and school. Vladjimir Legagneur served as a cautionary tale. Within two weeks, Chery and his family were in the United States. His photographic output shifted abruptly from the chaos of Haiti to fall and winter in New York City—the Thanksgiving parade, the Christmas tree lighting.

Others may follow. “I’m concerned for my fellow journalists and sad that the justice system is not doing what needs to be done,” Roberson Alphonse, a reporter for Le Nouvelliste, Haiti’s main daily newspaper, said. 

Gang brutality also means that access has become a commodity. Amady, one of the journalists killed in January, was known for being able to secure access. But some are critical of a new genre of journalism that trades on inside footage. “I don’t get it when Al Jazeera has a half-hour program interviewing a gang leader, going down the street with him, and then you see a woman who is totally frightened but can’t say anything,” Clesca said. 

Social media has added misinformation to an already difficult landscape. “WhatsApp, in itself, is perhaps the biggest competitor to traditional media in Haiti,” Isaac said. The live-video feature of WhatsApp and Facebook is used as a form of totally unfiltered news broadcasting. Messages direct from gangs, or misleading information, can spread unchecked. 

“They use social media to inform the public of whatever they want, and they call it journalism,” Joannet Merzius, a lawyer who works to represent journalists in Haiti, said. (Merzius also relocated to the United States due to threats he received while working in Port-au-Prince.) 

Merzius says the government doesn’t care so much about addressing misinformation as it does limiting criticisms directed at it. The country’s senate approved a defamation law in 2017, under the guise of addressing social media misinformation, that would punish journalists and social media users alike. Its maximum sentence is three years in prison. 

“When you have not only gang problems but also a constitutional crisis,” Isaac says, “you feel the onus is put on the press.

“We joke that it feels above our pay grade.” 

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.

TOP IMAGE: A press vehicle is engulfed in tear gas as people protest against the government of President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince on February 10, 2021. - Haitian police fired tear gas on hundreds of protesters who were marching against President Jovenel Moise and attacked journalists covering the demonstration, in the latest clashes to mark the country's political crisis. The protesters were accusing Moise of illegally extending his term. He says it lasts until February 2022 -- but the opposition argues it should have ended last weekend, in a standoff over disputed elections. (Photo by Valerie Baeriswyl / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE BAERISWYL/AFP via Getty Images)