New violence and familiar stories in Haiti

Ten days ago, gunmen in Haiti shot and killed a reporter named Diego Charles. He had just gotten a ride home from Marie Antoinette Duclaire, a political activist and former journalistic colleague of his; shooters killed her, too. Charles and Duclaire were both thirty-three, and among more than twenty people murdered in Port-au-Prince, the capital, the same night. The director of Haiti’s National Police said that they were random victims of a spasm of violence; another officer had been killed earlier in the day, prompting his allies to go on a killing spree. But human rights groups and people close to Charles have questioned the explanation provided by police; a colleague told the Committee to Protect Journalists that it seemed like a pretext to avoid investigating possible political motives. (At the time of his death, Charles had been investigating the sensitive case of a prominent lawyer who was killed last year; Duclaire was allied with an opposition party.) “Judicial authorities will announce investigations that lead nowhere,” Jacques Desrosiers, who leads the Haitian Journalists Association, predicted. “We are used to that.”

What Haitian journalists are used to makes clear the dangers inherent in their work. Since 2000, at least six of their number have been murdered; several others have gone missing. Last year, Chantal Flores reported for CJR on the violence that journalists have faced while covering longrunning protests against Haiti’s government—at the hands of both demonstrators, some of whom view news outlets as stooges for the regime, and the regime’s supporters and police. The protests intensified after June 2019, when an investigation implicated Jovenel Moïse, the president, in an embezzlement scheme. The same month, Pétion Rospide, a radio anchor who had criticized protesters for burning cars belonging to a rival news organization, was shot dead. Later in the year, Néhémie Joseph, a journalist who had been covering the protests, met the same fate. Chery Dieu-Nalio, a photojournalist for the Associated Press, was injured when a senator fired on a crowd outside Haiti’s parliament. In February of this year, constitutional experts and opposition leaders argued that Moïse’s term had to come to an end, but Moïse clung to power, fueling more dissent. At one demonstration, two reporters, Alvarez Destiné and Méus Jeanril, were shot and injured. It wasn’t clear who fired on them, but they were shot as police sprayed live ammunition to disperse protesters.

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These attacks on journalists—and more broadly, the worsening political and security situation in Haiti, exacerbated by the devastating impact of the pandemic and a lack of access to vaccines—have barely made a ripple in the US news cycle. “Among ourselves, Haiti watchers have marveled at the lack of reporting on the situation in the international media,” Amy Wilentz wrote in The Nation on Tuesday. “Usually the international media is quick to cover Haiti’s dysfunctions. And Haiti is now at its most dysfunctional.” Wilentz could not have known that, hours after the publication of her piece, Haiti would be a big international story again: early on Wednesday morning, a gang of assassins murdered Moïse at his home. The attack quickly attracted intense interest in the US, though it was shrouded in mystery: Haitian officials said that the killers were heard speaking English and Spanish; later, a video circulated that appeared to show them impersonating agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Their motives were unclear; Moïse had plenty of enemies. It was also unclear who, exactly, was now in charge of Haiti. Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister, has since appeared to take charge—even though Moïse had been in the process of replacing him. (The president of the supreme court was next in the line of succession, but he died of COVID two weeks ago.)

Yesterday, Robert Taber, a history professor at Fayetteville State University who is working on a book about Haiti, wrote, in the Washington Post, that US readers tend to view the country as “a tropical tapestry for tales of dictators and political dysfunction, of poverty and adversity, of stories and tropes that exist in an ever-present now.” But “these stereotypes are steeped in anti-Black racism and mask an important truth: the histories of Haiti and the United States are intertwined and reach back centuries.” The media, Taber continued, has long been central to shaping perceptions of Haiti, and complicit in the distortions: in colonial times, French slave owners would exchange newspapers with cities along the Eastern Seaboard; after the Revolution, early American publications twisted the story of Black Haitians’ fight for independence, fearing that the truth might encourage Black emancipation back home. Since then, coverage of Haiti has been intermittent, tending to rise and fall with the US government’s involvement. That was the case the last time a sitting Haitian president was assassinated, in 1915, when the Woodrow Wilson administration responded with an invasion and occupation that would last nearly twenty years. More recently, coverage of humanitarian interventions in Haiti has hardened the stereotype of its powerless victimhood. Following a massive earthquake, in 2010, the writer Gina Athena Ulysse made the case that in the Western public sphere, Haiti had effectively been “incarcerated,” both “rhetorically and graphically.”

Similar tropes have come up in the coverage of Moïse’s murder: passive references to “chaos” and “turmoil,” often eliding the complex story of his rule, as well as Haiti’s history. In some quarters, the US has been cast, once again, as a savior. “The upheaval always affects us here at home,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo said on Wednesday. “The United States will have to get involved if it gets bad, and it may.” (He then brought on a former CIA official to discuss the situation.) The editorial board of the Washington Post advocated that the US push for a “swift and muscular” intervention by United Nations peacekeepers. “UN troops from Nepal introduced a severe cholera epidemic in Haiti, and others fathered hundreds of babies born to impoverished local women and girls. There were credible allegations of rape and sexual abuse by troops,” the board wrote. “The UN force did manage, however, to bring a modicum of stability.” The Miami Herald’s editorial board also demanded US intervention, though it was not particular about the form, and argued that the Haitian people should be consulted in the process. That view has not been universal in coverage, however: Slate’s Joshua Keating asked Monique Clesca, a writer and activist based in Port-au-Prince, how the West could best help her country. “Certainly not invade us,” she said. “Certainly not send us troops. Let us deal with the issue and find solutions rather than impose one on us. It’s our mess, but let us resolve our mess.”

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Other writers who have lived and worked in Haiti argue that Western coverage of Moïse’s murder needs to become more critical. “I am here to tell you, my colleagues in the English-language media, that you’re not asking enough questions about what happened,” Susana Ferreira, a former Reuters correspondent, tweeted. “That’s what the ‘poorest country’/‘basketcase of the Western hemisphere’ line does: it keeps you from asking questions. And Haitians deserve those questions, at the very very least.” Journalists who are still on the ground continue to face the threat of violence, and other obstacles. Following the murder, officials declared a “state of siege.” Among other things, it placed limits on press freedom.

Below, more on Haiti:

  • The latest: Yesterday, police in Haiti announced that they have arrested seventeen people in connection with Moïse’s murder; fifteen are Colombian nationals, and the other two are US citizens who come from Haiti. Both Americans have ties to South Florida; Jacqueline Charles and Michael Wilner, of the Miami Herald, have more details. The murder is a big story for the Herald, given the sizable Haitian population in the Miami area; Charles, the paper’s Caribbean correspondent, is worth following as the story develops. So, too, is the Haitian Times, a newspaper based in New York. For more context on the murder, listen to Garry Pierre-Pierre, the paper’s publisher, speaking with Brian Lehrer on WNYC.
  • Migratory Notes: Last month, Migratory Notes, a newsletter tracking immigration news, convened a town hall conservation, featuring Jacqueline Charles, Pierre-Pierre, and other experts, exploring “the context and history of why people leave Haiti, growing migrant communities on the border in Mexico, as well as the pressing issues facing diaspora communities throughout the US.” You can watch it here. (Since the town hall, Migratory Notes has shut down. Daniela Gerson and Elizabeth Aguilera, the newsletter’s cofounders, explained why in an op-ed for CJR.)
  • Press freedom: The recent violence against reporters in Haiti hasn’t been limited to political protests. In April 2020, for example, eight journalists were assaulted, apparently by officials, while they investigated the poor enforcement of social-distancing protocols at a government office. Then, in August, armed men accosted a reporter named Setoute Yvens in an apparent act of retaliation for his coverage of crime in their area. The men shot at Yvens’s motorcycle, but he was able to flee. CPJ has more on both incidents.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.