- 8 Haitian journalists
- 7 locations
- 18 stories in Haitian Creole
- 7-part radio series
- 5 Haitian media outlets
There’s journalism in Haiti? All I knew of Haiti was what I saw in the Western media: distended bellies, collapsed buildings, shouting mobs. In a world this chaotic who would have the leisure to read a newspaper, let along write for one? My first inkling that there might even be a local media industry was when others warned me it would hard be to find reliable reporting partners. “They tend to be corrupt,” I was told. “They don’t really understand how to investigate.” “They just do it to make political connections.” “They don’t even make an effort to balance their reporting.”
In fact, I discovered online that Haiti has a booming media landscape, far more dynamic, say, than in my hometown in Canada, where a single trashy newspaper gets thinner and thinner with each year. As in Canada, Haiti has only one national daily print newspaper but there are dozens of radio stations, TV stations and online media, all competing for scoops, covering cultural stories as well as scandal, profiling successful entrepreneurs, writing about women’s issues, offering in-depth economic analysis. There is is staid political reporting, grungy-looking blogs, trashy tabloids, hip culture magazines. An entertainment magazine covers the doings of Haitian celebrities. A collective of photojournalists posts gorgeous portraits of poverty that reframe all my earlier images of Haiti. There were even prizes, and I took note of the winners. I couldn’t say how good the journalism was – I lacked the language and the knowledge – but it looked like a colorful world!
I spent six months studying French before I dared make contact with that world. When I did, it was through emails laboriously composed with the aid of a dictionary, then by phone, hiding behind a breezy “ah oui, oui” when I didn’t understand what someone was telling me. I could sense enough of the culture to understand that making human contact, hearing the sound of a voice, sharing a joke, however bad, was as important as transmitting information. The information itself could be patched up later over WhatsApp. My French improved, however, and I was surprised one day, while speaking to Michel Joseph – a frequent winner of prizes and almost a celebrity at Radio Caraibes -- to discern the outlines of a really exciting pitch, one that could have only come from a local. Here’s the story it led to.
Most of Haiti’s large media outlets belong to wealthy patrons, and I suppose toe their line, though I couldn’t discern any obvious bias. A notable exception to this model is Radio Kiskeya, co-founded by one of Haiti’s most distinguished journalists, Lilianne Pierre-Paul. A survivor of the Duvalier purges, Pierre-Paul famously fired several reporters for taking government bribes a few years ago. Her station eschews all government and NGO money, and survives on donations from its listeners, which range from illiterate peasants in the countryside to the middle-class diaspora in the US. I marvelled that it was sustainable when for-profit media outlets were shutting down all over the world. “Well, we’re not really owned by anyone,” said Harold Isaac, the station’s engineer and Pierre-Paul’s son. “We belong to the people.” I spent several days in the station’s newsroom working alongside a tireless young reporter, Vladimir Maurice Ridore, on the following story, in English and Creole. The newsroom was a cacophony of jokes but whenever Pierre Paul entered, it fell into a respectful hush.
The time I spent learning French would have been better invested on Creole. French is the language of government and literature. Everything interesting is in Creole. Protest slogans. Games of dominoes. Heated political debates in the street. Love and friendship. The jokes in the newsroom. I missed out on most of this, although the reporters did teach me to say “m’ap boule” (slang for “I’m fine”) with passion. I’ve always remembered that expression because the word “boule” means “burn.” Later that week I covered the torching of a street market in Port-au-Prince, and the word recurs over and over in my interviews with the victims. Standing among the embers, the microphone seemed to bring me closer to these soot-faced vendors as I recorded their laments and their anger, almost as if I could understood what they were saying.
“I never read in Creole,” said Phares Jerome, a professor of journalism and editor for Le Nouvelliste, the country’s only national paper. With a circulation of 10,000 and published in French, the paper is read only by the country’s educated middle class. And yet, the only time Phares spoke French was to me. It is remarkable that we were able to work closely together for three days, producing this story, (in English and Creole) and this one (English and Creole). Often, I just trailed behind him and our local fixer. My helplessness reached a peak when a security guard reprimanded me for taking a photo outside a law court. I was about to mumble an apology just to avoid trouble when Phares and his colleague stepped in. I heard the Creole for “freedom of the press” repeatedly as they harangued the guard into a meek silence.
It was my turn at bat when we visited the banks of a river dividing Haiti from the Dominican Republic. Locals warned us not to go, because this was territory controlled by gangsters. We met a young man there who had no passport but lived in a kind of limbo between both countries. He was fluent in Spanish, and he talked liberally to me about ferrying goods and people illegally across the river by inner tube. I tried, unsuccessfully, to determine if the cargo included trafficked children, but the other ferrymen were getting increasingly enraged with our friend’s chatter. Before I could ask the crucial questions, one of them put a finger to his head and pretended to pull a trigger. “That was real journalism,” laughed Phares that evening, after we had made a quick exit from the danger zone. I knew just what he meant.
Haitian journalists don’t get many opportunities to report on location like this. Travel budgets are almost nil. Pay is miserable (“A hundred dollars a month,” one reporter told me, as we walked past cars burning in the wake of a street protest. “But who does this for money?”) They face other limitations, including frequent threats to their safety. “You should at us at the protests,” one reporter told me, incredulous. “The Radio France reporter gets a gas mask and bullet-proof vest. We all just go around in jeans and T-shirt!” Perhaps unsurprisingly, they don’t spend a long time trying to get the “other side.” I asked a photographer why no one was tracking down the market arsons. “Too risky,” he said, as if surprised I should ask. I got the impression he wasn’t even interested in knowing.
From a Western perspective, those limitations lead to reporting that can seem lacking, thin, one-sided, superficial. Even the journalists I spoke to lamented the poor output of the industry as a whole (though not necessarily their own!) But I have a theory that in Haiti, as in many perpetually unstable countries, the Western ideal of detached, dispassionate writing simply rings hollow. A dispassionate writer is meant to be a neutral writer, a voice from outside the fray. But when there is nothing but fray, this voice sounds disingenuous, an artifice. I think the crisis in Western media today suggests that the US and other countries are beginning to witness this phenomenon too. There is no longer any middle ground, politically, and so the tones that once sounded so neutral, say those of a New York Times or a TV network anchor, can now sound smug, to some, and comforting to others.
Returning from the border to Port-au-Prince, Phares and I passed through the outlying suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets. Here, the pot-holed road was a mere suggestion, a temporary void in a chaos of pedestrians, street sellers, market stalls, parked cars, garbage, dust and rubble. Unpainted windowless houses lined the streets, some still showing signs of damage from the earthquake ten years ago. It was exactly as I had imagined Haiti. Entirely unfazed, Phares guided our car through the crowd, passing inches from people and others cars, pointing out landmarks and good places to eat. His phone rang and he answered without stopping. It was a student from the university with a question about an assignment due the next day, and as he drove, he patiently explained the difference between an op-ed and reportage, how to construct an introduction and a conclusion, how many words he expected. “Wow, a professor taking a call on a Sunday,” I said.
“I want them to do well,” he replied.
And I had doubted there was journalism in Haiti!