Since the resignation of President Aristide, press freedom has increased but is still fragile. The job of maintaining the improvement, disbanding armed groups and restoring the rule of law is enormous and beyond the single issue of press freedom. Everything is in the balance.
The departure into exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on 29 February 2004 ended a long nightmare for the Haitian media that began with the April 2000 murder of the country’s best-known radio journalist, Radio Haiti Inter chief Jean Dominique. Since his death, pro-Aristide thugs called "chimères" emerged and another journalist, Brignol Lindor, was hacked to death in December 2001. The president terrorised the media by failing to punish the killers of the two men.
Aristide’s fall was sparked by a rebel advance towards the capital and by French and US pressure. Physical attacks and threats against the media and its journalists peaked in the days and weeks before his overthrow. In February alone, 22 media outlets were attacked, looted or censored and 19 journalists attacked, threatened or shot and wounded. A week after Aristide fled, Ricardo Ortega, of the Spanish TV station Antena 3, was killed in still unexplained circumstances.
Journalists have since regained some of their confidence. "We can breathe again," Marvel Dandin, chief editor of the leading Port-au-Prince station Radio Kiskeya, told a Reporters Without Borders fact-finding mission in early June. The immediate arrival of a UN peacekeeping force helped calm the situation by curbing the appetite for revenge and by facing off the rebels controlling more than half the country. But the impact of the force was soon limited by the problem of disarming the various sides.
Self-censorship in the provinces
The respite for the media in Port-au-Prince may be short-lived. Aristide supporters resumed violent attacks in September, intimidating and terrorising people, and more than 150 people died, including many policemen, some of who were decapitated. The wave of violence, dubbed "Operation Baghdad," showed the continuing influence of Aristide from his South African exile.
The media in the provinces, largely controlled by the rebels, opted for self-censorship. Jean-Robert Lalane, owner of Radio Maxima, in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, said the rule of law no longer existed and that journalists had no defence against threats or physical attacks. The rebels were mostly former members of the army, which was disbanded by Aristide in 1995 after the collapse of the military dictatorship and which has rarely shown any interest in democracy or in tolerating the media.
When the ex-soldiers seized Cap-Haitien in late February, they did nothing to stop the ransacking of pro-Aristide media offices and sometimes took part in it. They arbitrarily arrested journalists in the Centre province who were unenthusiastic about them. But staff at Radio Cap-Haitien said the situation was an improvement on the climate of terror under Aristide.
Disturbing events in the battle against impunity
The fight against impunity in the Dominique and Lindor murder cases made little progress despite the goodwill of new prime minister Gérard Latortue.
Disturbing developments included the apparent discovery in early December that three-quarters of the contents of Dominique case file had vanished from the supreme court offices. A senior court official later denied this but by the end of the year, it was not clear where they were. Under Aristide, virtually all government bodies obstructed progress in the murder investigation.
Concern about impunity increased when two former soldiers, Louis-Jodel Chamblain and Jackson Joanis, were acquitted in August of committing atrocities during the 1991-94 military dictatorship. The trial was denounced as a sham by human rights groups. Chamblain was a leader of the rebellion against Aristide and it was thought the government did not want to upset the still-powerful rebels.
No progress was made in the Lindor case, which has been stuck in the supreme court since spring 2003 despite the new government’s promise in June 2004 to see that the court ruled quickly on whether to grant the Lindor family interested party status in the case. Lindor, of Radio Echo 2000, was lynched in December 2001 in Petit-Goâve (70 kms. southwest of Port-au-Prince). A pro-Aristide "grassroots organisation" (in fact, a militia) said it had killed him.
While Aristide’s supporters and the ex-soldiers who overthrew him remain armed they are a threat to the media. General disarmament is the government’s declared priority. If it fails, disorder and violence against the media may return during the general elections due in 2005.
- 1 journalist was killed
- 22 physically attacked
- 20 threatened
- 23 medias were physically attacked
- and 19 censored
"It wasn’t just a normal looting"
Armed men ransacked and looted the premises of Télé-Haïti on 29 February 2004. General manager Antoine Blanc recalls a sombre day for the station and its staff.
Several dozen armed men, some wearing T-shirts with the face of ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide who’d fled the country a few hours earlier, appeared in front of the station’s building in downtown Port-au-Prince. They were in a bus which they used to break down the locked gates.
Then they got into the building by smashing side windows and for the next few hours carted off everything they could and destroyed the rest - ceilings, air-conditioning, electrical wiring, computer cables - with machetes and iron bars. After taking fire extinguishers and cutting off the water supply, they started a fire in the canteen, which fortunately didn’t spread and was later put out safely. It wasn’t just a normal looting. It was deliberate destruction.
24 vehicles were destroyed, some burned or else stripped bare with the help of the car mechanics that work in nearby streets. All the cable network maintenance equipment that was in the vehicles and offices was stolen.
We reckoned at least $730,000 worth of damage was done. The key parts of the business were attacked - the electrical system, the vehicles (vital to maintain the cable network and keep contact with customers), the computer system with all the customer accounts and all the production and reporting equipment. Our 90 employees were devastated to find their workplace in ruins and felt vulnerable, helpless and depressed. Especially as the police did nothing to prevent the attack even though they’d been alerted several days before and again on the morning of the attack by many radio stations.
Before Aristide fled, the transmitters of more than half a dozen radio stations were sabotaged on the hills above the capital on 14 January. Persistent rumours said other media outlets, including Télé-Haïti, were about to be attacked.
Early on 4 February, three men arrived at the station in a car and asked to see the manager. Two of them, armed and carrying walkie-talkies, said they were police and that their visit was "personal." They were told the manager wasn’t there. They said they would come back. They didn’t.
Télé-Haïti told the police inspector-general, Evens Sainturné, who promised to "look for them," and communications minister Mario Dupuy, who told us the government would take "appropriate steps." Pro-Aristide "chimères" (hotheads) approached a Télé-Haïti crew returning from the prime minister’s office on 25 February and said they were going to march on the station. When the crew got back there, they saw groups of people standing round nearby. All the station staff were evacuated just in case. Soon afterwards, burning street barricades were erected in front of the building.
Several radio stations called for people to help Télé-Haïti but the pro-Aristide police did nothing. Over this period, several security firms, including the one guarding Télé-Haïti, were attacked and their weapons stolen, ensuring that the destroyers and looters could do their work with confidence in the days that followed.
Port-au-Prince, May 2004