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For Haitian media, a big story amid big demands

A tent city in the hard-hit town of Leogane. Journalists are among those living in such temporary shelters. (AP/Rodrigo Abd)

In the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake, Kerby Joseph stays on the job. He helps gather news for Amikal FM, a radio station that now broadcasts from a tent in the devastated Haitian town of Leogane, where most of the buildings have been damaged or destroyed. But the radio station lacks the money to pay Joseph's salary. So ever since the disaster, Joseph works for free, retiring at the end of the day to a camp where he shares a makeshift, tin-roofed shelter with 10 other people “I haven't been paid anything—not a cent,” Joseph said. “We just keep working for the community. Quite simply, that's why we do this.”

In the months ahead, Joseph and his Haitian colleagues in radio, television, and print will be covering one of the most important stories since the founding of this nation back in 1804. The multibillion dollar reconstruction effort will offer ample opportunities for watchdog reporting as the avalanche of dollars flows through United Nations, aid organizations, and the U.S. and Haitian governments. But the story comes along as Haitian journalism faces its own post-quake crisis, one that has dramatically weakened its ability to cover the news.

The earthquake killed some 26 journalists, according to preliminary estimates, while taking a huge personal toll on others who lost family members, friends, and homes. It damaged or destroyed many media office buildings as well as broadcasting equipment, printing presses and computers. And by shutting down so many businesses that bought advertisements, the quake undermined the financial foundations of the industry. Some airlines and wireless companies continue to advertise, and some aid organizations have bought public service announcements.

But many other businesses that used to buy air time or print space will take months or years to rebuild, and that could translate into a prolonged nosedive in ad revenue for the industry. Marc Joseph, director of Radio Eclair, a popular Port-au-Prince station, said his advertisers typically numbered 60 to 70 pre-quake. Since the earthquake, he's down to a handful of advertisers, leaving station owners to dip into their own pockets to keep the station broadcasting.

 

Newspapers are also feeling the bite

Le Matin, a Port-au-Prince newspaper, used to employ more than 30 people to publish a daily newspaper that reached some 7,000 subscribers. Since the earthquake, the newspaper has had to lay off about half its staff, and cut the salaries of those who remain by about 50 percent. It publishes online only at the moment.

“It’s been a really painful time,” said Jacques Derosiers, a political reporter at Le Matin. “We're hoping to restore the salaries in two months but we don't know if that will be possible. We need the commerce to come back, and a rebound in advertising.”

At full salaries, many of Le Matin's reporters and editors made between $400 and $800 per month, and ranked among the better paid journalists in Haiti. Many others in radio had made less than $200 a month; even before the earthquake, they had a difficult time making ends meet.

Joseph Guyler Delva, a veteran Haitian journalist and press advocate, had planned pre-quake to open a cafeteria offering low-cost meals of beans, rice, and corn to struggling journalists. As first envisioned, the meals would have been served at a roof-top dining area at SOS Journalists, a press freedom organization Delva founded in Port-Au-Prince.

Today, the SOS building is a wreck, with the roof-top cafeteria pancaked atop a pile of rubble. The awning that was to provide shade for the dining tables has been stripped away to provide shelter for a nearby camp of homeless people. SOS was one of four Haitian journalist organizations to have their offices destroyed by the quake. Delva is hoping to muster financial support to lease another building and reopen SOS, which offered training, seminars, and professional support.

International organizations are stepping in to offer some assistance to Haitian journalists.

Before the earthquake, Internews, a U.S.-based aid organization that receives both public and private funding, had been assisting a network of 41 Haitian radio stations. Internews offered training seminars and had opened a production studio in Port-au-Prince. Since the earthquake, Internews, which received a $200,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has helped assess damage and produce news reports now aired by more than 25 radio stations. “These daily news reports shouldn't go on forever,” said Marge Rouse of Internews. “They should phase out as the stations build back their own capacity.” 

Denmark-based International Media Support also is helping journalists cope with the quake. Their efforts include renting office space in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, and opening that office to SOS staff as well as the staffs of three other Haitian journalist associations that lost their buildings to the earthquake. In the months ahead, both Internews and International Media Support hope to expand their assistance to journalists as part of a broader effort that is expected to include the U.S. Agency for International Development and international donors.

There also is a need for more in-depth reporting to dig into the reconstruction effort. One option would be for U.S. investigative reporters to spend time working in Haiti to assist Haitian counterparts. Delva of SOS, Derosiers of Le Matin, and Joseph of Radio Eclair all said they would welcome such partnerships.

In the meantime, there are plenty of gaps in meeting the basic needs of journalists. Delva said an estimated 800 to 1,000 Haitian journalists worked in radio, television and newspapers at the time of the earthquake. Now, many of them need a roof, even a tarp, over their heads. More than 200 journalists are seeking tents, Delva said, to protect them from rain and mosquitoes. “They are calling me every day and saying, ‘Do you have tents?’ Their families are living in the camps, and so far they have no alternatives.”

Hal Bernton, a reporter for The Seattle Times, spent 14 days in Haiti.

Editor’s Note: If you have any information on journalists and media outlets in Haiti please post a comment below or notify us via e-mail msalazar@cpj.org, or Twitter: @HelpJournalists. We are collecting funds that will go directly to Haitian journalists. If you’d like to make a contribution, please click this link and enter “Haiti” in the “Notes” section on the second page.

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