Attacks on the Press 2001: Haiti

Haiti’s press suffered a crackdown this year that coincided with the February inauguration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and continued after an apparent December coup attempt that sought to oust him. On December 17, about two dozen gunmen stormed the National Palace at dawn. At least 13 people were killed in the attack and ensuing mob violence in the streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and other cities.

Hours after the attack, hundreds of government supporters armed with machetes and guns accosted and threatened at least a dozen journalists working for private radio stations in the capital, prompting at least four media outlets to suspend broadcasts for the day. Other stations went off the air for several days. Several broadcasters also received anonymous phone threats, while Aristide partisans attacked radio stations and vehicles belonging to private news organizations.

Later that day, Aristide asked Haitians to respect the rights of political parties and journalists. Opposition parties maintained that the president was using the coup attempt as a pretext to crush dissent. As a result of the violent attacks, at least 15 journalists left the country to apply for asylum in the United States and France, and as many as 40 journalists went into hiding, according to international press reports.

Before the December violence, frequent setbacks plagued the investigation of the April 3, 2000, assassination of Jean Léopold Dominique, the country’s most prominent journalist and a longtime pro-democracy activist whose station, Radio Haïti Inter, criticized Aristide’s ruling Lavalas Family (FL) party. Dominique alone had dared to air investigative stories and name names in a country where a history of state repression has dictated that political coverage be elusive and evasive.

Though not officially accused, FL senator Dany Toussaint is widely suspected of masterminding Dominique’s murder in reprisal for an October 1999 editorial that criticized him sharply. At least six people were arrested and more than 80 suspects were questioned, including Toussaint. But examining judge Claudy Gassant resigned in June, saying he had received inadequate protection from threats. Justice Minister Gary Lissade promised to ensure Gassant’s security. The judge then returned to the case, but the threats continued.

Although former president René Préval asked Parliament in his final State of the Nation address to ensure that the Dominique case was quickly resolved, several senators were widely criticized for questioning why the probe deserved so much attention and whether the parliamentary immunity of their colleague and suspect Toussaint should be lifted. In protest, Radio Haïti Inter suspended its broadcasts for three days in February.

In June, Toussaint’s supporters erected barricades of burning tires in Port-au-Prince suburbs and called for Gassant’s arrest. In September, Gassant requested that Parliament lift the legislator’s immunity, but by year’s end no official decision had been made. Gassant left Haiti for the United States in January 2002 and is considering seeking asylum there. It is unclear whether the murder case will continue with an interim judge, or if a new judge will restart the entire investigation.

In Haiti, where as much as 55 percent of the population is illiterate and the price of a television can exceed the average yearly wage, radio remains the primary medium, with more than 40 stations on the air. Many are partisan–either government-backed or allegedly supported by conservative foreign organizations. Government officials tend to attack private radio stations when their coverage does not support the ruling party or the president.

The country has two major dailies, Le Nouvelliste and Le Matin, along with three partisan weeklies distributed in the United States and Haiti: Haïti-Observateur, Haïti Progrès, and Haïti En Marche. The 2-year-old Haitian Times, which is edited by former New York Times reporter Garry Pierre-Pierre and published in Brooklyn, New York, aims to inform English-speaking Haitians at home and abroad about current events in Haiti and among the Haitian diaspora.

Amid its charged politics and deteriorating economy, Haiti suffers from a dearth of independent journalism. Although private radio stations criticize the Aristide administration, they often fail to apply the same critical eye to civic organizations, opposition parties, and the private sector, whose paid advertisements help keep them afloat. Some journalists accept bribes and have been known to drop stories in exchange for money. There is virtually no investigative work because of the risks involved.

Press freedom abuses in 2001 coincided with a clampdown on government opposition. On January 9, FL militant Paul Raymond threatened media owners, former government officials, and opposition leaders with violence if they did not distance themselves from a minority party coalition’s plan to launch a “shadow government.” Journalists were targeted during March demonstrations, when pro-Aristide street militants erected flaming tire barricades nationwide and demanded the arrest of Gérard Gourgue, head of the opposition Democratic Convergence, who claimed to be the “shadow” president. Journalists said they were forced to conceal their press badges.

Jean Robert Delciné, a Radio Haïti Inter journalist, was assaulted, threatened, and had his radio equipment confiscated by police officers when he went to the Cité Soleil slum on October 13 to inquire about executions allegedly committed by police officers. Extrajudicial executions became an increasing problem after Aristide launched a “zero tolerance” anti-crime campaign in June, implying that street criminals caught red-handed could be summarily punished without trial. Opposition leaders and human rights groups denounced the policy, fearing that anybody deemed a criminal could become a target.

On December 3, Brignolle Lindor, news director of Radio Echo 2000, was hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob while en route to one of his other jobs as a customs official near the provincial town of Petit-Goâve. CPJ sources said that Lindor’s name appeared on an FL deputy’s list of opposition partisans who should be specifically targeted by the zero-tolerance policy.

In June, CPJ Americas program coordinator Marylene Smeets visited Haiti and met with media owners, government officials, foreign diplomats, local press associations, and journalists to discuss the Dominique case and other press freedom concerns.

January 9

Lilianne Pierre-Paul, Radio Kiskeya
Radio Kiskeya

Pierre-Paul, co-owner and program director of the independent Port-au-Prince station Radio Kiskeya, was threatened by Paul Raymond, leader of the religious organization Ti Kominote Legliz, during a press conference.

That same day, an unidentified individual tried to set Radio Kiskeya’s offices on fire.

Raymond’s organization supports the ruling Lavalas Family party. During his remarks at the press conference, Raymond read names from a list of people who he claimed were planning to form a shadow government.

The list included Pierre-Paul. Raymond gave those mentioned three days to distance themselves from the alleged plot, threatening violence should they not comply.

During his remarks, Raymond said Pierre-Paul’s name belonged on the list because she always referred to the lawmakers who won a seat in the controversial May 2000 parliamentary elections as “contested deputies.”

Pierre-Paul told CPJ that at 7 p.m. that same evening, staff members found a gallon of gasoline in a plastic bag in the station’s courtyard. Gasoline had also been poured on the ground.

A security guard and some neighbors later claimed to have seen someone running away from the offices just before the gasoline was discovered. The next day, a match was found stuck in the gate.

Local police declined to investigate the incident because there was no actual fire.

Pierre-Paul told CPJ that she received death threats on a weekly basis, mostly by mail. In insulting terms, the anonymous letters accused Pierre-Paul of corruption.

June 9

Roosevelt Benjamin, Signal FM

Benjamin, news director at the private radio station Signal FM, based in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétion-Ville, received a series of telephone threats after a June 9 broadcast of his weekly political talk show “Moment Vérité” (Moment of Truth).

Benjamin told CPJ that one hour after his program, he received an anonymous call on his cell phone. “I see you are meddling in affairs that are none of your business,” the caller said. “But we can force you to be silent.”

Five minutes later, the same man called again, this time telling Benjamin that he knew where the journalist lived and what car he drove. The next day at around 5 p.m., Benjamin received similar threats from a different caller. After the program was rebroadcast on the night of June 11, Benjamin received another, apparently threatening, call in which the caller remained silent.

All four calls were made with a prepaid phone card, Benjamin said, making it impossible for him to identify the callers.

Benjamin believes that he was threatened for stating, during his June 9 broadcast, that a recently launched political organization called the Mouvement de la Société Civile Majoritaire (Majority Civil Society Movement) was dominated by the relatives of senators from the ruling Lavalas Family party.

On June 13, CPJ wrote a letter to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide expressing its profound concern over the threats.

December 3

Brignolle Lindor, Radio Echo 2000

A machete-wielding mob hacked to death Lindor, news director of the private station Radio Echo 2000 that is based in the coastal town of Petit-Goâve, some 40 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

At 11 a.m., Lindor and a colleague were driving to one of Lindor’s other jobs, as a customs official. Their car was ambushed by supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas Family party. Lindor’s colleague fled, but Lindor was attacked and killed after he tried to take refuge in the nearby home of a local town counselor.

Lindor hosted the political talk show “Dialogue.” He had received numerous threats from local authorities for inviting members of the 15-party opposition coalition Democratic Convergence to appear on his show.

After Aristide launched a “zero tolerance” anti-crime campaign in June, implying that street criminals caught red-handed could be summarily punished without trial, Petit-Goâve deputy mayor Dumé Bony announced in public that the “zero tolerance” policy should be applied to Lindor. Opposition parties and human rights groups accused Aristide of issuing a carte blanche for extrajudicial executions.

Lindor’s December 11 funeral turned violent when police used bludgeons and tear gas on mourners who were shouting anti-Aristide slogans, according to wire reports.