Attacks on the Press 2002: Haiti

With President Jean-Bertrand Aristide under pressure qrom the international community and Haitian opposition groups to expedite political and economic reforms and to resolve a two-year-old electoral impasse that has stalled the flow of millions of dollars in aid, Haiti’s embattled press corps vigilantly reported the news despite political unrest and a deteriorating economy.

Almost two years into his second term, Aristide continued to promise justice and dialogue with reporters and media owners. “I will do everything in my power so that journalists can do their jobs without interference, and I will make sure all the laws are respected,” he told a group of journalists in January. But all too often, the government’s actions contradicted the president’s rhetoric.

Officials made only sluggish headway in two high-profile murder cases of journalists: Jean Léopold Dominique, Haiti’s most outspoken broadcast journalist, whom an unidentified assassin gunned down in April 2000; and Brignolle Lindor, a radio broadcaster who was hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob in December 2001. In the Dominique case, examining magistrate Claudy Gassant fled to Florida in January after Aristide did not renew the judge’s mandate to conduct the murder investigation. Prior to his departure, Gassant was threatened several times and had resigned on more than one occasion, fearing for his safety. Lawyer Bernard Saint-Vil replaced Gassant.

At year’s end, with more than 80 people having been questioned and six suspects detained in the highly political investigation, two armed gunmen killed a bodyguard of Dominique’s widow, Michèle Montas, outside Montas’ home on December 25. Montas, who took over her husband’s radio station after his murder and has used the airwaves to criticize the snail-like pace of the murder investigation, said the attack was an attempt on her life.

In the Lindor murder case, 10 men belonging to a “popular organization” known as “Asleep in the Woods” have been indicted, and two have been arrested. (Trial dates had not been set by year’s end.) These popular organizations–informally called chimères (chimera) after the fire-breathing mythological creature–tend to comprise Aristide supporters, some of whom have even admitted to being on the state payroll. Popular organizations appear to be the most visible and viable obstacles for journalists, threatening and harassing members of the media at street demonstrations and accusing them of “working for the opposition.”

Guyler Delva, a newspaper reporter who is also secretary-general of the Association of Haitian Journalists, said that during 2002, twenty-four journalists were threatened or assaulted by popular organizations, and 22 went into exile. Fearing attacks from these groups, journalists working for private media outlets often conceal their press badges. Seven radio reporters, including a station owner, went into hiding after they were threatened and an arson attack partially damaged one of their stations. The journalists told CPJ they believe that the popular organization the “Cannibal Army” attacked the station because of its coverage of an opposition protest, which drew several thousand, calling for Aristide’s resignation.

In Haiti, where more than half of the population is illiterate and the price of a television surpasses the average yearly wage, radio is the primary medium, with some 200 stations on the air nationwide. Many stations are partisan and broadcast reports that serve the interests of either the government or its opponents, namely opposition parties and the private sector. Government officials tend to criticize private radio stations when their coverage does not support Aristide’s ruling Fanmi Lavalas party or the president.

While private radio stations openly criticize Aristide’s administration–and the state often cites such criticism to counter allegations of a pending dictatorship–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.

Still, even with its crumbling infrastructure, slumping economy, and legacy of dictatorship, Haiti enjoys a relatively free and resilient press–indeed, the Fourth Estate is one of the country’s few functioning institutions. Despite paltry pay at radio stations, journalists there compete aggressively to scoop their competitors, and seasoned broadcasters don’t shy away from asking government officials and foreign diplomats tough questions.

Although radio is the dominant medium, Haiti has two major dailies, Le Nouvelliste and Le Matin, and three partisan weeklies are distributed in both the United States and Haiti: the right-wing Haïti-Observateur and the leftist Haïti Progrès and Haïti En Marche. The 3-year-old Haitian Times, which is edited by former New York Times reporter Garry Pierre-Pierre and published in New York, aims to shed a nonpartisan light on current events in Haiti and in U.S.-based Haitian communities.

In June, CPJ Americas program coordinator, Marylene Smeets, and board members Franz Allina and Clarence Page visited Haiti as part of a solidarity mission to meet with journalists and to highlight the apparent rise in political violence there that has coincided with recent attacks on the press. During their three-day stay, the delegation met with media owners, government officials, foreign diplomats, local press associations, and journalists to discuss the Dominique case and other press freedom concerns, concluding the trip with a press conference. Having learned about the government’s plan to form a legally enforceable code of ethics for the media, CPJ followed up with a letter to Haiti’s secretary of state for communications, Mario Dupuy, requesting details about the proposed legislation and suggesting a dialogue to ensure that any law passed does not restrict press freedom. At year’s end, no legislative action had been taken on the ethics code.

January 22

Roosevelt Benjamin, Signal FM
Evelyne Dacelus, Signal FM
Carl Dieudonné, Signal FM
Jean-Claudy Saint-Cyr, Signal FM

Signal FM journalists Benjamin, Dacelus, Dieudonné, and Saint-Cyr were traveling in the radio’s staff bus, clearly marked as a Signal FM vehicle, to cover a conference in southern Haiti when the driver of a car from the president’s National Palace attempted to run the bus off the road and aimed a machine gun at the passengers, said Benjamin. The bus driver then lost control of the vehicle and crashed into another car. The man driving the National Palace car left the scene after the accident. The journalists were not injured and returned to Signal FM to report the incident, said Benjamin. He told CPJ that the National Palace car appeared to have been waiting for them.

That evening, the National Palace Press Service issued a communiqué calling the alleged attack on the reporters “pure invention” and denied that the vehicle and the driver were from the palace. Two days later, however, in response to protests from Haitian media and human rights associations, National Palace spokesperson Jacques Maurice called Signal FM and acknowledged the attack.

According to Signal FM and several witnesses, Franz Gabriel, who is also President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s helicopter pilot, was seen driving the National Palace car during the attack. Signal FM asked the National Palace to make a public statement regarding these reports but had not received a response by year’s end.

July 15

Israel Jacky Cantave, Radio Caraïbes

Cantave, a journalist with Radio Caraïbes, which is based in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and his cousin, Frantz Ambroise, were abducted by unidentified assailants and found a day later tied and blindfolded on the side of a road. From the hospital where both men were taken, Cantave, 28, gave CPJ an account of what happened to him and his cousin after they left the radio station when Cantave had finished his 10 p.m. news broadcast on July 15.

Cantave said that on the way home, he and his cousin realized that a red jeep was following them. A stop at a gas station failed to shake off their pursuer, and before long another vehicle–a pickup truck whose color they could not distinguish–banged into their car, forcing them to stop.

When Cantave and Ambroise climbed out of the car, two masked men asked them at gunpoint which of the two was Cantave. When the journalist identified himself, the assailants told him they were going to kill him. Cantave said that four armed men were in the pickup truck, but that he could not tell how many were in the jeep. All assailants were masked.

Cantave and Ambroise were then forced into one of the vehicles. The assailants tied the hands of both men, gagged them, blindfolded them, and took them to a house, where they were held for about 24 hours.

Cantave said that he was interrogated, kicked, and beaten repeatedly, and that his assailants made him listen to his mother, who was pleading for her son’s life on the Port-au-Prince station Radio Kiskeya. “It’s the last time you’re going to hear your mother’s voice,” the journalist quoted the perpetrators as saying. Cantave said that it was clear that his assailants were aware and concerned about the fact that a search for the journalist was under way. Throughout his interrogation, Cantave could hear the cries of Ambroise, who was being beaten repeatedly with a stick.

They were then forced back into a car–still blindfolded with their hands tied–and dumped along the side of a road. Passers-by heard Cantave’s cries for help and brought the two men to a local police station, where they were then taken to a hospital. Cantave said that he thinks his reports on a variety of sensitive subjects for Radio Caraïbes caused the abduction and assault.

November 21

Esdras Mondélus, Radio Étincelle
Henry Fleurimond, Radio Étincelle
Renais Noël Jeune, Radio Étincelle
Jean Niton Guérino, Radio Étincelle
Gédéon Présandieu, Radio Étincelle
René Josué, Signal FM
Jean-Robert François, Radio Métropole
Guyler Delva, Association of Haitian Journalists

Journalists from four privately owned media outlets–Mondélus, Jeune, Présandieu, and Guérino, of Radio Étincelle; Fleurimond, of Radio Kiskeya; Josué, of Signal FM; and François, of Radio Métropole–based in Gonaïves, a seaside town northwest of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, went into hiding after receiving menacing telephone calls and verbal threats for covering opposition protests in Gonaïves and the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, CPJ sources said.

On November 28, unidentified attackers opened fire outside a provincial hotel while a group of radio journalists was meeting with the local press freedom organization Association of Haitian Journalists (AHJ) and police officials to discuss how to improve security conditions for journalists, Delva, AHJ director, told CPJ. No one was killed in the attack, but it remained unclear at year’s end how many people may have been injured.

According to the journalists, the threats and the attack came from a group loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that was angered by the journalists’ coverage of both a student march in Gonaïves and a November 17 rally in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien that had drawn thousands.

November 25

Radio Étincelle

Unidentified assailants set fire to Radio Étincelle’s studio, damaging a generator and other equipment. The station’s director and owner, as well as three of its reporters, went into hiding. The attack came after the station had suspended broadcasting on November 21 in the face of threats from militants of the Popular Organization for the Development of Raboteau, a heavily armed populist group commonly known as the “Cannibal Army.” The group accused the station of “working for the opposition” and threatened to burn the station’s studio, CPJ sources said. The militants were angered over the station’s coverage of both a student march in Gonaïves and an opposition rally in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien that had drawn thousands.

December 25

Michèle Montas, Radio Haïti-Inter

At around 5:30 p.m., a few minutes after Montas, news director of Port-au-Prince-based Radio Haïti-Inter, had returned to her home in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, two heavily armed gunmen appeared on foot. As the assailants tried to enter her home, two security guards shut the gate. The gunmen then opened fire, killing security guard Maxim Séide. Neither Montas nor the second bodyguard was injured in the attack.

Montas is the widow of Jean Léopold Dominique, a renowned journalist and radio station owner, who was gunned down at Radio Haïti-Inter on April 3, 2000. Montas has run the station since then, anchoring the daily newscast.

As the gunmen fled on foot, police cordoned off the area outside Montas’ house to investigate. At year’s end, no arrests had been made. Montas has criticized the slow investigation into her husband’s killing.