Attacks on the Press 2003: Haiti

Nearly a decade after the United States restored Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in an attempt to encourage democracy there, Haitian journalists continued to face routine threats, harassment, and physical violence, while perpetrators of these attacks were rarely punished.

The murders of two prominent Haitian journalists in recent years, the flight of dozens of others into exile, and ongoing attacks against those still working in the country have made Haiti one of the most violent places to practice journalism in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Colombia, according to CPJ research.

On March 21, Judge Bernard Saint-Vil charged six men with the murder of outspoken radio broadcaster Jean Léopold Dominique, owner and director of Radio Haïti-Inter, who was gunned down in April 2000. The men had already been in jail for more than two years on suspicion of involvement in the killing.

On April 3, Dominque’s widow, Michèle Montas, who has run Radio Haïti-Inter since his death, appealed the indictments, saying the investigation into her husband’s killing was “incomplete,” and that the indictments “failed to charge the masterminds behind the murder.” On August 3, Haiti’s Court of Appeals ordered a new investigation and released three of the six men accused of the killing. A new examining magistrate, who had not yet been selected by year’s end, will conduct another investigation.

On February 22, Radio Haïti-Inter stopped broadcasting indefinitely because of constant threats and harassment of its staff. The closure came not long after a December 25, 2002, assassination attempt against Montas at her home, during which one of her bodyguards was killed. After Montas closed the station, she and journalists Jean Roland Chery, Immacula Placide, Guerlande Eloi, Pierre Emmanuel, and Gigi Dominique left Haiti to live in exile. Meanwhile, the December 2002 attack remains unsolved.

The investigation into the murder of journalist Brignol Lindor, who was hacked to death by a pro-government, machete-wielding mob on December 3, 2001, showed no progress in 2003. All but one of the 10 men indicted for Lindor’s killing had been released by year’s end.

Six of seven threatened radio journalists in Gonaïves, a town northwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince, fled Haiti in February, fearing for their lives. Radio Etincelle owner Esdras Mondélus remains in the country, but he went into hiding in December 2002 after receiving death threats from a pro-government militia, or popular organization, known as the “Cannibal Army.”

After the mutilated body of the gang’s leader, Amiot “Cuban” Métayer, was discovered on September 22, violent protests erupted in Gonaïves, his hometown, and other cities, including Port-au-Prince. The slain leader’s supporters in the militia group accused the government of murdering him and demanded that President Aristide resign.

The popular organizations, which have close ties to both the Aristide administration and the ruling Fanmi Lavalas party, continued to target journalists who criticized the government, accusing them of working for the opposition. Using methods ranging from death threats to physical attacks, these groups enjoy virtual immunity and are heavily involved in arms trafficking and the drug trade, according to CPJ sources. In one chilling incident in April, one of these organizations sent a 12 mm bullet cartridge in a letter to prominent radio reporter Lilianne Pierre-Paul, the journalist told CPJ.

Given Haiti’s 55 percent illiteracy rate, radio is the country’s most popular communications medium. Between 150 and 200 stations operate nationwide, but 10 Port-au-Princebased stations garner much of the nation’s audience. Radio coverage reflects the extremely polarized political situation in the country. Many stations are partisan, and they broadcast reports that are either blatantly pro-government or pro-opposition. The government denounces independent stations, calling their coverage reckless. Authorities also argue that the stations air insults against the president and other officials.

Despite all the difficulties journalists face, they continue to work, covering potentially dangerous street protests and political meetings. Nonetheless, reporters avoid delving deeply into sensitive issues. “There is so much corruption in Haiti, and there are so many shadowy interests that reporters who dare investigate such cases would be killed,” said Max Chauvet, owner of Haiti’s major daily, Le Nouvelliste.

Television news in Haiti is equally partisan. According to Guyler Delva, a reporter with Le Nouvelliste and the secretary-general of the Association of Haitian Journalists, the country’s four TV stations, with the exception of the cable network Télé Haïti, are government-controlled. When an Aristide loyalist purchased the last independent channel, Télémax, in May, most Haitians were left with no independent TV stations. Journalists complain that the government exploits its control over television stations for propaganda and to attack the independent press.

In August, a CPJ delegation that included Executive Director Ann Cooper, Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría, and board members Franz Allina, Clarence Page, and Paul C. Tash visited Haiti and met with journalists and top government officials, including President Aristide, to discuss press freedom concerns. During the five-day visit, CPJ confirmed the risks that Haitian journalists face while working in an intimidating environment. Prime Minister Yvon Néptune agreed to report on the status of judicial investigations into press freedom abuses documented by CPJ and respond within 30 days after CPJ sent him a letter on September 18. By year’s end, CPJ had received no response.