Supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide attacked opposition journalists in the months prior to the uprising that forced Aristide from power in February. After the president fled the country, rebel groups targeted pro-Aristide journalists, particularly in Haiti’s rural northern and central regions.
Violence against journalists was especially intense in January and February, when the rebels moved closer to the capital, Port-au-Prince. On February 21, a day before the insurgency took the northern city of Cap-Haitien, Pierre Elisem, director and owner of Trou du Nord–based Radio Hispagnola and a correspondent with privately owned, Port-au-Prince–based Radio Métropole, was beaten and shot twice in the neck by assailants from Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party.
Partially paralyzed, Elisem was flown to Port-au-Prince with the help of humanitarian aid workers and rebels. The only functioning hospital in Haiti’s capital lacked the equipment needed to test and treat him, so CPJ and Radio Métropole Director Richard Widmaier arranged to medevac Elisem to a hospital in the Dominican Republic. He was released at the end of March and now lives in Florida, where he has applied for political asylum. Elisem has recovered some mobility and is able to walk short distances without a cane.
With more than 200 foreign journalists arriving in Haiti to cover the February violence, the international press also became a target; many Aristide partisans saw the foreign media as sympathetic to the rebel cause. On March 7, Ricardo Ortega, a correspondent for the Spanish television station Antena 3, was fatally shot while covering demonstrations celebrating Aristide’s departure and calling for his prosecution. In the same incident, Michael Laughlin, a photographer with the Florida–based daily Sun Sentinel, was shot in the face, neck, and shoulder. Laughlin, as well as several photographers caught in the crossfire, believe that pro-Aristide militants may have targeted journalists. In late March, Aristide supporter Yvon Antoine and Police Inspector Jean-Michel Gaspard were arrested and investigated for their involvement in the incident. Gaspard was released on June 2 and was not charged. Antoine remained jailed, but no trial date had been set by year’s end.
After conducting its own investigation and interviewing witnesses in Haiti, Antena 3 aired an October 27 special report concluding that the U.S. military could have fired the bullet that killed Ortega. A U.S. Embassy official disputed that assertion in an interview with the station. A Marine Corps spokesman did not respond to inquiries from CPJ seeking comment.
After Aristide fled Haiti, a provisional U.S.- and U.N.-backed government took office on March 17. Led by Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, a business consultant and former U.N. official who had been living in Florida, the new government vowed to re-establish democracy and restore the rule of law. Since then, journalists say that press freedom conditions have improved markedly for the majority of Port-au-Prince–based private radio stations, which had endured years of threats and attacks by Lavalas militants.
But journalists sympathetic to Aristide and the Lavalas party became targets after the former president’s departure. At least three pro-Aristide journalists were illegally detained; a media outlet was shuttered; and another was forced to suspend news broadcasts, according to CPJ research. In addition, a number of journalists went into hiding out of fear for their lives. Many private radio stations, which plunged into the political arena by openly promoting the opposition’s agenda during the Aristide administration, have ignored attacks against pro-Lavalas journalists and rarely criticized Latortue’s government.
The government says that Haitian journalists work in a much safer environment today, but it acknowledges that illegal armed groups still control sections of the country. While former rebels remain a dominant force in cities like Cap-Haitien, Mirebalais, and Hinche, which police deserted during the February unrest, former soldiers from the disbanded Haitian military have seized several other towns. In many of these cities, the intimidating environment has encouraged self-censorship, says Guyler Delva, secretary-general of the Association of Haitian Journalists.
At least 100 people have been killed in politically linked violence since September 30, when Aristide activists stepped up protests to demand his return from exile in South Africa.
Four years after the murder of Jean-Léopold Dominique, one of Haiti’s most renowned journalists, the crime remains unsolved. The long-stalled case was revived somewhat in July, when an appeals court ruling allowed proceedings to resume after being blocked for almost a year. The ruling opened the door for the nomination of a new examining judge, who will conduct another investigation. No judge had been nominated by year’s end.
Dominique, the outspoken owner and director of the independent station Radio Haïti-Inter, was shot dead by unknown gunmen in April 2000. In August 2004, two of the men accused of the killing were recaptured more than seven months after escaping from the Port-au-Prince National Penitentiary. Another suspect charged in the murder remains at large.