Amid civil unrest, political turmoil, and spiraling violence, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere remained a very dangerous place for journalists. The fall of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 created a political vacuum; street gangs, drug traffickers, corrupt police, ex-soldiers from the disbanded military, and the ousted leader’s supporters sought violently to fill it. Journalists found themselves targeted from several directions.
Rising insecurity was the most notable sign that the transitional government led by Prime Minister Gérard Latortue had failed to gain a strong grip on authority. Like the country’s interim leaders, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), with 7,500 troops, drew sharp criticism for doing too little to curb frequent kidnappings and killings.
The absence of effective state control endangered journalists covering the turmoil. Robenson Laraque, a reporter with the private radio station Tele Contact in the city of Petit-Goâve, was critically injured during a March 20 clash between U.N. peacekeepers and ex-soldiers. Laraque was covering the gun battle from the balcony of Tele Contact’s offices when he was struck by two shots, to the head and neck. Transferred to a hospital in Cuba, he died two weeks later.
Several witnesses reported that the shots appeared to have been fired by U.N. peacekeepers, Wilner Saint-Preux, a Tele Contact journalist, told CPJ. Witnesses also reported that Laraque was holding a microphone when he was shot, Tele Contact editor Fritz Ariel Nelson said. David Beer, the U.N. Civilian Police Commissioner at the time of the skirmish, said U.N. officials were investigating the shooting and would make public their findings. Col. El Ouafi Boulbars, spokesman for the U.N. forces in Haiti, told CPJ in late October that the inquiry was continuing.
Journalists in the capital, Port-au-Prince, severely limited their movements in response to a wave of murders, kidnappings, rapes, and gang-related crimes. People were abducted in broad daylight, and shootings emptied downtown streets. Human rights groups and news organizations reported in the fall that more than 1,000 people had been killed in unrest in Port-au-Prince over the previous 12 months. More than a dozen journalists in Port-au-Prince went into exile.
This blight was reflected in the July 2005 slaying of Jacques Roche, a well-known poet and cultural editor of the Port-au-Prince-based daily Le Matin. Roche was kidnapped and killed; his handcuffed, bullet-ridden body was found in a Port-au-Prince slum. The St. Petersburg Times reported that the kidnappers who seized Roche sold the journalist to a gang that wanted him dead for sympathizing with an anti-Aristide group.
According to Franck Séguy, a colleague at Le Matin, there is wide speculation that Roche may have been killed because he hosted a television show for the 184 Group, a coalition of civil-society organizations that opposed Aristide.
Judge Jean Peres Paul, who is in charge of the investigation, told CPJ that three suspects had been identified and preliminary charges filed. He said he couldn’t comment on the possible motive. CPJ is continuing its own inquiries.
Insecurity and corruption further rotted the country’s judicial system. Virtually no progress was reported in the government’s troubled investigation into the 2000 murder of Jean-Léopold Dominique, owner and director of Radio Haïti Inter and one of the country’s most renowned journalists. In March, Minister of Justice Bernard Gousse named a new examining judge to conduct the government’s third investigation into the murder. The appointment of Judge Peres Paul came nine months after an appeals court ruled that proceedings had to resume after being stalled for nearly a year.
The Dominique case has been fraught with problems. The first examining judge, Claudy Gassant, fled Haiti in 2002 after being threatened. The next judge, Bernard Saint-Vil, sent a 33-page indictment to prosecutors accusing purported gang members Dymsley Millien, Jeudi-Jean Daniel, Philippe Markington, Ralph Léger, Ralph Joseph, and Freud Junior Desmarattes of the killing. Yet charges were dropped against three of the defendants, and the others escaped from custody. Dominique’s wife, Michèle Montas, has called the investigation flawed and said that authorities “failed to charge the masterminds behind the murder.” News reports in March said that documents in the Dominique case were missing, but Gousse denied those reports and said the files were intact.
The Haitian press is deeply polarized, and many journalists are seen as having close ties to political factions. Journalists sympathetic to Aristide and the Lavalas political party harshly criticized Haitian authorities for failing to crack down on alleged corruption and human rights violations by police, accusing the interim government of launching a campaign aimed at intimidating the independent media.
Government officials, in turn, criticized several private radio stations for giving airtime to pro-Aristide gangs, called chimères, which dominate Port-au-Prince slums such as Cité Soleil and Bel Air. And Aristide supporters have accused the interim government of jailing hundreds of Lavalas militants without formal charges.
On July 20, Haiti’s Council of Ministers directed the ministers of justice, culture, public works, transportation, and communications to “take appropriate measures” against journalists and news outlets providing a forum to slum residents to spread “hate speech,” the local media reported. On August 5, more than 10 Port-au-Prince-based radio stations suspended news broadcasting in protest.
Guyler Delva, secretary-general of the Haitian Journalists Association, called the directive “arbitrary” and said that it was an attempt to stifle the press. The interim government did not ultimately impose any sanctions against news outlets.
Haitian journalists have voiced concern that the presidential and legislative elections, planned for 2006, would do little to bring stability to the country. They say that truly free elections cannot take place in a climate of fear.
In September, journalists and media executives representing several private outlets created a new press group called the Association of Independent Media of Haiti. The group included journalists from Radio Mélodie FM, Radio/Teleginen, Radio Solidarité, Télémax, Tropic FM, Chaine 11, Chaine 46, Megastar, Haïti en Marche, and Agence Haïtienne de Presse. The group is expected to monitor press freedom and other journalism issues. A second organization, called SOS Journalistes, was formed to protect and defend the Haitian press. Its leaders include Delva, a Reuters reporter and longtime press advocate.