• Journalists persevere after quake, working from tents and homes.
• Dozens of reporters jobless. Print media sustain heavy losses.
95: Percent of radio stations knocked off the air by the January earthquake. Most had returned by late year.
Reflecting the devastation across all of Haitian society, the news media suffered massive losses in the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck just west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, on the afternoon of January 12. More than 220,000 people died and 1.5 million were left homeless, according to official estimates. Government offices, schools, hospitals, and entire neighborhoods were reduced to ruins, as was most of the infrastructure supporting Haitian news media. More than 95 percent of commercial and community radio stations–the primary source of news in Haiti–went off the air as their equipment and premises sustained heavy damage, according to Joseph Guyler Delva, president of the local press freedom group SOS Journalistes. The human losses were great as well: At least 30 journalists died in the earthquake and its immediate aftermath, SOS Journalistes reported.
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“Before the earthquake, there was a vibrant radio scene here–it seemed as though every spot was taken on the FM band,” Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor and publisher of the Brooklyn-based weekly Haitian Times, wrote on the CPJ Blog on February 1. But surveying the landscape in Port-au-Prince three weeks after the quake, Pierre-Pierre described large-scale destruction that had nearly silenced Haitian radio news, a situation that would continue for many months.
An exception was Signal FM, the only station to continuously broadcast during and after the earthquake. The station’s transmission facilities, east of the capital in Pétionville, withstood the quake and the dozens of tremors that followed. But as recounted by Haitian journalist Jean Roland Chery, who produced a series of stories on the crisis for the CPJ Blog, “The true credit goes to the station’s staff members, who made extraordinary efforts and great sacrifices to inform the public during a period of chaos.” Quoting Mario Viau, the station’s managing director, Chery wrote that “Signal FM played a vital role in the aftermath of the disaster, serving as a primary conduit between victims and relief services and between victims themselves.”
Radio Television Caraibes, the leading private broadcaster in Haiti, was quick to resume radio broadcasting, setting up makeshift operations in a tent just a few days after the quake. As work resumed, station director Patrick Moussignac said he hoped normalcy would return for traumatized Haitians. For that reason, he said, “Caraibes Matin,” a satirical look at political and social issues, was the first Radio Television Caraibes program to go back on the air. “The population needs therapy, and we must learn to laugh again,” Moussignac told CPJ. Radio Television Caraibes served the local population in other ways as well. The station made its generator available to local residents, for example, so they could recharge their cell-phone batteries, CPJ’s Chery reported. Hundreds of people took advantage of the offer, which enabled them to communicate with their families.
By late year, SOS Journalistes estimated that 97 percent of radio stations had resumed broadcasting, although many operated under exceptional conditions–out of tents, for example, or private homes. Most of Haiti’s TV stations, including the major broadcasters TV Caraibes, Tele Image, Tele Ginen, and Channel 11, were also back on the air in late year, Delva said.
Journalists, many of whom lost loved ones, homes, and belongings in the earthquake, worked in a climate of confusion, grief, and financial stress. The Port-au-Prince station Radio Metropole resumed programming on February 1 after broadcasting news via the Internet for two weeks. But Richard Widmaier, Radio Metropole’s director general, said the station’s financial condition was so precarious that paying its employees was difficult. Of about 50 pre-quake advertisers, only 10 maintained advertising after the catastrophe. “We have resumed our activities, but at what cost?” Widmaier wondered at the time. The station’s situation stabilized in late year as some advertising returned.
Print media also suffered significant losses. The two Haitian dailies, Le Nouvelliste and Le Matin, were forced to stop publishing, although they continued to disseminate news via the Internet. Le Nouvelliste–a 112-year-old Port-au-Prince newspaper, the oldest in Haiti–resumed daily publication in April. Le Matin continued to publish only online in late year, laying off about half of its staff of 30 and cutting the salaries of those who remained.
Bon Nouvel, Haiti’s sole Creole-language newspaper, disappeared under the rubble of the earthquake. The monthly’s Port-au-Prince offices were destroyed, as were the facilities of its printing unit, which specialized in the production of Creole-language books and documents. “This is a real blow not only to the promotion of the Creole language, but to literacy in Haiti,” said Rev. Jean Pierre Nzemba Wayi, Bon Nouvel‘s director. He noted that the paper was popular among farmers who could not read or write French, and that it was considered an important touchstone for the Catholic community. Bon Nouvel, which specialized in coverage of Catholic issues, had not resumed publishing by late year.
Although no official data tracked the jobless rate in the profession, SOS Journalistes said at least 100 journalists nationwide remained unemployed in late year. Hardship prompted some reporters to leave the country. Among the prominent journalists who left was Ronald Leon, a veteran reporter for National Television of Haiti who also ran a journalism training school north of Port-au-Prince. Leon, who resettled in Florida, told CPJ that his school was heavily damaged in the quake and then looted by gangs. The demise of the school, whose last class had 15 students, illustrated a loss of media support services across the country.
Haitian journalists did not face traditional anti-press attacks to any significant degree, but the country’s press freedom movement suffered. In recent years, local journalists were making headway in combating the country’s record of anti-press violence. (At least five journalists were killed in direct relation to their work between 2000 and 2007.) The rate of violence had declined in recent years, and government accountability in addressing anti-press crimes had improved. But SOS Journalistes, which had taken a leading role in combating impunity, lost its facilities in the quake and was struggling to regroup. The three-story building that housed the organization collapsed and all of its equipment was destroyed. SOS Journalistes later relocated to a building housing other nonprofit organizations, although it continued to seek new quarters.
For all media, the rebuilding task was enormous, said Delva of SOS Journalistes. In May, the Haitian government approved a US$5 million package to support and rebuild media in Port-au-Prince. International press groups helped build facilities where local journalists could work, sent support missions, and provided direct assistance. Reporters Without Borders and the printing company Quebecor led the construction of a media operation center in Port-au-Prince that had 20 computers and other facilities for local reporters. CPJ provided direct support to injured reporters and assisted journalists in getting aid from other humanitarian organizations. Further assistance was still needed in late year, Delva told CPJ, but he said the aid should focus on individual journalists. Most media outlets were back in operation, he noted, but many dozens of individuals remained unemployed and in urgent need of assistance.