In Haiti’s uprising, journalists are caught in the middle

Demonstrators march during a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

By Chantal Flores, Columbia Journalism Review, Jan. 17, 2020

On November 17, Lunie Joseph stood outside the gates of the national police headquarters in Port-au-Prince, watching hundreds of police officers as they marched to demand better working conditions. Looking out at the crowd, Joseph, a 31-year-old journalist for Radio Zenith, was unaware that she was being filmed by two men inside a car parked behind her. 

As Joseph continued to report on the protests, the men uploaded a video of her to Twitter and Facebook. “Here is one of the women at Radio Zenith who is lying,” one of two male voices says in the video. Between mocking laughs, the two men accuse her of spreading false information.

The video was viewed and shared by thousands of people, and dozens made threats to Joseph in the comments. “It was a tough moment,” says Joseph. “Now I feel sometimes that somebody is following me. I’m scared of strangers.”

Joseph had been covering Haiti’s long-simmering national uprising. Public protests began in July 2018, in response to an increase in fuel prices. Soon after, young Haitians mobilized to demand an audit of a government fuel-subsidy program. They succeeded, and in June of this year, a 600-page audit conducted by an independent court revealed an embezzlement scheme implicating US-backed president Jovenel Moïse. Mass demonstrations called for Moïse to step down, and demanded an end to foreign meddling and neoliberal economic policies. Moïse rejected the allegations in the audit, and the situation has intensified. Roads were barricaded in September, closing businesses and schools and paralyzing the country for two months. 

Meanwhile, many journalists report working in dangerous and even life-threatening conditions. Public perception of journalism has deteriorated; protestors accuse media outlets of supporting the government, and attacks on the press have escalated. Journalists are also harassed by counter-protesters and police from the opposing side. They report physical attacks, death threats, and defamation campaigns on social media.

“We have problems with the protesters, and also with the leaders of the demonstrations,” says Ralph Tedy Erol, founder of Ted’Actu, an independent news site. “And the police officers don’t really respect the journalists.” Erol told me that reporters who live-streamed the demonstrations for Ted’Actu regularly faced verbal attacks from both protesters and police officers. They also received phone threats. Erol ultimately stopped streaming live coverage, deeming it too risky for his journalists. Once, during an opposition march, a gun was leveled at him when he attempted to take a picture.

Likewise, media outlets have also been caught in the middle of the battle. In early October, protesters gathered in front of the offices of Radio Caraïbes, the most prominent station in Port-au-Prince. Two advisers to the president had recently appeared on Ranmasse, Haiti’s most popular talk show, and members of the opposition were incensed. Someone threw a molotov cocktail at one of the adviser’s cars, and state security fired bullets in the air. 

“I think the problem is due to the fact that the radio opens its microphone to members of the government so that they too can say what they think,” says Michel Joseph, director of information at Radio Caraïbes. “As some protesters often say, if a media is not completely engaged in the struggle to overthrow the government it is because the media is against the popular movement.” 

Kenson Desir, a reporter for Radio Télévision Pacific who covers mass demonstrations, explains that in Haiti, journalists are not seen as neutral professionals who inform and educate. The Haitian population, he says, tends to view journalists “either as participants of the government, or as opponents.” 

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and the Association of Haitian Journalists have documented an increase in violence against Haitian journalists and media workers in the two years since the protests started.

In September, Chery Dieu-Nalio, a photojournalist, was injured when Senator Jean Marie Ralph Féthière opened fire into a crowd of demonstrators outside the parliament. A few days later, a police officer shot Edmond Agenor Joseph, a cameraman, during clashes between protesters and police in Port-au-Prince.

In 2018, freelance photojournalist Vladjimir Legagneur went missing while reporting in the neighborhood Grand Ravine in Port-au-Prince. Weeks later, human remains and a hat he was wearing on the day he disappeared were found. Police still have not shared the DNA results.

In June, Pétion Rospide, a radio anchor for Radio Sans Fin, was shot dead on his way home from the station. A few hours prior, Rospide had aired a broadcast criticizing protesters who set cars on fire at a different radio station. On October 10, Néhémie Joseph, a radio journalist who had been covering the protests, was found shot to death in his car in the town of Mirebalais. According to media reports, Joseph had mentioned that two politicians had accused him of inciting protests and threatened to kill him.

Radio Zenith, where Lunie Joseph works, has held a strong editorial line against Moïse’s presidency. The week before the video of Joseph was posted, the government had accused Radio Zenith of inciting violence and supporting the mobilization. In response, the station accused the government of targeting its journalists and media workers. “There’s no consideration of us as professionals, they just see us as opposition,” says Joseph.

To find the men who filmed her, Joseph and her colleagues analyzed the video and identified the license plate of the car, which is partially visible. Joseph suspects that both men are police officers since they talk in cop slang, so she hasn’t filed a police report.

“Now there is more pressure, more threats, more fear. Police officers curse journalists. It’s different from previous years,” says Joseph. “Sometimes they take your picture and put it with a head of an animal or they design a fake nude of you.” 

Despite her fear that further harassment and violence will occur, Joseph has continued covering the protests. She is hyperalert, and has adopted security measures such as modifying her daily routes. She no longer meets with unannounced visitors at the station. “This really hurt me, and it’s one of the worst moments that I’ve experienced in my work,” she says. “I felt like my world had collapsed.”

Jeanne-Elsa Chéry contributed reporting.

 

Posted Jan. 18, 2020