Originally: The Haitian Media and Their Contribution to Democracy

Speech originally delivered February 6, 2003.

Exclusive translation by Haiti Democracy Project

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have the honor to be invited, this time again, by the organizers of Initiative Citoyenne to participate in their activities. Since the Unity Weekend, last November, these activities have been making the headlines in the press because they indicate the increasing level of creativity of the citizens of Cap-Haitien and their determination to play an active role in the political and social life of our country. I want to thank the organizers sincerely for their invitation, and I congratulate them as well as all of you, ladies and gentlemen, for your dedication.

So, I was asked to make a presentation about the theme “Media and Democracy.” This is, however, such a wide subject that I thought it would be better to discuss the Haitian media and their contribution to democracy, the challenges of their mission at this critical time in our history, and how these compare to the new challenges faced by journalists throughout the world. That approach seemed particularly important to me for this symposium, since, as you know, the concept of civil society took a new meaning with the Unity Weekend organized in Cap-Haitien this past November 17, and with the emergence of the Group of 184 on the political scene in Port-au-Prince. And since the media are a basic component of the civil society, we will see together how they are, today more than ever before, threatened both by the political crisis and the increasing opposition of the Lavalas regime to the advent of political pluralism in Haiti; we will also look at the significant contribution of the media to the advancement of democratic values, a mission that the media should resign under no circumstance during the difficult democratic process that we are experiencing.

The Media, Agent for Democracy

Freedom of Information is guaranteed both by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and by our 1987 Constitution. In the former, article 11 states the following: “The free communication of ideas and opinion is one of the most invaluable rights of man. Any citizen may therefore speak, write, and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law.”1 In the latter, article 28 states that “Every Haitian has the right to express his opinion freely on any matter by any means he chooses,” and article 28-1 adds that “Journalists shall freely exercise their profession within the framework of the law. Such exercise may not be submitted to any authorization or censorship, except in the case of war.”2

Of course, between the rights and the respect of those rights, there is always a long way to go, which is often lonely and dangerous particularly for journalists in a country such as ours. Needless to go into details to remind you the emergence and development of communications media, and particularly radio, in Haiti since 1986. What is clear, however, is that, since the downfall of Duvalier, even though the Haitian media may not have blossomed fully, they have nevertheless undergone a certain and irreversible expansion, in spite of military repression during the different coups d’etat, and in spite of the threats today from popular organizations (POs) and those, barely veiled, from high officials of the Lavalas regime.

In fact, since December 17, 2001, the Haitian media have been under heavy pressure again, particularly after the statements made by Mr. Yvon Neptune, then president of the Senate, and currently prime minister. After that macabre day engineered by the regime, according to the report of the OAS investigation commission about the December 17 events, Mr. Neptune declared that “the people has identified its enemies.” So, for the first time since 1986, the media and the opposition have been labeled “enemies of the people.”

The independent media unanimously condemned that statement but, since, it has been obvious for everyone in the profession, that the independent media are now a favorite target of the regime. The consequences have been the shameful assassination of Brignol Lindor, the impunity enjoyed by his assassins and those of Jean Dominique, the exile of more than fifteen journalists since December 17, the Jacky Cantave affair, and, more recently, the case of many journalists from GonaVves who had to go into hiding to flee the brutal repression led by Amiot Metayer with his “Cannibal Army,” and right here, in Cap-Haitien, the pressure and abuses against Radio Maxima whose courage and determination deserve our congratulations.

This week again, Rotchild François Jr,, news director of Radio Métropole, was threatened by the chief of the Cannibal Army. In fact, in his declarations made on Radyo Ginen, Amiot Metayer blamed this journalist for talking too much about his case during a recent interview with the minister of justice, Mr. Calixte Delatour. During that radio broadcast, the powerful chief of the popular organization warned the journalist to stop “minding what is not his business.” Mr. Guyler C. Delva, Secretary-General of AJH, expressed his concern following that statement made by the Lavalas activist, and declared that the media would not accept any diktat from Mr. Metayer. “We take those threats very seriously, considering the impunity enjoyed by Mr. Metayer, a fugitive who should be arrested and is responsible for the forced exile in Port-au-Prince of seven journalists from GonaVves who fled the Cannibal Army,” declared the AJH leader, who also asked the authorities to face their responsibilities. The independent media are still targeted by this PO chief and, therefore, by the Lavalas regime. No matter what, the independent media take the beating but courageously pursue their mission not only to inform, but also to promote human rights and democratic ideals in our neo-democracy.

Strengthening the rights of citizens and the role of the civil society has indeed become an international requirement for the kind of democratic and durable development that must be achieved in Haiti. There is no need, in order to do that, to insist on the essential aspect of information and the media. They allow public opinion to be better informed and more effectively involved in managing the national affairs. Today, and particularly since last November 17, the continuing crisis resulting from the fraudulent elections of May 2000, the organizational weakness of the political opposition along with the acts of intimidation and blackmail by the regime, the increasing, unbearable and intolerable poverty faced by all sectors of the Haitian society, all those factors make the civil society – including the media as one of its basic components – a critical tool for the survival or, rather, the establishment of true democracy in Haiti.

The political role of the independent media in particular, as the pillar and the guarantee for the advancement of the ongoing democratic process, is therefore strengthened. The assertiveness and imagination shown by the newly emerged national media, in spite of the poor working conditions, the material and financial problems, and the political frustrations and pressure, are absolutely worthy of respect and require from democrats a continuous, vigilant, and prompt commitment to active solidarity.

The rights and freedom of the press are of vital interest in the current situation in Haiti, because of the totalitarian tendency of the regime to censor or ban any form of free expression. The Lavalas regime is right on target in realizing that the independent media represent a serious adversary and constitute the main obstacle to the authoritarian tendencies of the government and its chronic mismanagement of national affairs.

After unsuccessfully trying to regulate the media, after having sent the “chimeres” after journalists, today the regime has switched to a different strategy: using front names to buy out the independent media. The recent buyout of 60 percent of Telemax shares is a known example of the increasing hold of the regime and, according to public rumor, of Mr. Aristide himself on the media. There are rumors of an upcoming buyout of more independent radios, and we are deeply concerned by the fact that the sectors involved have not yet spoken against this attempt to “take over” the independent media (to say the least!) Is it not, in fact, tragic and even dangerous that in Haiti today all TV stations that are more or less structured belong either to the government or to Mr. Aristide?

However, in light of the shameful and outrageous propaganda imposed upon us daily by those TV stations, as well their lies, and the insidious misinformation financed by the taxpayers’ money, it is urgent that the entire media, along with the civil society, tackle this thorny problem to find a solution or an alternative to the public broadcasting of the Lavalas lies. Since, through those TV stations, the government strategy is to incite an illiterate majority to cultivate opacity and consent, and to silence the critics under the pretext that these would hurt the national interests at a particularly sensitive time, when the government is deeply involved in negotiations in order to obtain, through falsifications, misinformation, half-truths, and lies, the national and international recognition that it needs to impose a pseudo legitimacy.

This kind of behavior, however, leads the government to the wrong conclusions, the wrong target, the wrong diagnostic, and the wrong remedies, and causes it to expose itself to new disappointments if it insists on following the same course. For reality is stubborn and will not yield to the wishes of frenzied “governmentality.” Critics are still the best agent for democracy and the media are its best carrier. In that sense, I want to remind you that one of the most most vanguard international courts in the promotion of media and democracy is the European Court of Human Rights. This court has determined that freedom of the press is not only vital to keep the citizens informed about issues of public interest, but that the media must also act as watchdogs for the public: “It is the responsibility of the media to communicate information and ideas about issues of public interest. Not only do they have the responsibility to communicate such information and ideas, but the public is also entitled to receive them. Otherwise, the media could not play their vital role of watchdog for the public.”

It is essential that, on the eve of the twenty-first century, indeed the century of information, Haitians understand that freedom of the press does not mean only, or above all, the right of journalists to communicate information. What it primarily means is the public’s right to pluralism in information and analyses. Individual expression, even when used by journalists, is less important for the general interest of the public than diversity and pluralism, and the opportunity to compare different pieces of information and different points of view. Today, however, while throughout the world the media have moved toward liberalization, in Haiti they are now more than ever owned and controlled by government. That represents an unprecedented impediment in the history of the Haitian media, and for the ongoing democratic process.

The Media, Carrier of Democratic Development

Even though the primary role of the independent media is to inform, criticize, and analyze, it is also obvious that, in a country such as ours, the media cannot limit themselves to the mission of informing. Journalists must get involved daily in all areas of public life, and not only defend human rights, but also promote the knowledge and a better understanding of those rights.

In the developing countries, in Africa, and Haiti, the liberalization of the media during the past few years has led to welcome changes, where all the sectors of the nation have been sharing in the political dialogue, particularly through “free forums.” However, that dialogue ought to be widened and strengthened to allow more involvement by the population in the ongoing democratic transition. For instance, radio remains the main medium because it circumvents the problem of illiteracy for some individuals, and the lack of means for others. It is therefore a major tool of IEC (information, education, and communication), and a first line of access. It must also be used to transmit messages, and broadcast pluralistic information able to promote the challenges of the conquest and exercise of power, and the respect of human rights. Therefore, radio can make a major contribution to the emergence of a responsible civil society with which the citizens can identify, and where they can mobilize to take charge of their own affairs and, at the same time, have a say in their future. The impact of communication on the building of democracy thus becomes not only an opportunity, but also a major responsibility for the members of the fourth estate.

Other multiplying effects can be anticipated in the long term. If, for instance, the grassroots organizations replayed certain radio programs during the popular shows, or in adult training sessions in rural or urban areas, it would be an excellent way to multiply the impact on the population. These targeted areas could help disseminate ideals about human rights and democracy through different social activities, whether in families, labor unions, or cultural activities. The Panos Institute established in Haiti has already demonstrated the effectiveness of these techniques of dissemination. If, during the election campaigns, spots of awareness (or propaganda) are still an important part, journalists must be encouraged to show, through their writings, the determination to participate in the establishment of a citizens’ culture. There is no doubt that, in Haiti, the media have played a significant role in making illiteracy a lesser barrier by creating a new type of citizens since 1986: citizens who cannot read or write, but are very aware of the political and social situation through the media. That’s where they find the tools allowing them to tackle the political struggle day after day, in building democracy. Therefore, even though the media do not provide the only support for democracy, they play an essential role which can be summarized in a few words: educate while informing. In order to accomplish that double mission, journalists must also become true professionals, since freedom of the press also means more responsibility. This means that journalists will have to play their role in national development by facilitating the democratic dialogue, informing the citizens, and encouraging them to make their voices heard. This is such an important responsibility that when it is not fulfilled properly, it can produce unwanted or even negative effects, and block any progress toward democracy. With so much responsibility, it will be necessary to bring journalism to a higher level of ethics and higher standards, through a code of morals and deontology. Even though this idea has often been advocated by some of the colleagues, everything still remains to be done to modernize the media in that regard. In addition, the adoption of a code of deontology by the local media would improve their international image, strengthen their role in national development, help them become a more effective partner in democratic governance, and create the conditions for a more constructive or, at least, more balanced dialogue with the government authorities.

The fact that quality media are a powerful agent for democratic progress, and consequently for economic and social development, is the very reason why strengthening the media must be an integral part of any program of good governance. But without good governance, such as the case in Haiti, journalists must be more vigilant and more assertive in the exercise of their profession; they must also look for other approaches than those offered by good governance, to strengthen their profession and improve its legal and regulatory framework. Only then, will the Haitian media become a true and effective tool of civilization, in their contribution to democracy.

Nancy Roc, February 6, 2003

Speech given in Cap-Haitien during the Weekend of Hope, organized by Initiative Citoyenne of Cap-Haitien.