By Javier Valdivia, Special to the Inter American Press Association (IAPA)
Miami (February 17, 2023) - The insecurity in Haiti reinforces the precariousness in which journalists work sentence a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). The organization also says that journalists are poorly paid, do not always receive training, and have to perform other professional activities.
The "Study on media development in Haiti" conducted by Unesco in 2022 and made public by the organization on February 10, 2023, also indicates that, although the State ensures the protection of journalists, attacks against the press are frequent, and their perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.
Haiti is experiencing a severe political crisis and a climate of constant insecurity, compounded by poverty, corruption, and impunity. Nine journalists were murdered last year, the worst year for the practice of journalism in the continent after Mexico, according to IAPA. Journalists are easy targets for attacks, threats, and kidnappings.
The Unesco study indicates that the Haitian democratic system is fragile and subject to significant instability. In difficult times journalists run severe risks in the exercise of their profession. For example, journalist Jean Thony Lorthé of Radio Vision 2000 was recently attacked. He was kidnapped in Port-au-Prince on February 3 while going to a funeral. The Haitian Association of Journalists condemned the attack.
"Press workers are poorly paid, even working voluntarily, which pushes many into other activities incompatible with journalism. This issue contributes to weakening the profession and casts doubt on the motive of certain attacks," states the Unesco report, carried out in agreement with the Department of Social Communication of the Human Sciences faculty of the State University of Haiti.
The study did not reveal any specific protection measures for journalists. Still, it did highlight that when a journalist is threatened, advocacy by professional associations and the media sometimes succeeds in inducing the police authorities to intervene. He added that although attacks on journalists are frequent, particularly in times of instability, they are not systematic, as was the case under the Duvalier dictatorship (1939-1986).
Between 2000 and 2022, 21 journalists were killed, according to a count by Unesco itself. Among the victims are Jean Léopold Dominique (April 4, 2000), Ricardo Ortega (Spanish, March 7, 2004) and Wilguens Louissant, John Wesley Amady, Lazzare Maxilien, Tayson Latigue, Frantzsen Charles, Garry Tess, Romelson Vilcin, Fritz Dorilas, and Francklin Tamar, the latter killed in 2022, the deadliest for the Haitian press in several decades.
Also recorded are the cases of journalists Mac Kenlove Bien-Aimé, who died on March 20, 2014, after inhaling tear gas during a demonstration in the country's southwest. Fritz Gérald Civil was killed on April 4 of that year during a protest in the same area. Another press worker, photographer Vladimir Legagneur, disappeared in March 2018 after he was last seen in a town northeast of Port-au-Prince.
"Reporters covering political rallies are also often verbally or physically attacked by protesters who associate them with the opposing side (pro-government at opposition rallies, and vice versa. Journalists interviewed as part of the study explain this behavior as an intolerance of criticism and misunderstanding of the media's role. Unfortunately, attacks on journalists are rarely clarified, especially in the provinces," says the investigation.
On the other hand, the report warns that the media generally refrain from investigating sensitive issues such as corruption or drug trafficking and use reports from human rights organizations instead of producing their investigations.
The report considers that the working environment for journalists presents a paradoxical face since, while strong constitutional guarantees protect freedom of expression, they coexist with laws that are often restrictive and generally not enforced.
Unesco adds that respect for the guarantees of the 1987 Constitution depends mainly on the political climate and that, while it is best assured in a period of relative stability, it has often been undermined during periods of political instability and violence that have punctuated the last thirty years.
The study highlights that a defamation bill in 2017 was one of the first forays by lawmakers into the media field since the adoption of the 1987 Constitution.
Regarding the right of access to information, the research indicates that there is no such mechanism in Haiti to date. Instead, the professionals interviewed agreed that "the authorities communicate according to their goodwill or their interests."
According to the study: "Disclosure of confidential information comes most often from whistleblowers. Some journalists and media owners, however, believe that constitutional provisions are sufficient to guarantee the right of access to information, while others believe that a specific law should complement them."
The report says the Heritage Foundation submitted a draft law on access to information to Parliament in May 2012, which the Haitian Journalists Association reintroduced four years later to the Chamber of Deputies. Without legislation, the legislative body only regulates access to certain documents.
Based on its research, Unesco proposed the following recommendations:
-The State should revise the audiovisual laws to make Conatel an independent and effective regulatory authority with the mandate and means to promote pluralism, equity, and freedom of expression.
-The State should review the legal norms that restrict freedom of expression, align them with the Constitution and international standards, and make them fully enforceable. In particular, defamation should be decriminalized.
-The State should transform Haitian National Television and Haitian National Radio into an independent public audiovisual service following international standards.
-The media, professional associations, and training organizations should disseminate and promote the media ethics code among their workers.
-The actors in the sector should improve the accessibility of initial training in journalism and establish a system of certification and evaluation of courses. In addition, they should review the supply of continuing education and ensure that all needs are covered, including technical and managerial ones.
-The police and the judiciary should do everything possible to prevent attacks on journalists and prosecute their perpetrators, and the State should provide them with the means to do so. In addition, the media should establish effective mechanisms to improve the safety of their staff, taking into account the specific threats women journalists face.
A resolution on Haiti approved by the IAPA during its 78th General Assembly held in October 2022 in Madrid, Spain, stressed that the climate of violence and the political, economic, and security crisis in which that country is immersed keep journalists in a situation of defenselessness and high risk.
The IAPA called on the Haitian government to guarantee the preservation of freedom of expression and the free and safe practice of journalism and urged the press organizations of the Americas to express their solidarity and support for journalists and media outlets that continue to carry out their mission despite the high-risk circumstances.
*Javier Valdivia is a journalist based in Miami and an expert on Haiti. He was Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Listín Diario newspaper in the Dominican Republic and a former correspondent for the Chinese agency Xinhua in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.