Jewish World Review June 18, 2002 /8 Tamuz 5762

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Reporting still risky for Haiti's press


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | PORT-AU-PRINCE As a Graham Greene fan, I tried in vain to contain my excitement as I sat for the first time on the veranda of the Hotel Oloffson with Richard A. Morse, the young "voodoo rock" musician from Connecticut who runs the place.

Down below us, through the century-old balcony's ornate wooden fretwork and ocean of palm greenery, is the hotel pool in which Greene's Doctor Philipot was found dead. The Oloffson was the Trianon in "The Comedians," Greene's take on the nightmare regime of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

Morse dodges the inevitable comparisons to Mister Brown, the Trianon's proprietor. "I came to study voodoo rhythms," he says. "The hotel is my day job."

Yet, Haiti is Haiti, "the best nightmare on earth," as American writer Herbert Gold, another Oloffson visitor, called it. One still feels the gloom and doom as gothic as the Trianon's towers and balconies that Greene described under the first Duvalier regime. Hardly anyone appears to be staying at the Oloffson or any other Haiti hotel, I notice, other than journalists and aid workers.

"It had the air of a Charles Addams house in a number of The New Yorker," Greene wrote of the Trianon's gothic atmosphere. Outside the Oloffson's walls and gate, I detect that gothic gloom and doom in the rest of Haiti, too. The atmosphere seems less dictatorial, yet still fouled with the aroma of dead bodies here and there during the watch of Haiti's first democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

I have come with a pair of colleagues on a "mission" from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am a board member. Morse approves. "After all," he observes, "after they come for the journalists, the musicians are next." His smile says he is joking, his eyes tell me he is serious. Just outside the walls of his hotel grounds, the noisy, narrow and dusty streets of Haiti's capital are decorated with the name and charismatic face of one dead journalist already.

"Justice for Jean Dominique," says a banner stretched across busy streets.

"The assassins are in the city," say large posters bearing Dominique's rather gentle and fatherly looking face.

He was gunned down on April 3, 2000, ambushed in the parking lot of Radio Haiti, the popular radio station that he owned and used as a platform for hard-hitting reports and commentary.

Another journalist, Brignolle Lindor, was hacked to death in December by a mob, apparently connected to an "Organization Popular," grass-roots community service groups that have become in some instances politically charged militias with their own warlords.

Two Haitian journalists were jailed in late May without charges or medical attention for 13 days, along with a dozen suspects from the political protest they were covering when it turned into a gang fight. They were released after the Association for Haitian Journalists lodged protests and court action. One of the journalists, slashed by a machete in the melee, may lose an eye.

"Those in power are not accustomed to being challenged, not used to a free press," said Guyler Delva, the association's director.

Assaulted by Aristide opponents when Aristide was in exile, Delva, a newspaper reporter, more recently has been threatened by Aristide supporters. Such are the hazards of attempting objectivity in Haiti.

You hear a greater diversity of news and views now, than under the Duvaliers, with their notorious Tontons Macoute thugs, but that's not saying much. Repeatedly we were told by reporters and station owners, "When you were attacked or threatened under the Duvaliers, you knew it was the Tontons Macoute. Now when you are attacked or threatened, it could be from anyone."

Such are the complications of Dominique's case. He was, in the words of his widow, Michele Montas-Dominique, now the station's general manager, "an equal opportunity offender."

He was a member of Haiti's mulatto elite, who nevertheless championed the poor. After working as a Radio Haiti reporter, he bought the station in 1971 and turned it into a voice in Creole, the language of Haiti's masses, against the indifferent elites and the thugocracy. His death touched off weeks of mourning. His funeral drew more than 16,000 people to the capital's soccer stadium.

Who did it? The suspects are numerous. Three suspected gunmen were put in custody in a country where thousands sit in overcrowded jails awaiting trial. But even in this high-profile case, efforts to prosecute the suspected masterminds behind the assassination appear to have stalled.

Meanwhile, the nation's independent journalists pursue their jobs, trying to shrug off the chilling effect brought on by a new rein of terror and uncertainty.

"Journalism in Haiti always has been a risky business," says Dominique's widow.

When Aristide talks to journalists, he pledges, as he did in a January meeting, to "do everything in my power so that journalists can do their jobs without interference." Yet, his information minister recently notified media owners of a new press law under consideration that would enable the government to determine who is a journalist and other matters that should be decided by one's audience, not by the government.

Sounds like journalism in Haiti will continue to be a risky business.

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