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Haiti’s journalists appeal for help amid increasing threats, country’s unraveling

People run after reportedly hearing gunshots on Saturday in Port-au-Price, Haiti.  (CLARENS SIFFROY/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Jacqueline Charles Miami Herald

Some of Haiti’s best-known media personalities and journalists appealed for help Tuesday amid ongoing attacks by armed gangs that have shut down the international airport, paralyzed the capital and increasingly poses risks for those trying to cover the news.

In a joint appeal, 90 Haiti journalists and the group Reporters Without Borders called on the international community and the country’s newly created transitional presidential council to help protect Haitian journalists amid the crisis that’s forcing many to either practice self-censorship, abandon the profession or flee the country.

Since 2022, at least six journalists have been murdered in retaliation for their work. The killings made Haiti the world’s third-worst offender on the list of countries where the murders of journalists go unpunished, behind Syria and Somalia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2023 Impunity Index.

Journalists are being forced to work in a climate of almost total lawlessness, the committee said last fall, before the current violent uprising. Since Feb. 29, when armed gangs began tightening their grip on the capital, leading to the deaths of more than 1,500 people since the beginning of the year, journalists find themselves increasingly targeted.

“We Haitian journalists live in daily fear of being attacked, of being kidnapped, of being murdered,” the journalists said in a statement.

Attacks on the press have long been a problem in Haiti, where the slaying of the country’s most famous journalist, Jean Léopold Dominique, remains unsolved 24 years after he was gunned down outside of his Port-au-Prince radio station in 2000. Such attacks have increased in recent years, and a number of journalists have fled the country, settling in Miami and elsewhere.

As the crisis in Haiti grows, so too have the risks for reporters. A number of journalists have been injured while attempting to report on the armed clashes between the various gangs and the police. During their work, they are often subjected to abuses, the journalists said, “with complete impunity, in the absence of the rule of law.”

Local media organizations and the Committee to Protect Journalists both track reports of journalists kidnapped, killed and injured, including several incidents in February before armed gangs launched their united attack against key government institutions

During anti-government protests in early February that preceded the latest attacks, at least five journalists were injured, including freelancer Jean Marc Jean, who according to local media reports was struck in the face by a tear gas canister fired by a Haiti National Police officer.

Most of the journalists who have signed the statement on Reporters Without Borders website are based in Port-au-Prince. At least one, investigative journalist Roberson Alphonse, is in the United States after he was forced to flee Haiti after surviving an October 2022 assassination attempt when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets as he headed to work.

Alphonse works for Le Nouvelliste, Haiti’s oldest daily, and its radio station, Magik 9. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Frantz Duval, along with other notable staffers is among those who have signed the plea.

While it’s difficult to assess how many journalists have fled Haiti or been forced to abandon the profession in recent years, there are documented incidents of attacks, injuries and kidnappings.

“The safety conditions of our work have deteriorated so much that continuing our mission becomes an act of daily heroism,” the journalists said.

Jacques Desrosiers, secretary general of the Association of Haitian Journalists, said he personally is aware of fellow journalists who have had to relocate from their homes several times because of threats, and of others currently living in encampments, part of the more than 360,000 Haitians who have been forced to flee their homes over the last three years due to the violence.

“Just like the population, there are a lot of journalists who are also in need of assistance,” Desrosiers said,

Journalists need a fund that can provide financial assistance to help colleagues, he added. They also need protective equipment. All of these are part of ongoing discussions.

Armed groups today control more than 80% of Haiti’s capital, leaving not just regular Haitians at risk but those whose job it is to report what’s happening. The widespread security crisis has also left reporters without access to training and financial stability as outlets find themselves struggling to pay their staffers.

“Defending the right to information and supporting local media ecosystems should be at the core of international cooperation crisis response strategies,” Artur Romeu, director of Reporters Without Borders’ Latin America bureau, told the Miami Herald. “Local journalists have an absolute key role to play in this situation. RSF is strengthening its ties with local organizations to map main priorities for journalists in the field in the immediate future and provide direct support to the Haitian media.”

In a statement on Reporters Without Borders’ website, Romeu notes that the historic challenges that media in Haiti face is being compounded by the impact of violence that has reached an unprecedented level in recent months.

“The world needs to know what is happening in Haiti,” the organization said. “For this, Haiti needs independent, reliable and diverse journalism, and an environment in which media professionals can work in complete safety.”

William O’Neill, the United Nations’ independent expert on human rights for Haiti, said the concerns of journalists merits serious attention. While in Geneva recently, O’Neill highlighted the ongoing challenges facing journalists, human rights defenders and others in Haiti, where 5.5 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance.

“On both my recent trips to Haiti I have met with Haitian journalists and they have told me of the dangers and threats they face. Women journalists in particular described vicious online attacks,” O’Neill said. “In addition to the grave challenges to the profession caused by rampant gang violence, journalists told me how they struggle to make a living given the weak economy and financial struggles all media face in Haiti. Without independent journalism, Haiti’s efforts to escape this spiraling violence is at even greater risk of failing.”