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Haiti's Aftershocks

Collaborative watchdog group follows the funds for rebuilding

When a massive earthquake killed some 200,000 people and devastated Haiti, billions of aid dollars poured in from aroundthe globe. Groups such as “God’s Pit Crew” and “Drops of Hope”descended on the island, ostensibly to help people rebuild their lives.

Although many of us in Haiti had lost friends, family, homes and offices, a group of Haitian journalists banded together soon after thedisaster to follow the money to make sure it really was offering hope.

A student journalist questions a man about his son’s case of cholera at a 
clinic in Mirebalais for “Behind the Cholera Epidemic.” (Haiti Grassroots Watch)

We were all part of the Haitian alternative media movement, a nonprofit effort producing public service journalism. Most commercial media are run by their owners, focusing on breaking news and politics. Reports can be biased to reflect the owner’s politics. Propaganda and puff pieces abound, and there is little in-depth reporting.

We didn’t know how we could pull it off. All three institutional partners — AlterPresse online news agency, SAKS (which works with community radios) and the Network of Women Community Radio Broadcasters — had lost their offices, equipment and most of their archives. The professor was living in a tent. As for me — the sole foreigner in that group, who has worked on and off with the groups for 20 years — I had a job in Washington, D.C.

We also didn’t know how we could fund it. As months rolled by, we learned that most donors prefer supporting things they can see, like a temporary school building, a drainage canal, and brandable things like tents, T-shirts and knapsacks.

But we were convinced it had to happen. As soonas foreign technocrats and officials began pumpingout reconstruction plans, it became clear there had been little participation from Haitian experts and citizens. One more reason, we thought, to launch a“reconstruction watchdog” collaborative.

‘Eyes peeled’ on Haiti

Eventually we rounded up funding from International Media Supportin Denmark and an anonymous U.S. donor and launched “Haiti Grassroots Watch” (“Ayiti Kale Je” or “Haiti Eyes Peeled” in HaitianCreole). Since then, we also have received grants from the several U.S.-based foundations.

We vowed to “fouyo zo nan kalalou” — “stick our fingers into theokra,” as the Haitian saying goes. And we decided to produce text, video and audio in Haitian Creole and French (Haiti’s two officiallanguages) as well as in English and Spanish, because want to reacheverybody from Haitian community radio listeners who don’t necessarilyhave any formal education to Haitian and foreign politicians,consultants, aid groups and citizens.

Our distribution networks are varied: commercial and community radio in Haiti and the United States, online services and sites, Haitian newspapers, commercial television in Haiti and U.S. community television.

Despite our ambitious goals, Haiti Grassroots Watch is lean. We operate with volunteers from five community radios, the part-timeefforts of journalists and producers at SAKS and AlterPresse, andthree part-time interns who receive small stipends. Student reporting also plays a role. There is no office and were no “new hires” except for the interns and my position — coordinator/trainer.

Pretty early on, I realized that we needed to “grow” our own journalists, so I do skills workshops at radio stations and in the capital. Last January, I started teaching Haiti’s first-ever university-level investigative journalism course. With support from IRE, we translatedone chapter of the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook and several chapters of an African investigative reporting manual.

Story ideas and reporting come from the journalists at SAKS andAlterPresse and “the crowd” — the students and community radiomembers. Reporting done by radio stations is sent to the capital onpaper and audio cassette or CD, where we vet and verify it. Then,the best radio reports are re-done on video, with the radio member serving as “talent.” Finally, all reporting is combined for the finaltext, videos and radio documentary.

Road blocks to progress

But it’s not all good news. Not surprisingly, more than just lack of trainingstands in the way. Most media owners pay pittances (most journalistsend up in public relations jobs). Radio reporters are expected toturn in three or four reports a day. On top of that, few journalists havetheir own cars or computers, nor do they have access to the Internet outside of work. Some don’t even have much electricity outside of the newsroom.

But lack of materials, time and experience are — in many ways — the least of the challenges.

Many commercial media owners are very wary of stories that might endanger their revenue streams — the Haitian and foreign government agencies, the NGOs, and the private sector. Until 2000, there was an exception: Radio Haïti Inter. Owned and run by journalist Jean Leopold Dominique, its reporters used to dig into prickly dossiers and face what Dominique said were near-complete advertising boycotts. In the 2003 documentary “The Agronomist,” Dominique told filmmaker Jonathan Demme: “I tried to introduce information… risky business. I know I am attacked because I’m doing my job the way it should be done.”

On April 3, 2000, Dominique faced his last attack. As he headed into the station to begin that day’s newscast, the 69-year-old and a guard were gunned down. Dominique died from four bullets in thehead and chest.

In addition to the dangers, Haiti has no laws that give reporters access to authorities and documents. There is also no access to government tax, zoning, budget, land ownership, baptism, birth, deathor other records. (Even if there were access, record-keeping is scandalously deficient. And then there’s the earthquake that destroyed most of the government buildings in the capital and four other cities.)

Journalists and community radio members gather in Haiti’s capital for a
story idea session for the pilot reporting project. They overcame numerous
obstacles in their collaboration. (Haiti Grassroots Watch)

Because Haiti is practically occupied by multilateral, U.S. governmentand non-governmental humanitarian and developmentagencies, a great deal of important information rests with them – inHaiti as well as at their home countries. But there are no laws inHaiti, and few in foreign countries, that require government contractorsand NGOs to publish their budgets.

Finally, there is distribution. Most commercial radio and television stations in Haiti are not interested in free content, especially if it might hurt their businesses. They are “pay to play” only.

Overcoming obstacles

We have a long way to go, but we’ve come up with work-arounds:

  • Logistics: Because transportation is so difficult and expensive,there are few meetings where all journalists are present. We communicate via email, cell phone and text message. But most journalists have no Internet at home, and community radio members have none. The radios send cassettes or CDs with sound files into the capital on the back of a motorcycle or with a bus driver. If rains flood a river, meaning one of the stations is completely cutoff, we shift our schedules, adjust our deadlines and change thecalendar. In the capital, text messages and motorcycle couriers keep everyone coordinated.
  • Danger: We do not investigate certain subjects (drug trade, forexample). Articles — which are all collaborative — are not signed,and they are in at least two languages, meaning that we are morevisibly attached to the outside world. This does not mean that weare immune to possible dangers, but it does provide a bit moreprotection.
  • Lack of access to authorities: Sometimes I make the calls or sendthe emails requesting interviews. Sadly, Haitian and foreign officials,and NGO employees of all nationalities, tend to react more favorably to a foreign reporter’s request. I secure the interview, and a Haitian team member follows up.

Haiti Grassroots Watch partners and the State University hope to work with other media organizations to promote new, open records laws. We are exploring permanent partnership possibilities with a few Port-au-Prince commercial radio and television stations. Little by little, we are expanding our reach among Haitian diaspora and U.S. alternative media. Last spring, a student at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop helped Haitian reporters learn more about a U.S. government contractor. Maybe U.S. reporters and journalism students can team up with Haitian reporters on long-term investigations into U.S.-funded reconstruction projects, acting as both mentors and researchers? Perhaps kicked off by international, bilingual workshops?

Jane Regan is an investigative journalist, communications scholar and documentary filmmaker who has worked in Haiti for most of the past two decades. Her work has been featured in the Miami Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, Interpress Service, Associated Press Television News, the BBC, the Public Broadcasting System and numerous other outlets.

This article appears in the Summer 2011 edition of The IRE Journal (Volume 34, Number 3) 

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