Haiti Can’t “Build Back Better” Without Better Journalists

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Allison Shelley / Polaris

Haitian President Michel Martelly meets the press in front of the national palace at a ceremony on the one-year anniversary of his time in office, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, May 14, 2012. But under his watch, the Haitian media has struggled to develop.

If there was one feel-good moment following Haiti’s ghastly 2010 earthquake, it was the heroic efforts of Radio Signal – the only station in Port-au-Prince broadcasting after the quake ravaged the capital and killed more than 200,000 people. Its staff took to the airwaves at great personal sacrifice and sometimes risk, providing desperately needed news of loved ones and information that directed people to triage sites and water and food distribution centers. And it filled the void left by then President René Préval, who had gone inexplicably mute.

In the weeks that followed, as Haiti struggled to right itself one piece of rubble at a time, other media joined the info-lifeline. As the globally-funded recovery plan known as “Build Back Better” took shape, it seemed inevitable that the Haitian press – whose reputation before the earthquake had been as feeble as the buildings that collapsed – would also be rebuilt. It would become a dynamic Fourth Estate that could watchdog the reconstruction and the billions of dollars pouring in to finance it.

(VIDEO: Radio News Saves Lives in Haiti)

Alas, two and a half years later, there is little if any “better” in the “building back” for Haitian journalism. Daily news reports still consist of partisan opinions and a laundry list of often obscure notices and events regurgitated from press releases and news conferences. The number of newspapers, radio stations and television news shows that cast a critical eye at the massive disbursement of international aid is as short as the number of NGOs in Haiti is long.

That sad situation was highlighted in March, when it took a journalist from the neighboring Dominican Republic to disclose an alleged scandal involving Haitian President Michel Martelly and a powerful Dominican Senator and businessman, Félix Bautista. At issue is more than $200 million in legally questionable Haiti reconstruction contracts that Bautista-owned companies have received since 2010 – and accusations that Martelly received $2.6 million from Bautista during Martelly’s 2010-2011 presidential campaign.

Both men deny the reports, but Dominican prosecutors have opened an investigation. Back in Haiti, Haitian journalists have been too scared, clueless or just plain apathetic to ask, as media in other countries have, about a possible link between the scandal and the fact that former Haitian Prime Minister Gary Conille was forced to resign in February – in large part because he’d begun auditing suspicious contracts, including Bautista’s.

(MORE: A Year Under Martelly: Corruption Controversy Sidetracks Haiti’s Effort to Rebuild)

Though Martelly has given interviews to foreign media (Editor’s note: Martelly granted an interview to TIME in March while in the Dominican Republic) his attitude toward Haitian journalists has so far sounded disdainful. He has publicly dismissed their role, and he proudly says he neither reads newspapers nor listens to the radio. This month, on his first anniversary as President, he gave just a few interviews to Haitian media, and only to safe, pro-Martelly outlets. Even then, one of the interviewers, despite tossing Martelly embarrassingly softball questions for an hour, felt nervous enough to ask when it was over if he and the President were “still friends.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Some post-quake international donor aid was earmarked for the media sector. The Haitian government in 2010 announced a $5.6 million plan to rescue more than a hundred media outlets, including replacement of destroyed equipment like presses and transmitters and the reconstruction of some 15 facilities. But according to government documents, virtually all of it went to the largest media owners who enjoy the most clout and personal relationships with high-ranking officials, even if they didn’t need it. Smaller media, including community radio stations, didn’t get a dime.

Granted, every airwave in Port-au-Prince is taken today, and advertising appears to be keeping most of the capital’s 50-plus radio stations afloat. Even the country’s only daily newspaper,  Le Nouvelliste, is up and running again, albeit at a circulation 20% lower than the 14,000 readers it had pre-quake, which for a nation of 10 million people is quite low. But if the plan was to help nurture a more professional media culture, it has failed miserably. In fact, the same big media owners who cornered the international aid and gave lip service to “capacity-building” are now the very people arguing that investigative pieces are too expensive, too time-consuming – and too dangerous.

(MORE: Evicting Haiti’s Homeless: How Land Tenure Hampers Recovery)

Millions of dollars from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) did go to develop a local branch of Internews, a California-based non-profit agency that trains and supports journalists in the developing world. But Internews’ information focus is more humanitarian than investigative – its Haitian journalists, for example, are not allowed to cover anything political. Meanwhile, international NGOs have lured Haitian journalists away to well-paying public relations work since the earthquake. Like Internews, they offer the higher salaries Haitians want – but not the opportunity to report the harder news their country needs.

A real Fourth Estate in Haiti, as a result, hasn’t stood a chance. And even if Haitian media outlets did want to encourage investigative work, few Haitians are well trained enough to carry it out. (Nor do they have much institutional memory to guide them: respected late-20th-century Haitian journalists like Jean Dominique, who was murdered in 2000, have either left the country or the profession.) Journalistic methods like requesting public records – especially land titles, which are often at the heart of disputes over where to relocate the hundreds of thousands of Haitians still left homeless by the earthquake – are as foreign to most Haitian reporters as the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

There are hopeful exceptions, and they are the key to Haiti’s future – just as fostering professional journalism in the rest of the developing world, in the age of the Arab Spring, has never seemed more important. There are maverick media owners promoting investigative work, such as Le Nouvelliste’s Max Chauvet. For the first time, Haiti’s state university offers an investigative journalism course, and the private Quiskeya University in Port-au-Prince has a master’s program. Independent training and capacity-building programs, like the Investigative Fund for Journalism in Haiti (which I co-founded under the auspices of the International Center for Journalists and is sponsored by International Media Support) provide money and mentoring – free from the agendas of governments and NGOs.

More, similar programs are needed if the Haitian media are to make a more meaningful contribution to “building back better.” Until then, they’ll “still be friends” with those in power.

Klarreich is a veteran journalist in Haiti and most recently trained Haitian reporters as a Knight International Journalism Fellow

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