PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—Haiti's radio journalists, many of whom have long experience of operating under dictatorships and elected governments with little tolerance for critical press coverage, know a thing or two about adversity. But nearly a month ago, when Haiti's capital was devastated by an earthquake that leveled large sections of the city and killed at least 150,000 people, local reporters were suddenly faced with a whole new set of challenges."We try and orient people to where aid is being distributed, and every day we announce messages about people who are still missing," says Wendell Theodore, the silken-voiced news director of Radio Metropole in the capital's Delmas region. His own home destroyed, Theodore now broadcasts the names of the missing from under a tree in the radio station's yard, next to the tent he has slept in since his house collapsed."I saw our building shake," says Rotchild Francois, director of the capital's RFM radio in the Pétionville district, who was at his desk in the studio when the earthquake struck and dashed into the street with a dozen other employees. The station lost a reporter in the quake and was knocked off the air for five days. Reporters from Radio Galaxie, Radio Magic 9, and Radio Télé Ginen were also killed. Francois now spends his days combing the capital, trying to paint an audio picture of what is happening and to get information on the air about where aid is being distributed, the location of feeding and medical centers, and other important information. Many of the station's employees, fearful of aftershocks, refuse to enter the building.
"People come here to send messages to their relatives that they are OK or to have people call to say that they are OK," says Francois. "We do that every day."
Why journalists might be fearful was illustrated vividly when I was in the studio of Radio Kiskeya interviewing its director general, Marvel Dandin. As Dandin explained how the station, which had been knocked off the air for a week, had resumed broadcasting on an abbreviated schedule, a brief aftershock set the damaged, cracked building trembling and sent people running from the studio into the street.
Radio has historically played an important and politically significant role in Haiti's civic life, where newspapers are few and far between and difficult to decipher for a population often unable to avail themselves of proper schooling.
Radio Soleil, a Catholic station, played a key role in spreading information during the ouster of the Duvalier family dictatorship, which ruled Haiti from 1957 until 1986, during which time freedom of the press was practically nonexistent.
Independent journalism was a dangerous business during the revolving military juntas that controlled the country after the Duvalier regime collapsed. Under the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in office from 2001 until 2004, reporters were physically attacked by government partisans while covering demonstrations; they were also imprisoned and forced to flee the country as a result of threats against their lives.
Several journalists have been killed in Haiti in recent years, among them Radio Haiti-Inter Director Jean Dominique in April 2000, Radio Echo 2000 reporter Brignol Lindor in December 2001, and Jacques Roche, a TV host, poet, and an editor at the daily newspaper Le Matin, who was kidnapped and murdered in 2005.
But despite powerful forces arrayed against independent reporting, Haiti's journalists have persisted in the face of such adversity—good preparation, some might say, for today's challenges.
"I ran to my house and found that my wife had died," says Marcus Garcia, director of Radio Mélodie FM, a station that has continued broadcasting with the aid of generator despite the lack of electricity or telephone service. "But life has to continue, and if my wife was alive, she would want me to continue as I am doing, working for the people."