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In post-quake Haiti, radio evolves into powerful mouthpiece

Broadcasting from tarpaulin tents, Haiti's radio journalists are striking a more critical tone.

Orpha Dessources
Orpha Dessources is a reporter and anchor for Cite Soleil's community radio station, Radio Boukman. (Charles Eckert/GlobalPost)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A white sun beat high over Port-au-Prince as Orpha Dessources stepped from her tarpaulin newsroom into the city’s biggest slum, with a question no one wanted to answer.

Men and women, spotting her spiral notebook and digital recorder, leaned in, eager to talk of hardship and frustration. Until they understood what she wanted.

“How is security in Cite Soleil?” the reporter prompted in Creole. “Are the bandits a problem?”

Silent, they shook their heads. They could not speak of the hundreds of gang leaders who had escaped from prison after Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake.

“They’re afraid to have their voice on the radio,” Dessources said, pressing on.

Broadcasting from tents outside crumbled stations, Haiti’s radio journalists are striking a stronger, more critical tone, holding local and foreign officials accountable for missteps as the country limps toward recovery.

Radio stations here — numbering 45 in Port-au-Prince alone — are the most important source of information for the country’s largely illiterate public. As they returned to the air in the days and weeks after the earthquake, many stations embraced a broader public-service role, shifting programming from music and entertainment to news and political analysis.

And now, on behalf of listeners angered by the country’s halting progress, they’re demanding answers.

The effort carries with it some risk. Haitian journalists work in the shadow of colleagues assassinated as recently as 2007 for outspoken reporting on politics and crime. And news stations are now grappling with the ethically fraught specter of a government bailout.

Dessources, 30, is a reporter and anchor for Cite Soleil's community radio station, Radio Boukman. Its building, riddled with cracks, has been partially condemned, so, in a walled courtyard, the production staff work in stifling tents, swigging Coca-Cola and broadcasting live as mosquitoes swarm and jets zoom low overhead.

“The government is slow in Haiti, very slow,” said Dessources, who has sat for hours in the Cite Soleil mayor’s office, waiting in vain for a comment on problems in his district.

It’s a refrain echoed across the city’s newsrooms — and on its airwaves.

Near the ruins of Haiti’s National Palace, a tent glowed on a dark street, its generator buzzing.