In post-quake Haiti, radio evolves into powerful mouthpiece

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.

“Where is the change?” challenged Makenson Remy, a commentator for Radio Caraibes. Remy in 2005 was dragged from his car and beaten by men who accused him of supporting former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A few years ago, as a period of political unrest subsided, Remy turned from political to cultural journalism, hosting a popular talk show on Compas music. Now, like many of his colleagues, he has returned to news and politics, talking about gas shortages, rubble-filled streets and the lack of security for women in Haiti’s sprawling tent cities.

Remy, who tweaks politicians past and present with mocking impressions, believes this moment of relative political calm, sustained by the presence of international organizations, won’t last forever.

“When things are good, everything is OK,” said Remy, 33. “When things aren’t good, everyone’s against you.”

Haiti’s radio journalists have seized a tenuous moment of freedom, even as their stations, hit by a plunge in advertising revenue, have been forced to accept government money in exchange for airing public service announcements.

Richard Widmaier, general director of Radio Metropole, said he agreed to the deal reluctantly, and only because it was drawn up as a business contract.

“The past history of Haitian media and government in Haiti has been one of catastrophe,” said Widmaier, whose grandfather founded Haiti’s first commercial radio station in 1936.

So far, the bailout has had no evident muting effect.

“It’s up to us to denounce the incompetence of the authorities,” said Lucien Jura, news director at Signal FM, the only station in Port-Au-Prince to broadcast continuously during and after the quake. “It’s up to us to reconstruct this nation.”

The station has radically changed its lineup, cutting entertainment programs in favor of news and political analysis, including a show called “Haiti Renewal,” in which experts weigh in on the challenges of reconstruction.

And in Cite Soleil, Radio Boukman reporters continue to ask tough questions.

Orpha Dessources found what she was looking for.

Speaking into the microphone, a young man told her there are places now no one dares go: “Bandits hide in corners to attack people, even to rape girls," he said.

She headed back to her tarpaulin newsroom, to join her voice with his.