The rise -- and fall -- of Haiti's press

By , Carolyn Fowler, associate professor in the Afro-American studies program at Atlanta University, specializes in Haitian literature. (c) December 1980 Carolyn Fowler.

In 1971, Jean-Claude Duvalier became President-for-Life of the Republic of Haiti at the death of his father, Francois Duvalier. He stated that he wished to be known in history as the president of Haiti who had irrevocably established democracy. His 1971 constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and the right to form political parties.

Critics of the regime would state that the democratic stance was a necessary ploy to support the government's policy of attracting foreign entrepreneurs, claiming that capitalism had traditionally flourished in a democratic society. They would further state that the old structures of repression remained in place.

In any event, the independent press, which had been silenced through a campaign of terror and repression under Francois Duvalier, began, very haltingly , to republish, being careful to confine itself to belles lettres. But by 1980, the decade had seen the rise of at least 13 new unaligned periodicals in Port-au- Prince alone, as well as several provincial and progovernment magazines , and the independent press spoke openly of politics and economics.

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The situation was completely reversed in the last days of November 1980 when the Port- au-Prince chief of police, Jean Valme, announced the arrests of "national and international agitators of communist loyalties connected with the media." The arrests of "contestataires"m and independent journalists in Haiti had , in fact, been gaining momentum through October and November. On Oct. 8, Compe Philo (Anthony Pascal) and a colleague at Radio Haiti-Inter were arrested as they walked home from work in the early morning hours. After several hours of harassment they were released. On Oct. 16, Yvens Paul was arrested as he stepped down from a plane arriving from New York. He was released on Oct. 25, with lacerations, bruises and, according to some reports, broken bones from the approximately 80 blows he had received during the first day of his arrest. On or about Oct. 28, Marie France Claude, daughter of Sylvio Claude and vice-president of the Haitian Christian Democratic Party, was arrested. On or about Nov. 27, Luvis Joinvil, a colleague of Yvens Paul at Radio Cacique, was arrested.

On Nov. 28, the arrests began in earnest. Radio Cacique was smashed, and Yvens Paul, one of its reporters, by some accounts was arrested, and by other accounts went into hiding. Radio Haiti Inter was occupied by armed guards.

Thus, in spite of President Duvalier's professed goals of "liberalization and democratization," the independent press, one of the cornerstones of a democratic society, has, for now at least, been effectively dismantled. Haitians in exile have called this action the most significant since the "hard years" of 1963-1964 , under Francois Duvalier. There can be no doubt that these wholesale arrests, on charges which run counter to all available evidence, very seriously affect the destiny of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, and the very concept of human rights in Haiti.

Over the last decade the press had begun to develop as an independent voice in the Haiti of the younger Duvalier. The election of Jimmy Carter as President of the United States in November 1976 introduced an unexpected dimension into the Haitian situation. Carter's human rights policy was received by the Haitian regime, dependent on the US for foreign aid and hoping to rebuild its economy in the private sector by subcontracts with American businessmen, with some degree of seriousness -- and the press began testing in earnest.

Grave setbacks have occurred, most notably in the assassination of Gasner Raymond, reporter for Le Petit Samedi Soir. Compared with the previous decade, however, the Haitian press and Haitian letters generally seemed to enter a period of rebirth. The years 1978-1980 witnessed a resurgence of the popular theater, publication of increasing numbers of small volumes of poetry, newscasts and commentary on independent radio stations, and the emergence of at least 10 independent general-interest or cultural magazines.

The same period also saw the rise of the Social Christian Party of Haiti, the Haitian Christian Democratic Party, and the Haitian League of Human Rights. In 1979, several professional and cultural associations were also formed. Some magazines more and more openly criticized the government, holding its words up to scrutiny against its acts. One, for example, carried editorials headlined: "An illiterate and miserable under-proletariat creates a situation which can become explosive" and "It is not the demagogue who loves the people." In 1979 came a hardening of the government's position. But the independent press rallied, finding an even greater sense of its role as the agent most likely to bring to Haiti the reality of "liberalization and democratization."

Haiti has a high rate of illiteracy. For those who cannot read, or who cannot read French, there was, paralleling the development of the written press, what in Haiti is called "the spoken press" -- the radio. Side by side with the government-run Radio Nationale and the church-sponsored stations, several independent stations have broadcast the news. Radio Haiti-Inter's report of a scheme by New Jersey businessmen to contract with the Haitian government for dumpsites for nuclear wastes in the northwestern provinces was picked up by all the other media in Haiti, forcing a public refusal by the government and diplomatic intervention by the US Embassy.

But now the first decade of the rule of the younger Duvalier ends, as did his father's reign, with the effective silencing of the independent press. With facilities destroyed and the most vocal elements shipped out of the country or in hiding, there appears little possibility that the press will soon function as openly and as freely as it had as recently as last fall. All those in the international community concerned with freedom of expression will view these arrests with alarm.

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