‘No one will protect us’: how Haiti has become deadly for journalists

Since its president was assassinated in July 2021, the island nation has spiralled into violence with journalists in the firing line

As the news filtered through on 30 October that another reporter had been arrested in Port-au-Prince, journalists rushed to the police station where Roberto Dimanche was being held.

The journalists demanded freedom for the radio reporter who had been jailed for covering a protest before he was detained and beaten, colleagues say.

But as the police set about dispersing the crowd of protesting journalists, one of them, Romelo Vilsaint, received a fatal shot to the head and crumpled to the concrete floor.

“Some colleagues say he received a teargas canister to the head while others say that he was shot, so there are conflicting reports as to how he was killed, but there is no dispute whatsoever when it comes to determining who killed him,” said Widlore Mérancourt, editor-in-chief of AyiboPost, a Haitian independent news site. “This is a systemic problem.”

Vilsaint is one of at least eight journalists who have either been killed or gone missing in 2022 while reporting on the country’s dire sociopolitical crisis, according to Godson Lubrun, president of the Haitian Online Media Association. That number is the highest in two decades.

The island nation has become so lawless since its president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in July 2021, that the US and Mexico are considering meeting the request of the prime minister, Ariel Henry, request to send in foreign troops.

And as journalists attempt to report the reality of the spiralling violence, the worst hunger crisis in recent history and the return of cholera, they are increasingly finding themselves in the line of fire.

In January, Wilguens Louis-Saint and John Wesley Amady were shot dead and their bodies were burnt for covering the violence in an area of Port-au-Prince fought over by rival gangs.

And in September, Frantsen Charles and Tayson Latigue were murdered by heavily armed men while on assignment in Cité Soleil, a slum controlled by the warring G9 and G-Pep gangs.

“Conditions for the press have deteriorated drastically over the last two years, to the point that it’s now one of the hemisphere’s deadliest countries for the media,” said Natalie Southwick, coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Latin America & the Caribbean program.

Many, such as Roberson Alphonse, have escaped attempts on their lives. An editor at Haiti’s longest-running newspaper Le Nouvelliste, Alphonse was shot in both arms when his car was sprayed with bullets on the way to work.

Three police officers holding firearms walk toward the cameraperson, waving their arms.
Police defend the entrance of a police station where journalist Romelson Vilsaint was fatally shot during a protest. Photograph: Ramón Espinosa/AP

Now the gangs have taken control of much of the capital they are free to use violence to silence the media with no repercussions, Mérancourt said.

“Every time we publish we put targets on our backs and there is nothing and no one willing to protect us. I’m afraid every day for my team.”

Increasingly, the aggressors are not young men in bandannas clutching assault rifles, say human rights observers. Now it is also the state which is targeting the media.

The death of Romelo Vilsaint – who was killed while protesting at the police station – is the latest example of “an attack on the freedom of the press” by security forces, says Lubrun. “Romelo Vilsaint was just doing his job as a journalist to inform.”

The general director of Haiti’s national police, Frantz Elbe, sent a statement of condolences to Vilsaint’s family and said that an investigation would be launched to establish how he died.

The police’s distrust for the media stems back to the dark days of Haiti’s dictatorship, said Mérancourt, but has grown this year as Port-Au-Prince’s streets became anarchic.

Police officers see journalists interviewing gangs or protesters as evidence that they have sided with them, said Louis-Henri Mars, the director of the Haitian peace-building non-profit Lakou Lapè.

“Some in the Haitian national police seem to accuse journalists of working for the gangs, as the journalists criticise how they repress the demonstrations,” Lapè said.

Police violence against journalists has become frequent as Henry’s government – with little military force or constitutional legitimacy – has lost control to the heavily armed gangs.

“Not only are the police failing to do the bare minimum to keep journalists safe, but in fact police officers are frequently the source of violence against the press,” Southwick said.

Attacking journalists has become a “tragically common” tactic under Henry to silence criticism and quell discontent, Mérancourt said. By cutting off press coverage, the police hope to cut off the oxygen to protests and clear people off the street.

And thanks to their impunity, which also stems back to Haiti’s dictatorship, Mérancourt said they can get away with it.

“People will tell you in Haiti that the freedom of the press comes with a price and the price to pay is sometimes your life. What nobody will tell you is that nobody will be held accountable for your death,” Mérancourt said.


Luke Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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