Amid spiraling violence against the press, Haiti is in desperate need of support and solutions to restore law and security, end impunity, and establish safe working conditions for journalists whose work is essential in rebuilding democracy.

The broader instability that has been plaguing Haiti since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 is mirrored in the country’s steeply deteriorating level of press freedom and journalist safety. Journalists are not only caught in the crossfire of violent clashes between gangs and remaining police forces but also deliberately targeted by both groups. At least three journalists have been killed and six kidnapped in the first seven months of 2023 alone, according to IPI data.

The list of incidents also includes an arson attack on independent broadcaster Radio Antarctique on July 23, 2023. The station was burned down by a gang in the town of Liancourt. Roderson Elisas, the founder of the one-year-old broadcaster, said in media interviews that it wasn’t the first time the station had been targeted or threatened.

IPI recently spoke with Joseph Guyler C. Delva, a prominent Haitian journalist, the editor-in-chief for the Haitian-Caribbean News Network, and the founder and secretary-general of Haitian media watchdog SOS Journalistes.

Delva told IPI that the increased violence, threats, and lack of access to information have significantly hampered the work of journalists and other media professionals in Haiti.

“Press freedom predators act in very subtle ways in Haiti. Journalists often feel obliged to restrict themselves or do certain things that they would never have done if their personal survival and that of their families were not in jeopardy”, Delva said. “For example, journalists are not supposed to accept and receive any particular favours from news sources. But it tends to be normal in Haiti given the current social and economic situation.”

Reflecting on urgent needs, Delva added: “The first thing to do is to empower journalists so they have access to a minimum standard of living. Otherwise, all efforts towards establishing a free, independent, objective, professionally and ethically responsible press will be in vain – nothing but wishful thinking.”

Deadly year for the Haitian press

In 2022, IPI documented eight cases of journalists killed in relation to their work, making Haiti the world’s third-deadliest country for journalists. These alarming killings include the double homicide of Amady John Wesley and Wilguens Louissaint in January when the two men were burned alive by gang members and by the shooting of Maximilien Lazard by police during a demonstration in March. In September, Tayson Latigue and Frantzsen Charles were shot by gang members while the journalists were covering escalating gang violence. The body of radio commentator Garry Tess was found six days after he went missing in October. The tragic year of 2022 ended with Fritz Dorilas and Francklin Tamar being shot near their homes in November and December, respectively.

This year has followed the same grim pattern. Radio host Paul Jean-Marie was shot dead in May by armed individuals, possibly by gang members. The body of journalist Ricot Jean was found in a field a day after he was reportedly kidnapped by men in police uniforms. Radio reporter Dumesky Kersaint was killed by a stray bullet while covering demonstrations in Carrefour in April.

With a dysfunctional justice system and under-resourced police force, Haiti is in a state of chronic impunity. Attacks against journalists are rarely investigated and often go unpunished.

“The failed state Haiti has become, for quite a time now, favours the unchallenged occurrence of such level of criminality. All major government and civil institutions have collapsed. And the situation may worsen at any time, for journalists and the rest of the population”, Delva told IPI.

Kidnappings are also on the rise. In the first seven months of 2023, gangs or unknown individuals have kidnapped and later released, in most cases in exchange for ransom, at least six journalists, including Sandra Duvivier, Jean Thony Lorthé, Lebrun Saint-Hubert, Robert Denis, Marie Lucie Bonhomme and the latest addition Blondine Tanis. 

On June 20, the Vil’homme gang abducted Pierre-Louis Opont, the husband of Marie Lucie Bonhomme, who believes Opont’s disappearance is related to her work. He was later released after two months in captivity. The kidnapping of Opont led to a protest by Haitian journalists demanding tougher penalties for kidnappings and other criminal acts and vowing to soon launch a country-wide anti-kidnapping campaign, including through broadcasting messages on all radio and television stations. Delva believes the campaign will have a significant impact.

What happened in Haiti?

For years, Haiti has suffered from political unrest, rising gang violence, and a humanitarian crisis deepened by earthquakes, famine and widespread human rights abuses. More recently, the country has been facing a constitutional crisis without a single democratically elected government official since January 10, 2023, when the parliamentary term of the last 10 remaining senators expired and they left office. All local authorities’ terms expired in 2020. Haiti has no functioning justice system and the police force is outgunned by the various gangs that have taken control of urban areas, especially the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

The current prime minister, Ariel Henry, was appointed to his position without parliament’s approval and has been ruling by decree for two years. His rule is widely seen as illegitimate. Henry has failed to hold long-overdue elections multiple times, despite appointing a transition council this February charged with appointing an electoral body to organize general elections.

The situation has led to an ongoing debate on the need for international intervention to stabilize crisis-torn Haiti and lead the country to a path towards a stable society with democracy, safety, and access to basic necessities for everyone in need. Delva thinks that even though Haitian actors should play a leading role in any solution, the country’s current politicians are not capable of solving the multiple crises Haiti is facing.

“I believe the country won’t be able to exit the current political and socio-economic mess without the help of an external security force to first stabilize the situation in Haiti”, he said.

Support for Haitian journalists

Local press freedom organization SOS Journalistes has taken steps to ease the financial struggles of Haitian journalists by setting up a Solidarity Fund which will assist journalists in the most dire situations. Delva added that, in the long term, in order to protect journalists from threats, financial pressure, or intimidation, media companies would also need to provide better pay for media workers.

Another way SOS Journalistes is tackling the threat to the journalistic profession under challenging circumstances is a series of training sessions around Haiti to “help journalists better assimilate and practice press freedom in a more professional and responsible manner”, according to Delva.

When asked how the international community can support Haitian journalists and press freedom in Haiti, Delva highlighted the need for systematic denunciation of press freedom violations, organization and support for training programmes for Haitian journalists, financial assistance, or short field missions.

Delva said support, solidarity, and sustained attention from international colleagues significantly help protect journalists in Haiti, adding that “just a show of interest from international journalists and organizations is probably the reason why government authorities here have so far refrained from brutally muzzling the press.”