Freedom of the Press
Haiti’s media environment is pluralistic, but journalists face challenges including impunity for physical violence and threats, government and partisan influence, and entrenched poverty that makes it difficult to sustain independent media outlets. In 2015, as Haitians went to the polls in long-overdue elections, human rights and journalism organizations accused the government of using intimidation and bribery to limit critical media coverage.
- During a period of election-related protests in November and December, groups of unidentified assailants in two separate incidents threatened to burn down one radio station and fired automatic weapons at another.
- In a scandal that broke in January, President Michel Martelly’s administration was criticized for handing out envelopes of cash to journalists at a 2014 Christmas reception.
Legal Environment: 16 / 30 (↓1)
Haiti’s constitution protects the right to express opinions freely “on any matter by any means.” Censorship of the media is prohibited except in cases of war, and journalists cannot be compelled to reveal their sources.
Legal protections for freedom of the press are undermined in practice by the weak and underresourced law enforcement and judicial system. The police rarely apprehend suspects in assaults against journalists, and prosecutors and judges lack the capacity and political will to pursue cases. For example, a case against the bodyguard of a mayor for the 2012 shooting of Radio Télé Zénith reporter Wendy Phèle remained stalled in the courts in 2015. There was no significant progress in the prosecution of the 2000 murder of radio journalist Jean Léopold Dominique, and a key witness in the case was killed in March. In a partial victory, two police officers accused of assaulting Radio Télé Express journalist Gerdy Jeremie at a taxi drivers’ protest in November 2014 were ordered to pay damages to the victim, but only after delayed court hearings and public protest.
Defamation can be treated as both a civil and a criminal matter, meaning journalists face possible imprisonment, civil damages, and litigation costs. Some forms of criminal defamation, including insults against public officials, are punishable with up to three years in prison. Despite threats from the government in recent years, only a few criminal defamation cases against journalists have advanced beyond the initial charge, and no new complaints were reported in 2015.
Haiti has not adopted freedom of information legislation. The constitution requires the publication of all laws and decrees “on everything affecting the national life, except for information concerning national security.” Haitian and foreign journalists have reported that it is nearly impossible to obtain government documents and data in practice, with officials obstructing access for those whose work has been critical of the Martelly administration.
Radio stations that air critical reports on the government have faced attempts to raise their broadcast license fees. In 2014, the National Telecommunications Council (CONATEL), which issues licenses, threatened to sanction stations that “broadcast false information liable to disturb order, destabilize the Republic’s institutions and attack the integrity of many citizens.” The National Association of Haitian Media (ANMH) criticized these actions and stated that because CONATEL’s mandate is a technical one, it should not be involved with radio content. Since 2012, CONATEL has shut down more than 50 community radio stations on the grounds that they were operating illegally with improper licenses. In 2013, 10 of the stations appealed their closure and applied for legitimate licenses, but they were denied, with CONATEL allocating their frequencies to new stations.
In December 2011, media associations and journalists signed the first journalistic code of ethics, which included clauses pertaining to respect for individual dignity and privacy, prohibiting discrimination in journalistic work, and encouraging an unbiased and balanced treatment of information.
Political Environment: 18 / 40 (↓1)
Haitians have access to news and information that reflect a diversity of viewpoints. The government does not impose official censorship, but government attempts to influence media content are common, and journalists have economic incentives to self-censor to avoid damaging the political or business interests of their employers or funders.
Since taking office in 2011, President Martelly has been praised for his willingness to hold press conferences and his use of social media to communicate with the public. At the same time, journalists criticize the administration for using threats and derogatory language in response to questions from reporters. Martelly, who rose to fame as a Haitian Kompa musician, wrote a carnival song in December 2015 that insulted prominent journalist Liliane Pierre-Paul of Radio Télé Kiskeya, a frequent critic of the president. Journalists denounced the song as a direct attack on the media.
Threats and assaults against media personnel, including by police, are frequent enough to create a climate of fear among journalists whose work is critical of the government. As antigovernment demonstrations spiked in November and December in response to complaints of election fraud, so did attacks on the media. In the early morning of December 1, unidentified assailants sprayed the office of Radio Télé Kiskeya in Port-au-Prince with automatic gunfire, though no injuries were reported. A few days earlier, a group of armed individuals had denounced the head of Radio Télé Zénith and threatened to set fire to the premises. Both outlets reported that they and their staff had received death threats. Witnesses say journalists were attacked during the election-related protests, with both demonstrators and police destroying or seizing their equipment.
Also in 2015, community radio journalist Sony Estéus died of unknown causes in March, and Melodie FM journalist Marc Elie Pierre was murdered on a bus by unidentified assailants in April. Because of a lack of trust in the authorities, human rights organizations and journalists were reportedly suspicious about Estéus’s death, and it remained unclear whether Pierre’s murder was connected to his work. In July a police officer struck the motorcycle of Radio TV Signal cameraman Samus David François with his vehicle and subsequently beat him. A criminal complaint was filed, but the case made little progress during the year.
Economic Environment: 18 / 30
There are a number of privately owned print outlets in Haiti. However, with an estimated adult literacy rate of about 60 percent and no daily newspapers printed in Haitian Creole, the language spoken by most residents, radio is the main source of news and information. There are more than 300 radio stations across Haiti, though not all carry news content. Many privately owned television stations also operate, but audiences are limited by cost hurdles and lack of electricity. There are no government restrictions on internet access. Roughly 12 percent of Haitians used the medium in 2015.
The concentration of wealth among a small number of Haitians and the effects of the 2010 earthquake have negatively affected media outlets’ ability to obtain advertising revenue and sustain themselves financially. Journalists also struggle with low salaries, and economic hardship has led some outlets and journalists to accept bribes. Many journalists hold multiple jobs, some of which create significant conflicts of interest.
In January 2015, Radio Télé Kiskeya denounced an incident in which the president’s office handed out “gifts” of cash ranging from $870 to $1,100 to Haitian journalists at a Christmas reception in 2014. In November 2015, Haiti’s communications minister announced that the government would help finance car loans for journalists, which also raised concerns about corruption.