“Shut up,” said President Michel Martelly to members of the national press that, in his views, kept tourists and potential investors at bay, depicting Haiti as a desolate, hostile environment. “Why don’t you just shut up,” he reportedly reiterated during a short speech at the initial launch of Magic Haiti, a magazine dedicated to promoting the country’s tourism. “The tourist or investor who would like to visit Haiti become hesitant listening to the news,” continued Martelly. “I don’t listen to them nor do I read them,” he told the crowd in attendance.
The event, organized by Le Nouvelliste, the oldest Haitian daily in partnership with the Touristic Association of Haiti (ATH), was part of Tourism Development Week scheduled from July 25 to 30, 2011. That initiative took the president on a national tour to meet actors and leaders of the industry to share his visions as well as the role he would like the industry to play in the reconstruction schematic.
“Journalists are not the one saying bad things about Haiti,” replied Jacques Derosier, secretary-general of the Association of Haitian Journalists (AJH). “It is the actors who reflect poorly on the country, painting a negative image of Haiti, and the journalists simply report the actions of those actors,” he added.
The tense relationship between the president and the media did not originate with his national tour, however. In fact, sporadic flares have bubbled to the surface since the presidential campaign when an aggressive Haïtian press, highly critical of then candidate Martelly, questioned his moral, ethical and intellectual integrity to head the highest office. “Let him bring it on,” the then candidate warned Goston Pierre, editor and journalist of the online news organization AlterPress, during a debate with former first lady candidate Mirlande Manigat. “They sent him to attack me! I’m ready for them and the people can see it too,” he cautioned.
Pierre provoked that reaction from the candidate when he repeatedly cited a Miami Herald article that revealed Martelly lost three Florida homes in the sub-prime mortgage crisis that swept through the United States and much of the world. According to the debate’s organizers, the journalists and both candidates agreed, for the sake of fairness, questions that could not be asked of both candidates were not allowed. Organizers even issued an apology to Martelly after the debate for failing to prevent the line of questioning.
It was nonetheless, the latest episode that set the national press ablaze, denouncing the president’s complete disregard for Article 28 of the Haitian Constitution. “Journalists shall freely exercise their profession within the framework of the law. Such exercise may not be subject to any authorization or censorship, except in the case of war,” declared article 28.1.
However, the Haitian media does not enjoy a robust First Amendment protection, as do their counterparts in the United States. Landmark cases such as New York Time vs. Sullivan, a cornerstone in the freedom of the American Press would never make it pass article 28.3 of the Haitian Constitution that stipulates, “All offenses involving the press and abuses of the right of expression come under the code of criminal law.”
Actual malice, which put the burden of proof on accusers in the U.S., is virtually nonexistent to Haitian reporters, empowering anyone with some authority and a little motivation to conspire and destroy the spirit of article 28.1, journalists’ individual rights with it. Therefore, the tidal wave of media concerns and complaints caused by President Martelly’s sobering statements were not misplaced or exaggerated. The national press, fully aware of the blurry line between warnings from government officials and human rights violations in Haiti, made a huge splash, rejecting the president’s premise.
Derosier asserted, “They were a direct assault on freedom of the press.” He called Martelly’s media relations communication counter-productive and urged journalists to maintain their professionalism and resist such intimidation tactics. “Freedom of the press is not given freely,” he said, reminding his colleagues, “It is rather earned through tough challenges and major sacrifices,” according to Le Nouvelliste.
Tensions escalated further during President Martelly’s tour. News organizations cataloged several incidents taken place between attending journalists and members of the president’s security detail, prompting a meeting between the Head of State and reporters.
As several news reports indicated, Martelly’s security personnel forced journalists waiting on the president in the lobby of hotel Cap Lamandou to vacate the area. Reporters were covering a president’s meeting with hotel managers of Jacmel, historic city in Southeastern Haiti known for its pristine beaches and tourist attractions. Some journalists, according to the Agency of Haitian Press (AHP), ran from what they characterized as threatening acts from security agents, leaving their equipment behind. As a result, the South Eastern Association of Journalists (AJSE) decided to boycott the president’s visit, actions that forced President Martelly to them in a meeting where he apologized to them for the ill-advise behavior of his agents and provided details about his visit to the region.
The Jacmel incident was not an isolated case, though. Journalists faced similar situations all along the president’s itinerary. Some reporters had their equipment confiscated and, in some instances, destroyed by agents while the president visited a super market consumed by fire in Gonaives, a coastal city also known as the capital of the Artibonite Department, located about 93 miles north of Port-au-Prince. Earlier that week, Associations of Northern Journalists protested the behavior of those agents, who reportedly shoved and push them, rather violently, during Martelly’s visit in Cap-Haitien, the country’s second largest city.
Haitian press will not shut up because it offers the people a platform for the redressing of their grievances.”
As a rattled Haitian press flooded the atmosphere with complaints and outrage, the most poignant remarks came from some analysts who conceptualized the Tourism Development Week. The media that was supposed to report on the president’s tour and help revive the tourism industry, they reasoned, forcibly wrote about drama and conflicts with the president and his personnel; hence, sucking needed oxygen from a momentous initiative perceived by President Martelly as a sustainable revenue stream for the country’s long-term development.