Americas Extra: Healing Aftershocks in Haiti

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Haiti by all accounts is only slowly rebuilding from January’s devastating earthquake, the dilatory progress a legacy of the island’s deep poverty and congenitally dysfunctional government. As Damien Cave reported in The New York Times lat month, Port-au-Prince residents still forced to live in tents and under tarpaulins are piling rubble in intersections, hoping to force city authorities to clear it.

Yet, the nation’s largest daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, is back publishing five days a week with a staff of journalists nearly at its pre-earthquake level — despite extensive damage to its presses and offices and the personal tragedies in the families of nearly all employees, including the deaths of a reporter and the editor-in-chief of its sibling popular weekly, Ticket.

That’s a testament to the father-and-son team of Max and Jean-Max Chauvet — but also to the Haiti News Project, the initiative begun by the American Society of News Editors and the Inter American Press Association that now includes more than a dozen organizations. The Project intends to rebuild, and improve, Haiti’s press by concentrating its efforts on the nation’s small number of newspapers with reconstruction aid, donations of laptops and other equipment, and training, especially in investigative journalism so the papers can monitor whether aid from around the world is being spent wisely or squandered and stolen.

Haiti’s newspapers are relatively small — La Nouvelliste sold just 14,000 copies daily before the quake — and, because they are published in French, incomprehensible to large numbers of Haitians who speak only Creole. Yet they are vital in the process of informing Haitians, who get their news from the radio.

But just as in the U.S., radio depends on newsgathering by newspapers, says Joe Oglesby, the former Miami Herald editorial page editor who runs the Haiti News Project. “It’s even much more so in Haiti where the newspapers have the biggest news staffs,” he said, “and 80% to 90% of the news is broadcast by radio, with the majority of those stations one- or two-man operations. These newspapers are really critical in getting the information out, and setting the agenda.”

In the weeks after the earthquake, The Miami Herald dispatched an engineer to assess the damage to La Nouvelliste’s presses. IAPA found an institution willing to make low-cost loans for repair or replacement of the equipment. The Project donated laptops, and tents for homeless staffers.

By early June, the Project had collected $61,000 — including a single $25,000 from Google’s charitable foundation arm — and was helping other papers including Le Matin and Haiti Libre, which had just six computers before the quake and lost three of them.

But the Project still must figure out how to deal with two seemingly intractable problems to come from the quake: the disappearance of 75% of its advertisers with little prospect of their return, and pay that has been cut in half since the Jan. 12 disaster.

The equipment donations are a first stage, Oglesby says, to be followed by training that takes into account Haitian culture and information needs, and finally a permanent center for investigative reporting: “When we leave, we want Haitian journalism to be better than when we came.”

Contributions to the Haiti News Project can be made online at asne.org, or by check to ASNE Foundation, 11690B Sunrise Valley Dr., Reston, Va., 20191. More information about helping is available at HaitiNewsProject.wordpress.com.

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