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It’s a political firefight on Haitian radio

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- They arrive one by one, taking their seats around the expansive table with worn chairs and color-coded microphones, ready to shred opponents in the battle to shape public opinion.

Every Saturday, on the Haitian radio version of CNN’s Crossfire, politicians, pundits, critics and want to-be kingmakers vie for a chance to lob accusations, cross verbal swords and debate Haiti’s future. Bickering politicians drop in unannounced, pro-government operatives fire off text messages defending the administration and everyone tries to avoid the shrapnel from the latest political bombshells.

This is Ranmase, where there is no studio audience, no applause meter and no stop clock — just the amplified sound of Creole-accented voices emanating throughout the city.

In taxi cabs and beauty shops, from Port-au-Prince to Paris to Miami and Montreal, listeners tune in for the political firefight. And it’s all happening in a country where free speech historically has been repressed.

“This is a Saturday ritual. You have to listen in,” said Steven Benoit, a maverick senator and frequent guest. “After the show, you go on the Internet or into the streets, and everybody is talking about what was said on Ranmase.”

Moderating the show is Jean Monard Metellus, a respected journalist who at times is more a quiet ringleader than a referee.

“This is the people’s courtroom,” said Metellus, host of the broadcast since 2004. “ Ranmase is the intersection of all the ideas of society, and the bringing together of all the actors who make the news.”

But bringing such a disparate cast of characters to the table on Ranmase — English for “to wrap up” – doesn’t mean it’s “going to necessarily end with a handshake,” Metellus warns.

Lately, the case on trial has been the deepening problems of President Michel Martelly as his administration faces growing discontent over rising food prices, allegations of corruption and a protracted political crisis over installing a permanent electoral council. With monthly protests clogging the streets of Haitian cities, the president’s problems are playing out over the radio.

A recent broadcast on Martelly’s woes went on uninterrupted for five-and-a-half hours. One government minister stormed out after losing her temper. Another government defender foundered so badly that a colleague was forced to parachute in to the broadcast to rescue him.

This is the weekly drama that has audiences hanging on to every word — not for the information, but for the theatrics. They listen to the broadcast live, via the Internet and even over a local U.S. call-in number.

But while radio plays a critical role in this largely illiterate society, critics say the popular program, which has the ear of the masses, could do better.

“I would like to see Ranmase address public policy as well as governance issues,” said Laurette Backer, who recently moved back to Haiti from New York to assist in running a family school. “Politics for politics’ sake does not lead anywhere.”

Still Backer, who spent 20 years as a litigation and forensics expert, doesn’t miss a moment.

She isn’t the only one.

A Media Consumption Survey presented to the U.S. Embassy by the Haiti polling firm, d.a.g.m.a.r., showed Ranmase is the top non-religious show on radio. It is found on Radio Television Caraibes, the most popular radio station in the country.

Born in the dawn of Haiti’s 1994-95 transition from military-backed rule to democracy, Ranmase was created as a place for debate and analysis, said Caraibes owner Patrick Moussignac.

“The show is undeniably an important part of our learning experiences of democracy because debates with opposing sides are still rare here,” said Liliane Pierre-Paul, a respected radio journalist.

Still, speaking out remains risky business in Haiti where the murders of 12 journalists since 2000 remain unsolved, according to a recent press freedom study by the University of San Francisco Law School and the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

While conditions have vastly improved, Martelly’s hostility toward journalists “has created an atmosphere of fear and a chilling effect on journalists’ freedom of expression,” according to the study.

Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe dismisses the study’s claims.

Martelly has “people on the radio talking bad about him the whole day from the opposition and they are doing so freely,” he said. “There is no arrest of these people or anything.”

To tune in to Ranmase is to eavesdrop publicly on Haiti’s dysfunctional democracy.

“It is an arena where the good, the bad and the ugly compete with each other and the population listens,” said Michel Eric Gaillard, a political analyst who has appeared on the show over the objections of friends. “You can hear the most amazing things. It’s where culture, politics, and social conflicts burst open.”

Take for instance the time Gaillard, a light-skinned Haitian, found himself having to justify his “Haitian-ness” after a fellow guest challenged him.

The guest, a former presidential candidate who is darker, looked at Gaillard and said, “We here are all children of Dessalines, but you must be able to prove it.”

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, former slave-turned-fighter, is one of the founding fathers of Haitian independence.

Gaillard didn’t flinch at the insinuation that he was a foreigner because of his skin color.

“I told him I have two great-grandfathers who were generals during the independence of Haiti and who are signatories of the act of independence of Haiti. Yes, I can prove it,’’ Gaillard said.

This is what’s called a “psychological assassination,” in which one guest targets another in hopes of winning the debate — much like the recent appearance by Sen. Moise Jean-Charles, a fierce Martelly opponent who has accused the president and several government ministers of holding foreign passports, making them ineligible to serve.

On this particular day, Jean-Charles’ target was Tourism Minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin, who has faced the accusation of holding a foreign passport.

“I’d like to have your opinion as a foreigner,” Jean-Charles said to Villedrouin, who was caught off guard and sat in stunned silence.

As the program swirled around her, she would never regain her voice. When she did try to speak, Jean-Charles kept interrupting.

Finally, a fellow government minister, Rose-Anne Auguste, grabbed Villedrouin and declared in a huff: “Let’s go, Steph. We are not going to stay among these mediocre” people.

“On my Facebook, they all commented that Stephanie Villedrouin was at the wrong place, at the wrong time, in front of the wrong senator who spat in her face,” said political blogger and avid listener Jean-Junior Joseph.

The presence of government ministers and advisors on the show week after week is no accident, said Metellus.

“Martelly does not like Caraibes and Ranmase. But every Saturday he sends us members of his team to prevent the opposition from taking over the show and convey ideas that are unfavorable,” Metellus said. “He knows the importance of communication in the political battle.”