As tensions continue to escalate in Haiti over president, journalists come under attack

The day before a journalist was gunned down near downtown Port-au-Prince and anti-government protesters attacked a Haitian broadcast station, someone plastered the station’s exterior yellow walls with images of President Donald Trump and Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.

“It said ‘Down with Donald Trump’ and ‘Long Live Maduro,’ ” said Jean Lucien Borges, 60, the owner of Radio Télé Ginen, recalling the threats against his Port-au-Prince TV and radio station after it began showing images of demonstrators turning violent Sunday. The protesters were demanding the ouster of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in a new round of anti-government and anti-corruption protests.

On Monday, as the first day of a two-day strike paralyzed Port-au-Prince, the threats went beyond just posters of Trump and Maduro that were also plastered around the capital. A crowd of protesters had barricaded both ends of Delmas 31, where Radio Télé Ginen is located, with burning tires, Borges said, and proceeded to burn and loot a van, while setting fire to several other vehicles. Vehicles that weren’t burned were vandalized with rocks before police arrived.

“All of our journalists were inside,” Borges said.

In Haiti’s escalating tensions over corruption allegations against Moïse and fresh demands for his resignation, journalists are increasingly becoming targets of aggression as both sides accuse them of working for or against the government. Their Twitter handles are being photoshopped with fake tweets. Their images are being distributed in videos. Their cars are being burned. And they are being physically attacked.

A local journalist tries to throw water on a burning vehicle that belongs to Radio Télé Ginen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, June 10, 2019. Edris Fortune AP

The deadliest of the aggressions came Monday night when radio journalist Rospide Pétion, 45, was gunned down in Portal Léogâne in Port-au-Prince while on his way home. He had just finished his broadcast for Radio Sans Fin, and was driving home when people approached his car and opened fire, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement condemning the killing.

“The Haitian authorities must shed light on this sordid execution and bring to justice those responsible for the death,“ said Emmanuel Colombié, director of the Latin America office for Reporters Without Borders. “It is also the responsibility of the government to guarantee the safety of the journalists covering the demonstrations, whose role during this turbulent period is fundamental. “

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Pétion’s final broadcast was about the allegations against Moïse, who has been implicated in two government audits on the misuse of billions of dollars from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe oil program. He also denounced the attacks against Radio Télé Ginen by demonstrators.

“This is outrageous and unacceptable,” the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a Boston-based human rights group said. It added that it had once represented Pétion, who had survived being a political prisoner in 2004-05.

On Tuesday, Moïse, who has yet to speak publicly since auditors sent a second audit on May 31 to the president of the Senate, condemned the attacks against Radio Télé Ginen and Pétion in two separate tweets..

“The assassination of RSF’s journalist Rospide Pétion is a heinous act. I vehemently condemn this despicable crime,” he said. “Once again, the Haitian press is in mourning.”

Several media organizations have also spoken out about the attacks and demand that police protect journalists.

“Let the journalists and media do their job,” the Association of National Haitian Media and the Association of Independent Media of Haiti said in a joint statement. “Do not attack their vehicles. Do not attack their buildings. Do not prevent them from moving freely.”

“Attacks against journalists, attacks against media.... are contrary to democracy, they are contrary to freedom of the press, they are contrary to the freedom of expression,” Jacques Desrosiers, the secretary general of the Association of Haitian Journalists, told Magik 9 radio station Tuesday morning.

Tensions continued Tuesday. Schools were closed, business shuttered their doors after briefly opening, and anti-corruption activists and opposition parties continue to push for the ouster of Moïse. The U.S. State Department, which had raised its travel advisory level to 4 — Do Not Travel — after protests in February locked the country down for more than a week, lowered it to 3 — Reconsider Travel — and lifted the evacuation order for American embassy employees in Port-au-Prince.

Journalists and staff walk outside of Radio Télé Ginen after it was vandalized during a protest demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, June 10, 2019. Edris Fortune AP

With the deepening crisis, 21 members of the Lower Chamber of Deputies have written to chamber president Gary Bodeau demanding a special session on the impeachment of Moïse when Parliament reopens. They are asking for impeachment to be debated and voted on. Impeachment requires a two-thirds vote of the 117-member chamber. Meanwhile, social media savvy protesters decided to go after the president on Twitter and launched a new challenged, #UnfollowJovenelMoise. By 10:53 p.m. Moïse. had lost over 5,000 followers in five hours.

Borges said threats had been building since Sunday against his broadcast station, which aired images of protesters burning a market near the Champ de Mars, and other scenes during the demonstrations, which attracted thousands of marchers in the capital and also took place in other cities across Haiti.

“We received... anonymous phone calls that said, ‘We are coming for you,” he said.. “On Monday, there weren’t any protests but there was tension in the streets.”

Outside the building, his reporters heard motorcycles as they chased a presidential police backup vehicle the riders accused of firing onto a crowd and shooting one of their own. As they continued to chase the police vehicle, Borges said, some of the riders on the motorcycles yelled, “We’re coming back for you.”

“We have to protect press freedom. We can’t let it go,” he said.

Though he doesn’t know why his station has become a target, it’s not the first time. Borges said that in 2004, during the uprising against president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, foes of the president fired shots at his station, which provides nationwide coverage of events in much the same way state-owned Télévision Nationale d’Haïti does. That station also had one of its reporters attacked on Friday. Two days later, one of its videographers was harassed by protesters, while a photographer with Le Nouvelliste newspaper also was injured by a rubber bullet.

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A protester passes burning tires during a demonstration to demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, June 10, 2019. Opposition leaders in Haiti launched a two-day strike that paralyzed the country’s capital amid another day of protests. Edris Fortune AP

Journalists in Haiti are underpaid and sometimes become mouthpieces for hire. “The press has become mixed with personal and political interests,” Borges said.

Like other journalists and media owners, he said he’s shaken by the news of Pétion’s death, which is still being investigated by police. It’s a reminder of the early 2000s when several journalists were killed, their murders still unsolved today.

“When we allow intolerance, it will come back to haunt us one day. No one is exempt,” Borges said. “Any one of us can become a victim at any moment.”

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.