On the Ground: Journalism Ethics in Haiti

By Kathie Klarreich

A few months into my Knight International Journalism Fellowship in Haiti, I was conducting a training session in a radio newsroom in the capital when a reporter danced through the open door. He proudly announced that he’d just bagged a big contract to run a presidential candidate’s campaign for the upcoming election.

I asked him to repeat himself, unsure I’d heard correctly. But I had. He was about to boogie out when I asked if that wasn’t a conflict of interest. He slowed, as if now maybe he was the one who hadn’t heard right.

Fifteen minutes later, I’d changed his footing but not his mind. The only conflict he saw was how he was going to juggle his time between running the newsroom and running the candidate’s campaign.

Over the past few decades in Haiti, I’ve amassed dozens of comparable cases: the head of a news agency acting as a consultant for a government ministry; a radio presenter working full time for Haiti’s Office of National Identity; a print reporter writing reports for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization; a correspondent in the countryside working with an international non-governmental organization. I’ve even met reporters who have been candidates for rural positions at the same time they are preparing daily news reports on themselves.

In many cases, the bottom line is economic. According to PANOS, a non-profit information agency, Haitian journalists earn $100 to $500 a month; those in the countryside earn significantly less. I’ve met journalists in the capital who make more, but they are the exception and often work for several media outlets. Journalists do not receive benefits of any kind, including health insurance.

Given that, it’s no wonder they are on the prowl for more than information. A few hundred dollars a month, especially for those trying to support a family, is at best a stretch, even in a country whose tag line is inevitably “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” Correspondents in the countryside who earn $10 a week have to pay their related expenses — transportation, phone cards, Internet service — to relay their stories. How can one possibly pay rent, food or school tuition for the kids, too?

As a result, decisions that may seem unethical elsewhere in the world are status quo here. It was a consideration in planning my trainings on investigative reporting, which was my mission as a Knight Fellow. If I was going to push journalists into investigating — people, companies, organizations and their government — I felt obliged to at least have them examine their own ethical behavior.

To do that, I wanted to devise ways to make the issues relevant and specific to their situation. I used the French version of the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics for starters, which I translated into Creole, my language of choice for the trainings as it’s the one spoken by the entire population, not just the educated. And I provided them a copy of the Association of Haitian Journalists ethical code of conduct.

But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to point out where the big issues would be and where the less obvious dilemmas might hide, highlighting not just how a reporter sees his or her own situation, but allowing them to consider how they would apply responsible reporting decision-making out in the field.

So I devised several group exercises that became, in the end, the liveliest, and most popular, part of every training session I did. After dividing the journalists into small groups, I presented each with a scenario I adapted from something that has or could have happened here.

Two examples:

1) The government of the Dominican Republic has built a university for Haiti in the northern town of Limonade, a seven-hour drive from the capital where you work. Your radio station, which specializes in education, cannot fund your trip, but encourages you to take the bus the Dominican government has made available for the press. It will depart at 4 a.m. and return late that evening. Meanwhile you have a friend who works for the Dominican embassy. He has offered you a spot on one of the embassy helicopters, which will be leaving at 10 a.m. and will return to the capital by 2 p.m. What do you decide to do, and why?

2) As part of an investigation, you are trying to find Person A. The police have had a warrant for his arrest for the past five years. But everyone in town knows where Person A lives, including you — you’ve gone to his house numerous times, but he is “never home.” One day someone calls the television station where you work and says that Person A is having lunch at a nearby restaurant. Someone from your station verifies that he is actually there. Do you call the police, go with your camera and ask for an interview, do nothing? Explain your action and the reason behind it.

In response to the first example, most of the journalists resigned themselves to taking the bus, but a few had no trouble jumping on the helicopter. “It’s a much better use of my time,” said one radio reporter. (The names of all reporters in this piece have been omitted for obvious reasons.)

No one in any of the trainings I led considered the possibility of staying at home and not covering the event, which is what most ethical handbooks recommend.

There was a bit of nervous laughter when the group in Jeremie discussed the second scenario because a fugitive rebel leader, Guy Philippe, who has been wanted for years by the US Drug Enforcement Agency for trafficking, lives there. Some journalists wanted to interview him; others wanted to ignore his presence. No one wanted to call the police because they believe the local enforcement agents are complicit in Philippe’s ability to live in relative peace.

This wasn’t the only conversation that generated heat in Jeremie. When my training partner, Association of Haitian Journalists President Jacques Desrosier, asked the journalists to propose topics to investigate, there was an uncomfortable silence. The group of 25 cracked jokes and tried to veer the topic toward other things. After nearly 30 minutes, we wondered if there was any point in continuing with the training, since researching an actual investigation was an integral part of our two-weekend training.

Finally, one of the senior journalists stood up and faced his colleagues. “Let’s be serious,” he said. “We all know why we’re not talking about the thousands of dollars worth of checks that have disappeared from the municipal office of the Economic Ministry here. Or the 50 250-gallon water drums that were earmarked for cholera treatment centers which are unaccounted for — some of which are being used for the newly opened car washes. It’s because we’re all protecting our ‘other’ jobs.”

When he sat down, the room went silent. Jacques and I looked at each other; in all our trainings across the country, this was the first time that anyone addressed the double-dipping so bluntly.

For a few minutes, no one said anything. Then another journalist stood up. “OK. We have two choices,” he said, spreading his arms out wide. “We can decide not to investigate anything, or those of us who work for the government can investigate the Tuff Tanks, and those of us who work for the NGOs can investigate the mismanagement of the checks.”

In the end, the Tuff Tank story was the only one written, but that had more to do with the fact that it was impossible to get anyone to speak on the record about the checks that had disappeared. Unfortunately, Le Matin, the Port-au-Prince newspaper that received the Tuff Tank article, didn’t publish it. No explanation was given.

Still, it was a coup that the journalists addressed a dilemma that’s stunted the power of the press and contributed to its reputation of being partial and unreliable.

Partiality has always been an issue. What has changed, however, is the level of education of journalists. The Haitian colleagues I worked with in the 1990s were, for the most part, more highly educated than the crop hitting the airwaves today. And they saw themselves as career reporters, though now, 25 years later, they have either left the country, have created their own media, or are employed by one of the organizations or government entities they used to watchdog. This leaves precious few role models for the newer crop of journalists who are employed on a rotating basis among the 50-plus radio stations that jam the airways of the capital.

And that’s post-earthquake, when more than a dozen stations were damaged and at least half that many destroyed completely. Funds were dedicated to getting the media back on the ground, especially as income from advertising dropped to single digits.

For the most part, the media has recovered, though only one of the country’s two daily newspapers, Le Nouvelliste, is back to daily printing. Radio remains the most popular form of communication — pre-earthquake more than 90 percent of the population had access to a radio; there were more than 300 stations nationwide. Not all of them, however, had newsrooms.

And even for those that do, the kind of discussions that happen have more to do with what news conference is being held that day than anything resembling ethics. It’s not that media owners don’t know their reporters are two-timing; it’s again a dollar deal — they don’t want to pay more. When I offered, through a special grant I’d received, to hire designated investigative journalists at $500 a month for a trial period, several radio owners refused, saying they couldn’t bring on a new person at a higher salary than they were paying their more seasoned reporters.

The end result is that many journalists don’t see journalism as a career as much as they do a stepping stone for a better-paying job. Being a journalist opens doors they might otherwise not have access to.

That presents other temptations. One radio station owner told me of a telling conversation he had with a parliamentarian he ran into at a social gathering. The parliamentarian told the owner that he didn’t have a problem with the fact that the owner had just fired his “guy.” “What upset him,” the owner said with a wry laugh, “was that I’d fired his guy after he’d paid him his monthly salary.”

That’s not to disparage the sincere, honest and dedicated reporters who are out pounding the streets. Or to say that no improvements have been made in raising the standards of reporting and ethics. For the first time ever, a joint code of ethics was signed in December by eight entities: two of the largest media-owner associations, two journalist associations, two community radio associations, one photography association and one multimedia association. None of these groups had ever come together on any media issue before. Enforcement is still a problem, but at least there’s a consensus on what the bottom line should be.

And from the results I’ve seen in my own trainings, there’s a strong desire for young students not yet jaded by the media to play a part in Haiti’s reconstruction, by presenting strong, ethical and balanced stories.

The financial pull will always be great — Haiti recently lost one of its most dynamic reporters to the World Bank, where the salary was exponentially higher than his combined earnings from two full-time reporting jobs. But another journalist I have been working with has refused to take a government position. This, despite the financial load that comes with being a new father and a part-time student.

I can’t bank on which of the aforementioned examples will overshadow the other. I just hope that over time media owners recognize the value of good reporting and reward their journalists appropriately, so the incentive to stay in the field — and not search for supplemental income by accepting a job that has even the perception of a conflict of interest — becomes the rule and not the exception.

It won’t happen overnight; nothing in Haiti does. But there’s evidence to suggest that the trend is moving in the right direction as more people are now engaged in the conversation.

This article was originally published in Quill magazine. It has been used by permission of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Kathie Klarreich has lived in and covered Haiti for 25 years for print, radio and television; 1988-1998 is chronicled in her memoir “Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti.” In March she completed a 19-month Knight International Journalism Fellowship training Haitian journalists in investigative reporting. For more on her experience in Haiti, see FIJHaitiEnglish.blogspot.com.


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