London-based Canadian journalist Isabeau Doucet spent a year in Haiti shortly after the January 2010 earthquake that killed over 300,000 people. Here she talks about the day-to-day issues facing reporters there.
“I’ve always paid attention to what’s been happening in Haiti and it’s always fascinated me how the different competing social and political interests work there. After the earthquake, I was reading obsessively about what was happening and thought some of the international actors – the UN peacekeepers, NGOs, evangelists, reconstruction contractors, journalists and so on – were playing a dubious role. I didn't want to be another foreigner going in there thinking I could improve things, so I was very reluctant to go. I ended up organising a conference for an American journalist called Kim Ives who was visiting London. He was the one who convinced me that I should go out. And I thought why not? I wanted to document what was going on without being sure I’d necessarily be able to help anyone. That would have been too presumptuous.
I got to Haiti in July 2010, not long after the quake, and started working with human rights lawyer Mario Joseph – and then Al-Jazeera English, The Nation and The Guardian, among others. It was a real eye-opener seeing such basic services lacking: people lining up around the block in the hot sun trying to withdraw money from the bank or fetch water. These are basic things that we take for granted in the developed world and yet, for them, they were huge – almost insurmountable – obstacles.
Getting around to cover stories I sometimes had a lift, but pretty soon I had to learn how to use tap-taps [public transport pickups]. At first I didn’t know how safe it was and didn’t know what to expect because Haiti has such as reputation. Very quickly I realised that there was no reason for me to have worries – these were more based on my own prejudices. Being French Canadian meant I was able to pick up Creole quickly and communicate. Learning Creole, although it has lots of French in it, can be a challenge for reporters because of the time it takes to learn – but it proved to be a key asset in connecting with Haitians. Unfortunately, even basic Creole is not mandatory for many UN peacekeepers, NGOs and international humanitarians working in Haiti.
'Some stories out of Haiti are disconnected to subtelties on the ground'
I think the most dangerous thing I did on a regular basis was take a moto [motorbike taxi]. There are so many potholes, the traffic is so bad and the vehicles are extremely old. Having said that, several times I found myself in Cité Soleil – one of Port-au-Prince’s most notorious shantytowns – as the sun was going down and it felt uncomfortable. But no one ever tried to physically assault or even intimidate me. There’s this huge prejudice towards Haiti – people equate poverty and blackness with danger in a way that is completely unjustified. The times I was a bit spooked but that had more to do with the extreme levels of poverty. You see things there that you just don’t see anywhere else. I remember seeing several people in the street, naked and covered in what looked like black tar, sitting listless like they'd given up trying.
It was interesting being in Port-au-Prince during the 2011 presidential elections and then leaving to visit Montréal a week later and seeing how the Canadian media was covering the post-election violence. It made it sound like Haitians didn’t understand democracy and couldn’t stop fighting each other. There seems to be a fixed narrative about covering Haiti – it’s a failed state and the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But there’s so much more to the country than that. There’s so much literary and artistic creativity and tourism potential for example.
Haiti suits some journalists’ needs. They like to cover a disaster zone and talk about it in a certain way. I find some of stories coming out of Haiti are completely disconnected from the subtleties of what’s happening on the ground. Often journalists have a preconceived idea of the sort of story they want to cover before they arrive – but perhaps this is a problem with journalism in general.
Getting information is a challenge
Getting access to accurate information as a journalist in Haiti isn’t without its problems. The teledjol – the Haitian rumour mill – is a really amazing thing. Many Haitians don’t really read and don’t have a television, so news comes through the radio and passes from word of mouth – so it’s a bit of a Chinese whispers game and spreads like wildfire. Sometimes it’s spot on and sometimes it’s completely off the wall; but it’s important to listen to it.
I was with Al-Jazeera, for example, when the cholera epidemic first broke out and there was this rumour that the origin was the Nepalese UN base. You would roll down your car windows and overhear street vendors saying, ‘Did you hear, the UN defecated in the river and gave us cholera’. At the time we thought ‘Yeah right’ – we know Haitians are fed up with the UN but this sounds crazy. But then our producer decided that there were no other leads and it could be plausible. And sure enough, when the crew went, it got some of the first footage of raw sewage being flushed into the river.
Another challenge is meeting up with government officials. It’s often hard to get them to agree to meet for a start. But often they don’t have accurate information or you might be asking them about something they don’t know about. State institutions collapsed with the earthquake and half of them were dysfunctional before then. I remember doing this investigation for The Nation about trailers that the Clinton Foundation built in Léogâne. The contract was given to a trailer company that was being sued by victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US who alleged they were exposed to injurious levels of formaldehyde, so we were testing the air for formaldehyde in the trailers they’d made in Haiti. We needed to record accurate readings for temperature – easy enough – and humidity – slightly harder – for the region for each day. I must have phoned the director of the national weather centre 20 or 25 times during the course of a week just trying to get basic figures.
On the one hand you have the state and basic information that you take for granted not being readily available. On the other hand, you have all these NGOs operating in the country who are eager to give information, because every time a journalist quotes them it’s an advertisement in a way. The government, NGOs and non-state governing will withhold information if they feel it’s not in their interests to give you certain statistics. The UN is pretty good on the whole, but in general there's a woeful lack of accountability across the board.
Even if you want to do four or five things in one day – or get a series of interviews – you can’t. In Port-au-Prince it takes hours to get anywhere, so getting two things done in a day is more realistic. Gathering what you need for a story can take a long time. Finding a quiet place to write with internet and electricity is a challenge in itself, unless you go to the hotels. And then there’s the task of getting an international audience interested about daily life in Haiti.
I sometimes suspect that people who go to Haiti, be they journalists or NGO workers, get a lot more from their experience than Haitians get from the international attention. I think it would be great if more people visited the country as tourists, appreciating its amazing hospitality, its rich history and incredibly poetic and humorous culture and people rather than seeing it as a charity case.”
Isabeau Doucet spoke with Ed Stocker