5 Thoughts On Being An Independent Journalist in Haiti + Open-Sourcing This Work

I’ve been living here for nearly seven months now. This blog is called Mediahacker. Time to reflect on my media work in Haiti, the context in which it’s taking place, and try something new.

  1. Haiti has fallen off the radar.

    When I was in the States last month I asked my friends if they saw Haiti in the news very much. The answer was no every time.

    Before the earthquake, I had some difficulty convincing editors – in the alternative media, mind you – that stories about mass protests on the streets of Port-au-Prince were newsworthy, relevant to their audiences. For now, that resistance is gone. Haiti still has a much higher profile now than it did last year.

    But how long will that interest and visibility last? Will it take another natural disaster (a “hyperactive” hurricane season starts in a few days) to keep Haiti in the headlines? The hundreds of journalists who descended on Haiti in January to capture images of people crawling out of the rubble, then mostly went home the following month – will they repeat the ritual once more? Does anyone else find that repulsive? How can they live with themselves? At what point do these media lose whatever credibility with the public they have left?

  2. The reason I’m here is to help keep Haiti on the radar. But at times I feel invisible.

    To their credit, the The Associated Press, National Public Radio, the New York Times, and CNN still have correspondents or stringers on the ground here – maybe a few others. Just CNN covered Monday’s demonstrations while they were happening, managing only a short article saying little more than, “CNN crews heard gunshots and saw tear gas seen in the downtown area.”

    The UN published a terse apology the following day for its peacekeeping troops’ intrusion on university grounds. The official statement was reported by CNN, AP, and numerous other outlets.

    Hours later Inter-Press Service published my story based on eye-witness accounts, going into detail on the university incident and heavy use of tear gas and rubber bullets around displaced families. After their initial denials, UN officials confirmed the accuracy of much of my story on Thursday. No other media picked up the information or followed up with their own stories.

    That goes for other alternative media too. John Nichols, an editor for The Nation magazine and a fierce critic of the corporate media, is like many others unaware of my existence. Pointing to the decline in international news, he lamented in a recent speech how the Associated Press Haiti correspondent was the only American journalist based in-country at the time of the earthquake. Totally valid argument, but it’s based on a falsehood that’s been repeated on radio and in print. Pooja Bhatia is a journalist who’s been here for several years. There’s me. Maybe even a few others I don’t know about.

    To the readers of this blog, if you don’t mind, consider sharing your interest or involvement in Haiti in the comment section. Connect with each other. If Haiti is missing from your local news or favorite media outlet, contact the editors and request it. Tell them there’s a freelance multimedia journalist who’s interested in working with them, who can do interviews or file reports. I don’t like being invisible.

  3. There are so many important stories here going unreported by the foreign press.

    I just want to make that clear. There are reports in the Haitian press every week of protests in cities throughout the rest of Haiti. There are stories around privatization, (un)accountability of NGOs, police and prisons, positive stories of community organizing and culture – in fact, almost every conceivable subject – that are ripe for documentation and dissemination. I have several stories in progress that I’m trying to finish, plus hours of video footage to edit and share.

    I’m glad the New York Times exposed the prison massacre in Les Cayes, but they’ve missed a lot of stories over the past six years and that continues. The paper’s story yesterday focuses on dissatisfaction with the government but doesn’t even discuss the ongoing opposition protests. It does mention anti-Preval graffiti several times. Fail.

    If you’re a (citizen) journalist, have the skills or want to learn, and you don’t want to follow the herd, you should be here.

  4. Twitter is an indispensable part of my toolset.

    On March 4, a user-submitted report about an IDP camp that was dismantled in a single night was posted to the crisis-mapping website Ushahidi. It was tweeted by @BaybeDoll. @RAMHaiti re-tweeted it. I follow him, along with a few dozen others. I saw the Ushahidi report and left a comment asking the author to contact me. Within days I found the camp and published what I believe was the first report since the earthquake of a forcible eviction of displaced persons from private land. This is now a huge issue all over Port-au-Prince and I’ll be reporting on it more soon.

    I communicated with the Inter-Agency Shelter Cluster over Twitter this week and helped them coordinate the delivery of tents to a destitute camp of at least 60 families in Pernier.

    And it was Twitter that alerted me to Monday’s chaos in the downtown area. @DokteCoffee, an American doctor at the General Hospital, tweeted that she was hearing booms and seeing gas and that reached me through word-of-mouth via one of her followers.

    My Kreyol comprehension is still not good enough to follow Haitian radio well. Twitter is the next best way, if not a better one, to track breaking and other news in near real-time. It’s a decent social network too. I follow some of my friends from the States and favorite musicians. There’s been a lot of understandable concern over Facebook’s privacy policies lately (really, y’all just noticed this?). Unlike Facebook, Twitter is not a closed environment populated with tons of advertisements. If you’re not twittering, consider starting now. Stick with it and you might find it really useful.

  5. There’s an overwhelming amount of data flowing from the authorities and NGOs in Haiti. People engaged on this issue should share skills, resources, and make sure nothing important slips unnoticed into the netherzones of cyberspace. Let’s open/crowd-source this up.

    When I meet Haitian government, UN, and NGO staff in the field, they tend to be absurdly tight-lipped about their work. They say they don’t want to make a politically incorrect remark, get in trouble with their bosses, or step on someone else’s turf. On Friday one aid worker told me I couldn’t mention his organization (one of the largest here) by name in my reporting, even though it’s public knowledge among everyone in the camp that the group is involved in the resettlement process. No dice, I told him.

    On the other hand, there’s a wealth of meeting notes, reports, assessments, and other documents constantly being posted to Oneresponse.info, ReliefWeb and Google Groups where anyone can view them. In almost every document there are nuggets of information that make me say, “Whoa, really?” I highlight those passages, save the documents to my hard drive, and make a mental note. But I can’t follow up on them all.

    So here’s the cool part. I’ve collected a bunch of these documents online using a website called crocodoc. When you view the document you can skip to the sections I’ve highlighted using the sidebar. Not only that, but you can add your own comments and annotations – without even registering for an account.

    That’s a screenshot of the May 24 JOTC security report (thanks to Alister Macintyre for referring me to it), a passage where it confirms MINUSTAH troops took the laptops and bags of university students on Monday. I’ll be following up with the students soon to see if they got their stuff back. The report also mentions that MINUSTAH peacekeepers conducted over 1,000 security operations in the prior 24 hours and only 5 humanitarian missions. Interesting, right? Another document reveals that the Canadian Red Cross pulled out of building transitional shelters for people at the last moment because its legal basis for construction on those lands was “less than watertight.”

    View the list of documents here. I plan to continue uploading and annotating documents as I find them and I’d encourage others to do the same – let me know so I can update the index. Sunshine is the best disinfectant!

    Update: Also, here’s a list of all the Haiti blogs and websites to which I’m subscribed, along with links to their RSS feeds. This post was re-published on Haiti Rewired.

15 thoughts on “5 Thoughts On Being An Independent Journalist in Haiti + Open-Sourcing This Work”

  1. Haiti’s off the radar of commercial journalism. Did you really expect better of them? There’s no coverage of Honduras either and there’s plenty going on there too and, after the murders of a number of Honduran journalists, credible coverage within the country seems to be more and more scarce. There’s one good website left for people outside the country.

    You didn’t choose to cover the famous and important people or the sensational events or the warm and fuzzy human interest stories, no rock stars or billionaires. Your choices, I’m afraid, carry some implications.

    More power to you.

  2. Thank you for your ongoing work & thoughtful assessment including compiling the official Haiti documents. What a timely window on events and perspectives. On behalf of Haiti, will contact a couple of radio stations in US to encourage Haiti coverage.

  3. I’m going to be honest and therefore a bit blunt. (apologies in advance) I think it’s naïve to expect a foreign country to stay on the media radar in the States. I mean, are we covering Afghanistan as well as we should? Iraq? Inner cities? Low income Americans? The more time that journos spend wondering why Haiti’s not in US mainstream news is more time taken away from developing and growing the niche audience that would be interested in Haiti news: the diaspora and other donor Americans. Stop asking for something that won’t and shouldn’t happen (consistent US mainstream coverage of Haiti) and move on to posing the question that matters: How do we organize the readership that *will* sustain journalism about Haiti? We’re talking about millions of potential readers who’ve already expressed an interest by dedicating millions of hours and dollars to Haiti… why do we even need US mainstream coverage?

  4. David, yeah I suppose I shouldn’t expect any better of them. Carla, no need to apologize for the bluntness. “How do we organize the readership that *will* sustain journalism about Haiti?” That’s definitely a money question. If I saw that organizing happening I’d care a lot less about mainstream media coverage. But I don’t. Maybe I’m missing it.

    And as a journalist in Haiti, I can’t directly participate in that organizing. I’m just asking myself how I personally can be more effective. I feel like the next step for me is to try and break into reporting for some mainstream outlets. I don’t see why people beyond the niche audience you mentioned wouldn’t be interested in hearing about (and appalled by) earthquake victims being tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets by peacekeepers. I believe there’s value in reaching them with that content.

  5. I guess I’m saying that journos who’re reporting from Haiti might have to take on the responsibility of organizing the crowd. I think that’s the world we’re in, now, and have been in for some time, where journos must do more than report… they must also be owners/creators/organizers. How to participate in that organizing? Huge question–and I feel like I have to answer it. (That’s prolly a longer conversation) Why can’t you directly participate in that organizing? You don’t have to answer that here, I’m just curious.

    I also feel very comfortable in stating that Americans, in general, aren’t interested in whether Haiti’s earthquake victims are teargassed. Or whether Congo’s women are raped. Or how many Iraqis got killed the other day. This is not a knock on Americans… many are incredibly generous and volunteer time and money to good causes close to their heart. Nor is it to say that the teargassing isn’t news worthy. It is–but, to whom?

    I think that audience exists… but it’s not the U.S. mainstream. And it has to be organized.

  6. sent some excerpts to Nichols and vanden Heuvel at the Nation for what it is worth. I continue to post coverage of Haiti at tradgedyandhope.ning.com. Keep it up…

  7. I’m still here reading you too, Ansel–I really like that question up there about how to organize a readership that cares…I have no answers, but it’s a good question, that I think is going to lead to really important and necessary answers.

  8. “Twitter is not a closed environment populated with tons of advertisements”
    this is true but temporary. i check your twitter stuff and get very little out of it. you know i’m oldish and i don’t listen to hip hop. on the other hand i devour your periodic posts here and get A LOT from them.
    stick to your guns. it will take a long time but you’re doing good work and it will get stronger and louder. i am confident of that.

  9. Hi Ansel & all,

    Mèsi anpil for this… I can’t tell you how much it means to get “real” news from this country. Haiti’s had a hold on me since December 2006, when I read Farmer’s “Uses” and learned the history of oppression and popular resistance. Then began following MINUSTAH “gang-routing” in Cite Soleil. First went to Haiti Jan 2008.

    Now am a first year medical student, but took a leave of absence following the quake. I spent 3 months as a field hospital coordinator in Leogane, but my work there ended several weeks ago.

    So now in US, but heart in Haiti. Open to any possibilities of going back, but meanwhile, I’m following closely from afar…
    ~Brennan

  10. “The reason I’m here is to help keep Haiti on the radar. But at times I feel invisible.”

    I know how it feels:

    “That’s partly because there is little to no in-depth feature reporting by U.S. journalists working in Haiti. When Haiti does receive attention on occasion, it is too often with sensational stories of extreme poverty (or success). In that sense, I’m “going to where the silence is.”

  11. Hey Ansel,

    I think it’s no surprise that the American public hopscotches from one breaking news story to the next, unless perhaps when itthere’s something on home turf as severe as the Gulf spill. For Haiti, people will be genuinely interested in stories about rebuilding on a large scale when/if that starts happening, but only for a while.

    Maybe if journalists write more stories about volunteering, purchasing Haiti goods and other ways the American public can contribute to incremental progress in Haiti, to get them involved personally, there might be more engagement. Or, stories about how donations are being spent, specifically, and the resultant positive developments might gain some traction. Fact is, Americans got enough problems stateside to read about.

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