This past weekend, the second group of students graduated from the 4-month intensive course at the Film and Journalism School Haiti Reporters in Port-au-Prince. The school opened its doors in October last year. It is the brainchild of the Dutch documentary filmmaker and journalist Ton Vriens and is sponsored by the Dutch human rights group ICCO, the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Turtle Tree Foundation, and American companies such as Tekserve and Canon USA.
The school offers hands-on media training that gives students the skills to handle professional video- and photo cameras, and editing software. In addition, the curriculum offers courses in entrepreneurship, web design, writing, and media ethics. One of the goals is to prepare students to become community journalists, enabling them to tell the stories of the small communities around them. Ideally, the graduates would not only witness the development and reconstruction – or lack thereof – of their country, but also investigate and critically reflect upon it. Not only as community journalists, but also as civic journalists they could start making products that can function as forums for discussion and that can build up both their own as well as others’ social capital in the process.
In the daily practice of Haiti, this is all easier said than done. While it would be a challenge to give a similar 4-month crash course to any group of young people, trying to do it in Haiti exposes one to the country’s idiosyncratic trials.
Haitian media – they mainly exist in the form of radio and newspapers – have a long history of being mere tools to earn and secure political power. Only in the 1970s, still under Duvalier’s dictatorship, did one radio station start to air local and international news in Creole, the language of the majority of Haitians, instead of French, the language of the elite. It took until 1986, the year of Duvalier’s fall, before journalists enjoyed a meaningful freedom of the press and played a supporting role in the newly developing civil society. The military coup of 1991 that forced out Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s first popularly chosen president, reintroduced the old repression of the media.
The return of Aristide and the rule of his successors have not necessarily laid the groundwork for a strong role for the media in the developing democracy. The damage to the media has endured. The well-known Haitian journalist Michele Montas-Dominique – widow of Jean Dominique who was murdered in 2000 – has lamented the “balkanization of the press.” In the 1990s, many frequencies on the FM band had been doled out to the military and the elite and many of these stations are still controlled by sponsors who do not support democratic rules of government. In addition, Montas-Dominique has long been worried about the lack of objectivity and professional ethics of Haitian journalists, many of whom are not bothered by working on the side for private and government employers.
Under the country’s ever demanding circumstances, Haiti Reporters is trying to work on the grassroots level. All the issues that have plagued Haitian journalism have been hampering speedy progress. Also, the school and its staff are significantly challenged by a lack of entrepreneurship in general and a struggle with the existing power relations – both between and among the different classes and groups. But even in these tough conditions, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Not in the least because of the highly motivated students, a few of whom have already shown that they can land jobs and internships.
So far, the school has attracted mainly students from the country’s tentatively developing middle class that, if they stay in Haiti – as opposed to fleeing or emigrating – can become a vital engine for development. For example, it has been an interesting experience for the students to make a short film about the Dance Company Tchaka Dance, that performs in the refugee camps or filming a project in Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil, one of the world’s biggest slums. It forced the students to be exposed to the difficult living conditions of many of their compatriots. Vriens, the school’s director, who has been traveling and working in Haiti for many years, has pointed out the apparent denial by the rich of the existence of the poor. It is one of the unsettling realities of Haitian society, which needs attention if a majority of the populations is ever going to be a meaningful participant in the political process.
The school’s goal is to give young people a practical education that gives them the tools to earn a living in Haiti. Although foreigners are currently in charge of the school, Haitian lecturers play an important role. Sooner rather than later, the Haitians themselves will have to take over the school’s management. In addition, a Haitian association has been created that can function as an independent production company for its alumni. The fact that it is a small-scale operation, located in a fairly poor but decent neighborhood, is working in its favor as compared to the slowly moving, bureaucratic multi-million dollar projects of the aid industry.
The loose network of big NGOs has grown into a powerful outside force that is not centrally organized, operating next to, instead of in tandem with, the weak Haitian government. As well intentioned as the aid may be, it contributes to a form of second-hand democracy that isn’t locally instigated. Since the end of 1990s, Haitians have spoken about their demokrasi pepe, or second-hand democracy, after the Creole description of the loads of used clothing from the United States that are resold on the streets. Haiti Reporters is trying to design a new boutique, owned and staffed by Haitians, addressing a pressing need in Haitian society.