This paper was presented at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in October 2013 in Rio De Janeiro.
Watchdogging Haiti’s Reconstruction from the Grassroots
By Jane Regan, State University of Haiti
Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and the billions of “reconstruction” dollars that followed offered humanitarian agencies and international businesses access to multiple opportunities for profit. Haitian and foreign commercial news media could not – or would not – watchdog the billions of dollars and hundreds of projects. Could Haitian “alternative” and community media fill the gap?
Two small media institutions – an online “alternative” news agency and a community radio training group, coordinated by a veteran international journalist – launched the Haiti Grassroots Watch partnership to give it a shot. Steered by the tenets of the early Western journalism and influenced by investigative journalism practices from Africa as well as the U.S., but also guided by Latin American “comunicación popular” theory and by Paolo Freire’s contributions on dialogic teaching and learning, the collaboration also builds on lessons learned from U.S. “networked journalism,” and from the investigative units and “new news labs” at U.S. universities. The result is a multimedia and multi-language collaboration, grounded in progressive community radio stations whose members have unique access and perspective, and based largely on the work of idealistic journalism students, who – like medical students – learn as they contribute.
The evolving experiment includes a university course, training sessions at community radios, as well as screenings in rural communities and poor neighborhoods where audiences engage in a kind of low-tech “crowd-sourcing” for story ideas. Capacity building is part of every step and content creation – text, audio and video – is uniquely informed by its participatory processes, by its grassroots origins and by the oversight of professors. Can the Haiti Grassroots Watch model be replicated at universities in other countries on the receiving end the billions of dollars in humanitarian and development aid doled out each year? This paper examines the project’s conceptual and theoretical underpinnings, its successes, and its challenges, and will hope to inspire similar efforts in the “global South.”
Key words: investigative journalism • community radios • alternative media • counter-information • networked journalism • journalism education
An experimental, collaborative media effort in post-earthquake Haiti which draws on the roots of western journalism and more recent concepts and practices of “mainstream” journalism and journalism education trends, as well as on “alternative” and community media theory and practice in Latin America, is digging into Haiti’s reconstruction and tackling the “humanitarian industry.” While threatened by many challenges, the partnership might serve as a model or at least offer lessons to investigative journalism work in post-disaster and post-conflict countries.
The Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) consortium is steered by some of journalism’s oldest tenets but is also influenced by comunicación popular theory, by Freirian concepts and by the lessons learned from “networked journalism” and recent journalism education developments in the U.S. Coordinated by a university professor and two former investigative journalism students, the reporting is done mostly by students and interns, sometimes working with volunteers from progressive community radio stations in the countryside, and is carried out in collaboration with two institutions: 1.) An online news agency that self-identifies as “alternative” and 2.) A media organization that engages in what it calls “popular communication.” Content is informed by its participatory processes, by its grassroots origins and by the contribution of students and professors. The results is well-researched “counter-information” which offers critiques of the reconstruction and of development policies and projects being foisted upon Haiti and her population.
The multi-layered, multimedia and multi-language endeavor could be called “alternative.” Atton and Hamilton (2008) might label it “hybrid,” or “mixed economy… alternative journalism” (p. 45). At first glance, that makes sense. HGW appears to be a “hybrid” between “alternative” and “mainstream” journalism. But the terms “alternative media” and “alternative journalism” do not really describe HGW’s theory or practice, nor are they of much use. Indeed, since the category “alternative media” emerged some 30 or 40 years ago, it has been roaming about in various linguistic, theoretical and practical swamplands that differ, depending on the era, the region, the language and the theoretical underpinning(s). Many “alternative” theorists (Paiva 1983; Rodriguez 2000; Downing 2001; Atton and Hamilton 2008; Forde 2011) readily admit to the morass. Paiva (1983) suggests each researcher fabricate his or her own definition (p. 30). Forde (2011) proposes a string of adjectives: “community, grassroots, radical, citizens and independent” (p. 2). Downing chooses instead “radical” but sometimes writes “radical alternative” (2001, p. 30), while Rodriguez (2000) junks the term altogether and instead proposes “citizens’ media,” a term and theorization at least partially drained of its oppositional nature. The HGW experience illustrates the potential weaknesses in current “alternative communications” theorizing; weaknesses which in the end could undermine the collaborative’s ultimate objectives.
HGW was born in a very specific context: 1.) A horrific earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital and two smaller cities, and killed perhaps 200,000 people, 2.) An impoverished nation with a state dependent on foreign aid and so-called “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs) to take care of the populations’ most basic services (health care, education, water, and so on), and 3.) A very poor mediascape with little tradition of in-depth journalism.
The year the trembler hit, Haiti was in its 24th year of a seemingly “unending democratic transition” (Fatton 2002) characterized by ongoing economic and social crises, and intense poverty. Today, the United Nations Development Program (2013) ranks Haiti 161 out of 187 countries on its 2012 Human Development Index. The majority of Haiti’s 10 million people are forced to survive on less than US$2 per day (World Bank 2012). In February 2013, the United Nations announced that two-thirds of the population – 6.7 million people – “face food insecurity,” with some 1.5 million, twice as many as last year, living with “severe food insecurity” (GTSAN and OCHA 2013). Figures for adult literacy vary, depending on the source, from about 38 percent to about 51 percent “literate,” although language is not specified. Haiti has two official languages – French and Haitian Creole – but about 90 percent of the population only speaks Haitian Creole.
About two-thirds of the Haitian budget depends on foreign grants or loans. Other needs are met by the U.S. government and other donors who for three decades have channeled most money through contractors and NGOs, leading to a perverse economic and even psychological dependency, and to the well-earned nickname: “Republic of NGOs.” Each new disaster or political upheaval brings a new set of projects and plans, new rounds of funding, and a new flock of “humanitarian” and “development” agencies who set up shop in Haiti to “help” while the aid dollars are flowing.
But it is very difficult for journalists to “follow the money.” Transparency International (2012) put Haiti at the bottom of its “Corruption Perceptions Index,” at 165 out of 174 countries. The country has no open records laws. While the 1987 Constitution does guarantee “Freedom of Expression” as well as the “Right to Information,” most Haitian and foreign institutions regularly deny reporters access to documents and even to people, and they are especially uncooperative with journalists or media outlets attempting to question “business as usual.” The dictatorship-era “Law Regarding the Status of Public Functionaries” allows public servants to refuse to discuss anything and everything. The 1981 law says that those working for the government are obligated to keep “professional secret[s]” and should not “diffuse or allow to be known any information, any act, or any confidential writing or secrets that they know or have.” A 2012 report on press freedom said journalists face “intimidation, threats, destruction of their media equipment, and retaliation by President [Michel] Martelly and his administration against progressive journalists for critical reporting” and “‘stonewalling,’ wherein journalists critical of the government were consistently denied interviews with governmental officials and access to public information” (Institute For Justice & Democracy In Haiti 2012: p. 1).
The quantity of media outlets in Haiti has exploded since the “democratic transition” began. Haiti has some 375 radio stations, most of them commercial, with at least 50 in the Port-au-Prince (INFOASAID 2012). Many have news programming. The capital also boasts scores of television stations, but only a few offer very meager newscasts. The country’s sole daily paper prints only 15,000 copies (for a population of 10 million), with several weeklies printing about 5,000 copies each. The papers maintain websites, as do several small news agencies. But fewer than ten percent of Haitians have regular access to the Internet. Of those, only six percent report getting news and information that way (INFOASAID 2010, p. 24). The overwhelming majority of Haitians get their news from radio.
The radio and television airwaves might be crowded, but quantity is not matched in quality. Haiti’s mediascape remains perhaps the bleakest in the hemisphere. The main media owners’ association itself recently deplored a “general decline in quality” in output, calling its journalists “irresponsible,” and saying their reports were often full of errors, were too “friendly” to their sources and that they lacked depth (cited in Geffrard 2009). Canadian journalists Barnabé and Breton (2007) report that Haitian journalists have “insufficient” general knowledge, lack transportation and even access to basic reference books like dictionaries, and are generally “content to be simple conveyor belts” of information from the government, the U.N. and other authorities (p. 387).
Studying radio news broadcasts of the three most popular radio stations, Sérant (2007) finds most national radio news is characterized by “a preponderance of the political.” Worse, half of all “news” programming is “impressions, reactions, accusations and denunciations,” with only a tiny amount of time (between 2.2 and 0.78 percent) devoted to “original reporting” (pp. 84-85).
Another challenge comes from the lack of a strong deontology binding journalists and media outlets. The country’s major media associations recently signed a Code of Ethics, but on-the-ground practices like accepting all-expenses-paid trips to the countryside or abroad continue. Many Haiti media watchers, including Décimé (2013) and Barnabé and Breton (2007), report that newsroom directors consent to and sometimes even encourage their journalists “to accept the per diems, envelopes containing hundreds or even thousands of gourdes” (100 gourdes = about US$2.30) (p. 388). “Decisions that may seem unethical elsewhere in the world are status quo here,” according to long-time Haiti-watcher and journalist Klarreich (2012b).
Klarreich – involved in journalism training for almost two years following the earthquake – deplores the state of the media in the wake of the hundreds of thousands spent in that sector to “build back better.” She notes that most reports “still consist of partisan opinions and a laundry list of often-obscure notices and events regurgitated from press releases and news conferences. The number of newspapers, radio stations and television news shows that cast a critical eye at the massive disbursement of international aid is short and the number of NGOs in Haiti is long” (Klarreich, 2012a).
While dominated by commercial media and the propaganda-laden state outlets, Haiti is also home to some not-for-profit media which have stepped into the breach. The country has at least two-dozen community radio stations, run by peasant, youth and women’s associations. These have mostly low production standards, minimal funding, and high volunteer staff turnover. Still, the stations remain important grassroots actors in their communities (Regan 2008). HGW partner SAKS works with many of them, providing training, programming, and some financial support.
HGW’s other institutional partner, AlterPresse, self-identifies as an “alternative” online news network. The agency – four or five journalists, a network of correspondents and an editorial team – is guided by the ideals of “the right to information and communication” and prioritizes “social movement actors,” human rights, development and women’s rights issues, as well as breaking news “from a democratic perspective and based on alternative research” (AlterPresse 2013a).
Foundations: Seeking to be an “ever-present, vigilant eye”
While AlterPresse calls itself “alterative,” HGW does not, in part because it takes many of its cues from the very roots of the journalism of the French and American revolutionary periods. Early writings about the roles the press could and should play in a democracy come from the actors themselves. Jacques Pierre Brissot, future leader of the Girondins in France, said in 1789 that newspapers “can teach the same truth at the same moment to millions of men; through the Press, they can discuss it without tumult, decide calmly and give their opinion” (quoted in Popkin 1989, p. 145). Jean-Paul Marat’s goal with the Ami du peuple was “to expose and unmask the deputies’ treasonous intentions and to mobilize people against them” (Popkin 1989, p. 162). The Virginia Bill of Rights, drafted in 1776 and which would have great influence on the U.S. Bill of Rights, called freedom of the press “one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty” (Mason 1776). Writing about “periodical publications” in 1788, George Washington said: “I consider such vehicles of knowledge more happily calculated than any other to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry, and ameliorate the morals of a free and enlightened people” (quoted in McChesney and Nichols 2010, p. 122). Fifty years later, Karl Marx – a future correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune – said that a “free press is the ever-present, vigilant eye of the people’s spirit, the embodiment of a people’s trust in itself, the communication link that binds the individual to state and world” (quoted in Endrogan 2012, p. 374).
Many are correct to point out the biases, challenges and indeed the “crisis” of Western journalism today, especially commercial and “mainstream” journalism (McChesney and Nichols 2010; McChesney and Pickard 2011; DiMaggio 2009; Auletta 2003; Herman and Chomsky 1988; Ramonet 2001; Hedges 2009). But there remain scores of outlets and journalists who continue to echo the same ideas and ideals espoused by the craft’s early defenders.
A blue ribbon commission convened in the U.S. in 2008 called for a return to those notions. In its final report, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of a Democracy stressed that journalism can still play its historic role and produce news and information which allows people “to participate fully in our system of self-government, to stand up and be heard. Driving this vision are the critical democratic values of openness, inclusion, participation, empowerment, and the common pursuit of truth and the public interest” [author’s emphasis] (Knight 2009, p. xi).
A review of the so-called journalism of many commercial outlets in the Americas and Europe confirms that the appeals from the Commission have not been universally applied. Huge percentages of what passes for “news” is little more than “conveyor belt” reporting, sensationalism and/or pandering to high audience ratings. It can in no way be confused with the “pursuit of truth and the public interest.”
Still, public interest journalism survives. The outlets and individuals practicing “investigative journalism” continue to make important contributions in the U.S., and – increasingly – in Europe, Africa, and Latin America (Marchetti 2009; Walton 2010; CIPER 2009; Hunter 2012). Hunter, author of the influential UNESCO investigative journalism manual (Hunter 2011) holds that while “[t]he news industry is still caught in its biggest crisis since the Second World War… it can also be said that investigative reporting has not been more enterprising since the Watergate era” (Hunter 2012, p. 8). Investigative journalism in the U.S. dates back to the early nineteenth century, according to historians like Shapiro (2003), who chronicled the long tradition of reporters who had the “determination to speak documented truth to lying power” (p. xv).
Thus, in large part, the journalism beacons guiding HGW’s work are based on the same ones that have steered 250 years of determined and courageous reporting: Brissot’s dedication to the “truth,” the exposure of “treacherous intentions,” Marx’s “vigilant eye” and the drive to “speak truth to power.”
Inspirations: “Comunicación popular” and Freirian approaches
HGW’s approach has also been influenced by the broad set of concepts and practices known in Latin America as “comunicación popular” or “popular communications.” One of the two HGW institutional partners, SAKS, says it promotes “popular communications,” defining that as communication by democratically organized associations that have as a goal promoting “social change, cultural development and democracy for the majority” (SAKS 2013).
HGW embraces this slightly vague definition and also takes its understanding from the definitions most common in writings from and about the Latin American community radio movement, specifically “radios populares” or “popular radios.” Drawing a distinction between “community” and “popular” radio, Geerts and van Oeyen (2001say the latter are “more explicit in their political objectives,” are “eminently educational”, are “critical and consciousness-raising,” should “be participatory” and should work for “change” and “social transformation” (Geerts and van Oeyen 2001, p. 22).
Because HGW is not solely concerned with content creation, the project also takes some of its pedagogical cues from the writings of, and traditions inspired by, Paulo Freire. Teaching and training are incorporated into almost every aspect of reporting and content-creation, from coaching sessions on the dirt floors of makeshift radio stations re-built after the earthquake, to the one-on-one accompaniment given to young journalists at AlterPresse and SAKS, to university classes in investigative journalism. In every venue, the pedagogy is as “dialogic” and participatory as possible, since “[o]nly dialogue, which requires critical thinking, is also capable of generating critical thinking” (Freire 1970, p. 81). Dialogic capacity building slows processes considerably. But it also assures that community radio members, students and journalists increase their skill-sets as well as their capacities for critical thinking with each report. HGW members are also guided by Freirian thinking when presenting videos at screenings organized around the country. In addition to discussing the investigations, participants are urged to suggest subjects for future investigations in what could be called “low-tech crowd-sourcing.”
Conceptions: The “teaching hospital” and “networked” journalism
Finally, HGW practice is informed by the writing and thinking on two relatively new trends in the U.S.: one in journalism education and the other involving partnerships between media outlets.
The first trend is the “teaching hospital” model for journalism education, where the classroom becomes a newsroom. While there are many versions of this new approach (as detailed by Francisco, Lenhoff and Schudson 2012), most involve enabling journalism students to work with professors and/or working journalists to produce content for the public. In some cases, students receive stipends, in most they receive course credit. Many, but not all, operate year-round. Some – like The Local, run by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the New York Times – are partnerships with “mainstream” media outlets. Certain operations – like the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University – focus on big investigative journalism projects, while others – like Austintalks.org at Columbia College Chicago – focus on covering just a few blocks. These “new newsrooms,” as some have called them, allow for “service learning” at the same time as they provide a public service, often while engaging in public interest journalism that helps make up for the information deficit created by ever-shrinking commercial media outlets.
Jan Schaffer of the Institute for Interactive Journalism or “J-Lab” at American University holds that these “labs” can be a place where all students, not just journalism students, can learn “how to hold democratic institutions accountable, how to help citizens do their jobs as citizens, and how to foster new information paradigms” (Schaffer 2012b, p. 2676).
The second trend that has influenced HGW practices is “networked journalism.” As defined by the J-Lab, one of its chief proponents, it is the partnering of “legacy” newsrooms, with “hyperlocal news sites” (Schaffer 2012a). A recent J-Lab study of nine collaborations helped inform the HGW model. Among other findings, it notes that funding a coordinator “turned out to be a critical component for the high-touch activities to get the networks off the ground” (Schaffer 2012a, p. 4) and that “[t]raining also helped gel the networks, allowing partners to learn from others and feel like they were almost part of a club” (p. 5).
Since HGW is doing what could be called “progressive journalism” – in other words, journalism which seeks to contribute to social progress (Clark and Van Slyke 2010, p. 3) – the collaborative is also informed by a study of networked U.S. progressive media (Clark and Van Slyke 2010). The authors examine outlets and journalists who “risk[ed] career and credibility to speak truth to power” during the 2004-2008 period (p. 4). By working together, sometimes via joint distribution, other times with collaborative reporting, media outlets found “new pathways to impact and influence,” the authors contend, and the progressive mediascape went from “an atomized, isolated collection of struggling one-to-many outlets to a vibrant network spanning engaged citizens, multiplatform outlets, influential issue campaigns, and innovative reporting projects” (p. 6).
Results: “Eyes Peeled” and journalists trained
In this context, and drawing on the theories, concepts and practices outlined above, Haiti Grassroots Watch – Ayiti Kale Je or “Haiti Eyes Peeled” in Haitian Creole – was launched in late 2010.
Over the past three years, journalism students and members of the HGW collaborative partner institutions have produced 37 “dossiers:” text (in French and English, with some also in Spanish) and audio (in Haitian Creole). One-third are accompanied by a video in Creole, which also exists in an English-subtitled version. Ten of the 35 dossiers were reported in conjunction with community radio station members. Subjects – most suggested via “crowd-sourcing” or by students or by radio station volunteers – range from specific reconstruction projects to more general issues like the structural causes of the spread of cholera or the lack of a viable plan to rehouse the earthquake’s 1.3 million refugees.
The reporting – done largely by graduates of one of the four investigative journalism courses given at the State University (the first-ever such course in Haiti) who work with community radio members and/or journalists from SAKS and AlterPresse – is guided by the UNESCO “hypothesis-based inquiry” method (Hunter 2011), but also informed by “popular communications.” While lacking in experience, the students and community radio volunteers offer unique access and viewpoints. Atton and Hamilton call this “native reporting,” whereby people become journalists via “the application of their own, amateur knowledge to the issues being reported” using their “specialist, local community knowledge” (Atton and Hamilton, 2008: 126-127). The result is in-depth journalism with a progressive analysis and mostly progressive sources. Articles, audio and video reports provide historical, economic and political context, elements often missing from Haitian reporting. The text stories, audio programs and video reports are on the HGW website and are also carried by “alternative” media in Haiti and worldwide. Reports also sometimes break into “mainstream” media, and have also influenced the reporting at various U.S. and European outlets, according to correspondence received by the coordination team.
French and English versions of the text almost always run in the progressive weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté, available online and also distributed on paper in the U.S. and in Haiti. All French versions also run on the site of HGW partner AlterPresse, a frequent reference for Haitian radio and other outlets. Some foreign French language sites devoted to Haiti or the Caribbean also pick up HGW stories from AlterPresse.
For the first two years or so, about half of HGW stories were also carried by the local “mainstream” daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, sometimes on the front page above the fold. More recently however, the relationship changed. After several HGW stories offered critical views of industrial gold mining and of a large free trade zone project in the north, the newspaper’s editor reported being uncomfortable with the stories, which stood in stark contrast to the paper’s usual fare. Unlike other publications and many of Haiti’s radio stations – which were terrorized or shut down by soldiers or thugs at various points over the past 100 years – Le Nouvelliste has survived over 100 years of dictatorships, U.S. Marine-backed administrations and everything in between, perhaps by being careful not to cut too close to the bone. (The fact that Le Nouvelliste reporters regularly travel, all expenses paid, on presidential junkets abroad offers an indication of just how “flexible” the newspaper’s ethics are…)
HGW audio documentaries are distributed by SAKS to about 40 community or local provincial radio stations in smaller cities and towns. Since only a few stations have robust Internet access and can download audio files, most stations receive the program on CDs delivered by a friend or member of the association, or by a bus driver or an airplane courier service.
One commercial radio-television station with strong ties to HGW institutional partners regularly and repeatedly broadcasts the videos, and on occasion other commercial TV stations follow suit, although sometimes, the owners balk, saying want to be paid or – perhaps uncomfortable with the editorial line – listing various other excuses. On occasion however, certain stories have “broken into” the mainstream after a story has generated a “buzz” internationally or in other quarters. In contrast to the capital, television stations in Haiti’s smaller cities say they play every video delivered.
One of the most important aspects of HGW’s international distribution is its strategic partnership with the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, whose self-defined “historic mission” is “acting as a communication channel that privileges the voices and the concerns of the poorest and creates a climate of understanding, accountability and participation around development, promoting a new international information order between the South and the North” (Inter Press Service, 2013). IPS editors will take any English version story HGW can put into 1,200 words or less. Frequently, IPS also translates the stories into Spanish. Articles run by IPS are often picked up and run by websites (as well as print newspapers and radio outlets) in the Caribbean, Latin America, North America and Africa.
Resumes of HGW stories also go to about 1,300 people or institutions on English and French/Creole email lists. These resumes are linked directly to the website via a “tiny URL.” On publication day, HGW’s site gets between 200 and 500 visitors of several minutes, and on any given day throughout the year, gets at least 100 visitors. Most visitors are from the U.S. and Haiti, with Canada and the Dominican Republic ranking third and fourth as visitors’ countries of origin.
Many HGW stories have had tangible impact. Most impressive was the Haitian Senate’s February 2013 vote calling for a halt to all mineral mining in the north (Haiti Grassroots Watch 2012, Regan 2013). Other impacts include aid agencies’ promises to change or improve their recruitment in the field (CHF International 2011). HGW has also received attention from a number of journalism-related institutions or media, including the Schuster Institute for Investigative Reporting (Schuster Institute 2012), the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas blog (Tennant 2011), Reuters Alertnet (Maloney 2011), In These Times (Tady 2010), and Investigative Reporters and Editors, which asked this author to write an article for its IRE Journal (Regan 2011). Enthusiasm around HGW and the investigative journalism course has also inspired calls for curriculum reform at the State University’s Faculty of Human Sciences.
Numerous Challenges: Watchdog Must Watch Out
The Haiti Grassroots Watch experiment has succeeded on many levels. Community radio journalists, students and reporters at SAKS and AlterPresse have all received training that they say has impacted their work. The collaborative has put out 37 reports – some of them series thousands of words long – in French and English and Haitian Creole that have been picked up inside and outside of Haiti. By combining the capacity-building work with grassroots progressive as well as more traditional journalism practices, HGW has developed a model that might be useful in other countries facing similar challenges. However, HGW also faces serious challenges.
The first set of challenges comes from the context in which the collaborative is operating. From a purely logistical point of view, HGW has difficulties reaching the Haitian public. About one-half of Haitians cannot read, and even if they could, articles don’t always appear in local newspapers, which, in any case, most Haitians cannot access. And, while there are hundreds of radio stations and dozens to TV stations, most do not carry HGW programming.
Other challenges related to the Haitian context include the poor quality formal education received by the tiny percentage (most estimates say about 1 percent) who make it to university. Haiti’s education system has been called “abysmal” (Bowen 2008, p. 3), “outdated” and riddled with “deficiencies” (Luzincourt, K. and Gulbrandson, J. 2010). Most university students struggle with French, which is their second language and which they do not speak outside the classroom. Writing about elementary and high schools, Bowen (2008) notes that “students often do not understand what is being taught because they do not understand French; few teachers even have high French proficiency themselves. More often than not, teachers rely upon memorization and repetition instead of critical thinking and problem-solving skills” (p. 3). Teaching rote-learners to be muckrakers is slow and arduous work.
The next set of challenges is related to finding the right coordinator. As Schaffer noted in her study of media partnerships, a coordinator is “critical” (Schaffer 2012a, p. 4), at least at the beginning. In HGW’s case, a specific skill set is needed: an experienced, English-speaking “senior journalist” who can access the numerous reports on Haiti available only in that language, who knows Haitian history and politics and can also act as head trainer. Finding such a specific profile in a country known for its “brain-drain” – both generally and within the field of journalism (Shaw 2011) – will be a particular test.
The third challenge is the same one faced by most news media worldwide, whether they call themselves “mainstream” or “progressive” or “investigative.” Someone has to pay for the news. In the U.S., journalism has traditionally been funded from a combination of sources: the state, the market, and philanthropists (Anderson et al. 2013; Friedland 2011; McChesney and Nichols 2010; Walton 2010b). Post-earthquake funding from foreign donors for HGW (and other projects) is drying up and there are no investigative journalism-friendly “philanthropists” in the country. Haiti’s few foundations are funded and run by the major banks and manufacturers who favor highly visible “good works.” Money is available from the U.N. mission, from the Catholic and various Protestant churches and from various U.S. government-funded entities, but each of these have their own objectives (Bigwood 2008). Continuing to find relatively “clean” money to run a progressive media project will not be easy.
The fourth set of challenges is one familiar to any collaboration: the challenges inherent to any attempt to coordinate numerous actors in order to produce results in an efficient manner. From a purely logistical point of view, coordinating entities in different locations, whose staff and volunteers have varying levels of educational and linguistic abilities, is already complex. In Haiti, where many do not have access to the internet, where some are not able to read and write, where cell phone coverage and electricity are spotty at best, where rain-gorged rivers can cut off towns and villages for days or weeks at a time, and where violence from one or another political faction can shut down cities – and news rooms – for days, coordination is even more difficult. So far, the coordination team has faced these challenges by adjusting production schedules and assuring several stories are always in the works.
The final challenge may be fatal. It might be called the lack of “ideological coordination” and it is linked to the murkiness of the experiment’s political underpinnings and to the swampland known as “alternative media.”
There are sometimes differences between the commitments and priorities of the two institutional partners on the one hand, and the coordination team on the other. The two partners profess to doing either “popular communications” (SAKS) or “alternative” journalism (AlterPresse). However, both institutions are frequently bogged down with other, non-news aspects of their work, including executing revenue-generating contracts for the very entities HGW is supposed to be “watchdogging,” like UNICEF and the European Union.
SAKS and AlterPresse have evolved since they were founded, respectively 22 and 12 years ago. Both got their starts during periods when Haiti’s democratic and popular movement was stronger, and when progressive individuals and organizations were more consciously engaged in various struggles: against the vestiges of Duvalierism, against the 1991-1994 coup d’état, against neoliberal policies and against the first U.N. peacekeeping mission, often referred to by Haitians as an “occupation.”
Today, both institutions still profess a certain amount of militancy, and of the two, SAKS maintains are more rebellious editorial line. However, like so many other self-styled “popular” or “alternative” or “radical” initiatives, over the years the words and actions of both have grown less militant as they increasingly came to seek, and rely on, foundation and “development” money. They appear to have fallen victim – at least in part – to what Schuller (2012) calls “trickle-down imperialism,” where organizations and associations succumb – consciously or unconsciously – to diverse pressures that tend to push them away from their more radical roots. Schuller posits that “the moment an NGO director steps out of the sphere of allowable actions, the organization can be disciplined” (p. 184). Petras (1997) goes further, saying grantees can fall victim to “a new type of cultural and economic colonialism and dependency. Projects are designed, or at least approved, based on the ‘guidelines’ and priorities of the imperial centers and their institutions… Everything and everybody is increasingly disciplined to comply with the donors and project evaluators’ demands. The new viceroys supervise and ensure conformity with the goals, values, and ideologies of the donor as well as the proper use of funds.”
Very little of the work done by SAKS or AlterPresse could be accused of being in line with “the priorities of the imperial centers and their institutions,” but HGW investigations have been known to languish for days or even weeks as they awaited action by staff at both offices.
As a partnership, HGW cannot escape its roots. The collaboration is a kind of “mestizaje,” and the ideologically unclear aspects of the institutional partners’ DNA have become mixed in with the more progressive engagement espoused by the coordination team, the students and community radio members. Editorial line discrepancies are not unique to HGW. Certainly partnerships between the likes of The Guardian, the New York Times and ProPublica present challenges that are eventually overcome. But if the aforementioned differences in commitment and priorities between HGW partners are not addressed, the collaborative risks much more than just occasional inefficiencies. The project could slide away from its original engagement to produce timely, hard-hitting and progressive investigative journalism and become a victim of “trickle down imperialism.”
About the Author
Jane Regan is an investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker who lived and worked in Haiti for most of the past two decades. Her work has been featured by the Miami Herald, Associated Press Television News, PBS, BBC, Inter Press Service and numerous other outlets. Regan has also produced or co-produced three award-winning documentaries.
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