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12/6/06

‘In Haiti killers of journalists enjoy 100% immunity’ Duncan Campbell

 

   

In a desperately poor and unstable nation such as Haiti, local journalists risk their lives every day in pursuit of a story

Monday June 12 2006

The Guardian

Guy Delva’s family do not like travelling in the same car as him. They worry that one of the many enemies that Haiti’s high-profile reporter has made in the course of a 20-year career may choose the moment to exact a violent revenge against a man who receives regular death threats.

As attention focuses understandably on the deaths of Paul Douglas and James Brolan, the CBS cameraman and soundman, in Iraq, it is easy to forget that, in some parts of the world, it is the local reporter who runs the greatest risk. In countries such as Haiti, Colombia and the Philippines, journalists face threats and violence on a daily basis from politicians or businessmen whose paths they have crossed.

Sending out an SOS

Delva, 40, is the Reuters correspondent in Haiti and as such he has to chart the turbulent times in one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries. There has rarely been a time of tranquillity there in his lifetime and over the past few years, the threats have come from all parts of the political spectrum.

“Killers of journalists enjoy 100% immunity,” said Delva on a visit this month to Britain where he was a speaker at the International Press Institute conference in Edinburgh and a guest of the Haiti Support Group. “Jailing and beating journalists is normal.” Three journalists were murdered there last year and Delva has been active in trying to bring to justice those who carried out the murders.

Last December, one of his colleagues, Watson Désir, was kidnapped by a gang in Cité Soleil, one of the most dangerous areas in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. Delva had not only to cover the kidnapping but also to try to negotiate his friend’s freedom.

“Someone called and I was given the kidnappers’ number. They started by asking for $80,000 and I said ‘come on guys, where are you going to find that kind of money?’” The ransom demand was finally negotiated down to $4,500 and Delva was told that he had to go to Cité Soleil alone with the money. He was turned back at a UN checkpoint and told that it was too volatile to enter Cité Soleil at that time. The kidnappers rang to ask him what was happening, so he made a second attempt to reach them which ended in a burst of heavy gunfire, and again Delva was unable to get through. “They rang me again and said ‘do you need him?’ – in other words they were going to kill him so I ran the car through the UN [checkpoint].” Once in Cité Soleil he was approached by the kidnapper and was allowed to take Désir in exchange for the money but not before another burst of heavy gunfire.

Such incidents have become part of life for Delva and many of his colleagues. Dozens have now left Haiti for jobs in the US, Canada and France but Delva says he intends to stay. He is angry that the investigation into the murder of Jean Dominique of Radio Haiti, who was gunned down six years ago, has still found no culprits.

At the moment, he says, many young Haitians still want to become journalists but their families try to dissuade them. “Their parents say ‘it’s a bad profession, you’re going to get killed, you’re going to get harassed’.” He is pinning his hopes on the future and the setting up of a media centre where journalists will be able to pool resources and experiences and which will provide newcomers with training.

Delva, who started his career in broadcasting, said that there is no tradition of investigative journalism in Haiti and that had allowed corrupt politicians and business people to believe they could act with impunity. “Once they know that everyone will know about their misappropriation of public funds they will be more careful about what they do and that will be good for everyone.”

Last year, Delva and other journalists formed SOS Journalistes, of which he is secretary-general, to try to highlight and campaign for greater protection and freedom for journalists. It has already had some success when a group of them forced a judge to free a journalist who had criticised the judge. He himself has turned down offers of protection, not least, he says with a smile, because he might be more at risk from the people who were assigned to look after him. One of the problems is that, even if a politician does not personally threaten the media, their supporters may take offence at critical coverage and make their own threats. Some journalists, he said, had even accepted money from politicians just because they needed it to send their children to school.

“But we are not just demanding freedom for journalists, we have to create conditions where everyone is free from fear,” he said before flying back to cover the latest developments in a country which has just successfully weathered a stormy election of a new president, but where there will never be any shortage of work for a journalist in pursuit of a story.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited

  
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