Despite problems, community radio is struggling to break through the isolation imposed on the peasants.
[Translation of an article from Brasil de Fato of São Paulo, Brazil, for September 27. See original article here.]
by Thalles Gomes
It takes three hours of walking along a steep path to reach the community of Magò, a rural area in the minicipality of Pòdepè, in northeastern Haiti. It’s from there, on the top of the highest mountain in the region, with an infrastructure consisting of an antenna and a mud-walled house, that community Radio Zèbtènite carries on the struggle to break through the isolation of the Haitian peasants.
“Zèbtènite was created to reclaim and to defend the voice of the peasants,” declares Crisman Estinord, a reporter and one of the coordinators of the radio station. Founded in 1996 by peasant families belonging to the Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan movement, Zèbtènite has occupied the frequency of 97.1 ever since and operates six days a week, with six hours a day of programming. Or rather, operated. The passing of hurricane Hanna in 2008 damaged some of the transmitting equipment as well as the solar panels which supplied power for the radio station. Without them, it was necessary to resort to rented generators, and the high price of gasoline forces Zèbtènite to endure whole days without broadcasting.
These same problems are shared by a large number of the community radio stations in Haiti – which, according to data from SAKS (Sosyete Animasyon Kominikasyon Sosyal – Society for Social Enlivenment and Communication) number as many as 30, located mostly in rural communities. To understand the reasons for the difficulties and the strategic role these community media play in the current reality of Haiti, it is necessary to dig a little deeper.
Predominant role of radio stations
“Today, and since the beginning, the most important communications medium in Haiti is radio,” says Sony Estéus, journalist and coordinator of SAKS. That is due as much to cultural factors like the oral tradition inherited through the African origins, as to socio-economic factors and the high level of illiteracy – which affects as much as 39 percent of the population – and the lack of an energy infrastructure. “There is also television, especially in the cities, when there is electricity. Because that is a problem for the media, the problem of power. Which means that television cannot be used widely by the population. There is the printed media, but it is very small. There are only two papers with daily circulation in Haiti. These are the three most important media, radio, in the first place, then television and the print media,” Sony affirms. Use of the internet as a medium of communication is on the horizon, but it is still only beginning due to its not being widespread and the difficulty of access as a popular medium.
According to official data, there are around 290 communications media in Haiti, including radio and television broadcasters, with an absolute prevalence of radio stations, whose number reaches 250. The capital of Port-au-Prince has 50 of these stations.
The birth of the first radio stations in Haiti occurred in the 1920s, under the auspices of an economic and commercial minority, to which were later added official state propaganda organs. This remained unchanged in the following decades. Until community radio stations came on the scene in the ‘90s.
The military coup of 1991, which removed President Jean Bertrand Aristide from power and harshly repressed the popular movement that had been growing since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, closed down all the commercial radio stations in the country. Under such repression, to break through the barrier of disinformation and marginalization imposed on the population, a group of progressive educators and communicators initiated a joint effort together with popular organizations to develop communications media, especially radio stations, in the bases, in rural areas, in the most distant communities. This groups was named SAKS. Through this organization, together with the initiative of the social movements, the first community radio stations in Haiti were built, among them Rádio Zèbtènite in the mountains of Magò.
Meanwhile, despite all this effort, most communications media are still in the hands of the economic élite. “There is currently a tendency to concentrate these media,” Sony warns. “Before, the owners of the media were journalists or agents of communication. Now, the bourgeoisie, the entrepreneurs, are little by little aquiring these media. There is, for example, the case of one single entrepreneur who owns more than 12 communications media, including radio and television stations.
At this juncture, again according to Estéus, “It could be said that there are four currents dividing up the space of the Haitian communications sector. There are the media with exclusively commercial purposes, which serve to enrich their owners, but at the same time play a very ideological role in support of the private sector, to support the maintenance of the status quo and the capitalist and neoliberal ideology. There is another current which is religious. In other words, the Catholic church, the protestant churches, have their own media, which evangelize, but with the same effect of maintaining the status quo in society. There are the official media, which produce government political propaganda. And last there is the current of the community media, which are more dedicated to education, especially popular education. They are media that support the people’s struggle, the struggle of the organizations, to change society, to transform the society.”
It would not be amiss to include yet another current in this argument: MINUSTAH [United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti], which has occupied the country militarily since 2004. To spread propaganda and to defend its activities, there are two radio stations that work every day exclusively for MINUSTAH.
After the earthquake
This scenario is complicated even more by the earthquake of January, 2010. Besides the destruction of a good part of the infrastructure of many radio stations, Haitians witnessed the entry of a new protagonist in the dispute for hegemony of communications: Internews.
Internews is a United States NGO financed by USAID. For the uninformed, it should be recalled that USAID is a government agency of the United States created in 1961 with the mission of “promoting the foreign policy interests of the United States by spreading democracy and free markets,” according to its official internet page. With headquarters in Washington, DC, its work supports “the economic growth and political advances of the foreign policy of the United States.”
Present in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in every country where the US wages war, Internews appeared in Haiti days after the January earthquake. Its mission is to manage and produce for the United Nations and for the US government everything having to do with communications in Haitian territory. It is Internews, for example, that produces the news program broadcast on all stations throughout the island called “Enfòmasyon Nou Dwe Konnen” (News we should know, in Kreole). But, as Sony Estéus stresses, “It’s information that they want us to know! It is a very complicated situation because they are working without the control of the authorities. The ministry of communications has no control over what is done on Internews, nor what is done on the MINUSTAH radio stations.
“They’re going to make a lot of money,” is what the coordinator of SAKS answers when asked what can be expected of the commercial communications media during the approaching electoral season. “They are going to make a lot of money with advertising for the candidates and for the Electoral Council They are going to open their microphones to all the candidates so they can make their own advertisements. But we cannot expect analysis or criticism of their platforms or of the electoral process as a whole,” Sony concludes.
It is from this perspective, what with having to overcome the challenges of reconstruction of the country after the earthquake and under a foreign military and economic occupation that has dragged on for decades, that one can understand the key role that popular community media, especially community radio, play in the current scene in Haiti.
From the heights of the mountains of Magò, at the end of another Saturday afternoon, during the hour and a half of broadcasting allowed by the scarcity of gasoline for the generators, Radio Zèbtènite plays popular and peasant music, opens its microphones so that a hougan [a priest of the Voudou religion] can comment on the ineffective actions of the Haitian state in attending to the victims of the earthquake and transmits a program produced by SAKS on democratic victories and the status of the November presidential elections. When the generator stops working and the equipment is turned off, from inside the community radio station’s improvised station operator Momis Likanes bursts out, “It is really hard… but we have to struggle.”