Haiti's fallen warrior
By Charles Arthur Posted Oct 1 2000
“I cannot say who killed my husband, but there is a number of people who were interested in doing so,” says Michele Montas, the widow of murdered Haitian journalist Jean Dominique.
Months have passed since the morning of April 3, when two gunmen shot Dominique as he arrived for work at his radio station in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Although Montas, who now runs Radio Haïti Inter herself, is no nearer finding out the exact reason for the killing of the 69-year-old veteran radio journalist and pro-democracy campaigner, she has no shortage of possible explanations.
The murder of Dominique has caused shock and despair both in Haiti and beyond. The Haitian government declared three days of national mourning. At a funeral service attended by over 15,000 people, Haitian President René Préval posthumously awarded Dominique the country’s highest medal of distinction in recognition of “his inestimable contribution to the construction and reinforcement of democracy.” Both Reporters sans Frontières and the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to the Haitian authorities expressing their regret and their concern. Koichiro Matsuura, the director of UNESCO, says the murder “will distress all those who believe in Haiti’s democratic future and all who fight for freedom of speech.”
Dominique took over the lease of Radio Haïti Inter in 1968 and quickly introduced a number of innovations that for the first time made radio an accessible and popular medium among ordinary Haitians. Radio Haïti Inter pioneered the broadcasting of domestic as well as foreign news and was also the first station to use eyewitness reports.
Perhaps its most significant break with past radio practice in Haiti was that newscasters began to read news bulletins in Creole, the language spoken by all Haitians, instead of in French, the language understood only by the educated elite. These moves were of great significance in a country where most people were, and still are, illiterate.
The station’s progressive political line and courageous investigative reporting made it immensely popular with the majority but, at the same time, widely despised by the country’s rich elite. Dominique also made many enemies among the supporters of the notorious Duvalier family dictatorship when the station became an important element helping galvanize a popular opposition movement. In 1980 Jean-Claude Duvalier sent his Tontons Macoutes, the Duvaliers’ dreaded private security force, to close down Radio Haïti Inter, and Dominique and his wife were forced into exile in the United States.
When the Duvalier dictatorship fell in 1986, the couple returned to Haiti and restarted the station. It then played a crucial role in spreading the news and ideas of a grass-roots movement for a democracy that would include all the people of Haiti, meaning the peasants from the mountains and the slum dwellers from the cities as well as the tiny group of rich families and their military friends, who had long monopolized political power.
When the movement voted a reformer- priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, into power in 1990, the elite responded by backing a military coup. During the first days of the coup, Haïti Inter was attacked by soldiers, and Dominique and his family went into exile again.
In 1994 when the United Nations restored the constitutional government to power, Dominique restarted the station once more and, according to Montas, threw his weight behind the attempts to rebuild the popular movement for radical changes.
Montas says: “What he always fought for was popular participation. He fought against exclusion, because the majority of people in this country are excluded from political life.”
Dominique’s passionate belief in the right of the majority to participate fully in the general elections — which, after numerous postponements, finally took place last May — may have been why he was assassinated, suggests Montas.
“He pushed for anyone who wanted to vote, to have a vote, and he spoke out against the political parties who ran the election with the hope that they could share the cake up amongst themselves. He said, ‘Either the votes of the majority count, or they don’t.’ ”
Threats of violence and a disorganized registration process failed to deter the vast majority of Haitians from registering to vote, and Montas wonders aloud whether it was this unexpected turn of events that got her husband killed.
“Maybe Jean’s death was supposed to make people too scared to vote. He was so popular in the country, and killing him was like saying if we can get him, we can get all of you,” she says.
Montas, as many Haitians, assumes that the U.S. government’s long-expressed distaste for the left-wing rhetoric of Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party indicates a far-from-benign U.S. involvement in the electoral process in Haiti. She claims that U.S. support for the anti-Lavalas Family parties went so far as paying for radio advertising slots for all the political parties except the Lavalas Family Party.
In the end the high voter turnout, around 60 percent, delivered a massive victory for the Lavalas Family Party; however, a serious dispute then developed between the international community and the Haitian Electoral Council over the method used to calculate the winning percentages for the contested Senate seats.
Politics is a dangerous game in Haiti, but Montas points out that the ones who hired her husband’s assassins could just as easily have been members of a small group of families that dominate Haiti’s business world. Dominique’s relentless pursuit of truth and his determination to get to the bottom of a scandal often brought him into conflict with these families.
“Jean’s investigations touched a number of very powerful interest groups,” Montas points out. “For example, he focused on the scandal three years ago when 80 kids died from taking toxic medicine. Pharval (a company owned by the influential Boulos family) paid a number of journalists to keep their mouths shut, and it worked, except with us.” Dominique also investigated another incident involving the same family, in which homemade rum was produced with the aid of poisonous, liver-damaging ethanol.
Last year, a consortium of business groups, many of which were owned by the same families having previously crossed swords with Dominique, canceled their advertising contract with Haïti Inter in protest against unfavorable coverage of their attempts to enter electoral politics. The station suffered a 20-percent drop in revenue and, as a result, had to abandon plans to extend FM broadcast coverage to more remote parts of the country.
The incident highlighted one of Haïti Inter’s most persistent dilemmas: Solely dependent on advertising for revenue, the station is locked into an uncomfortable interdependence with the conservative business families. On the one hand, the businesses need Haïti Inter because it reaches the biggest audience, but they oppose its progressive political stand and its refusal to censor itself. On the other hand, the radio station needs the advertising revenue from those businesses, but it is determined to remain a news vehicle at the service of the majority.
Montas speaks with pride of the contribution that her husband had made to the development of radio in Haiti. The station closed for a month after Dominique’s murder, and Montas reveals that many on the staff did not want to continue.
“Some wanted to give up the profession of journalist,” she says. “So we talked, and I told them that Jean was killed not because he was a journalist, but because he was Jean, and because of what he represented. His station represented something.”
On May 3, the World Press Freedom Day, Radio Haïti Inter went back on the air with Montas taking the microphone in place of her husband. On the outside wall of the station building today, a red-and-blue banner still flutters with the message,
“Jean Dominique, you are gone but your ideas will go on.”