Immigration

Haitian-American Media Become the Eyes and Ears of Haiti

As mainstream media coverage of the January 12 earthquake declines, Haitian media owners, publishers, and radio hosts in the United States are feeling their role more acutely.

Jean-Yves Pont-du-Jour drives his green Honda slowly behind a snowplow. A blizzard has left most of Washington, D.C. stuck at home, and Pont-du-Jour would be home too, except he knows that thousands will be tuning in to his Haitian radio show, “Konbit Lakay” tonight.

“Tonight we’re going to have a special night,” he says into the microphone at WPFW-FM, a small radio station on a D.C. side street. “We’re going to title the night, “Haiti: One Month After."

From Monday to Friday, Pont-du-Jour, 56, is an engineer with the Maryland Transportation Authority. But on Saturday nights (and sometimes into Sunday morning) he is “Yves Dayiti,” a “straight talker” by his own estimation, an activist who rallies the city’s new Haitian immigrants and Haitian professionals at the World Bank and Howard University, from the microphone.

For listeners in Langley Park, Md., where the majority of the city’s estimated 100,000 Haitians live, his postings transport them to news conferences with Haitian President Rene Preval; to protests at the airport over lack of tents; to interviews with young people whose professors have died and whose university sits in a pile of rubble. Everything is spoken twice, in English, then in Creole. For a city without a Haitian newspaper, this is the go-to show for the Haitian diaspora.

“On some Saturdays, I don't want to come,” says Pont-du-Jour. "But if I'm in Washington, the people expect me to be here. And after the show on Saturday nights, you feel you have accomplished something."

As mainstream media coverage of the January 12 earthquake in Haiti declines, Pont-du-Jour is one of several Haitian media owners, publishers, and radio hosts in the United States who is feeling his role more acutely. According to a recent New America Media poll of Haitian Americans, more than 90 percent of respondents said they have been following the events closely through the media. Three out of five lost someone in the disaster. Journalists like Pont-du-Jour have become part journalist, part activist. They are commuting to Haiti regularly on self-funded trips and spending hours poring over Internet newsfeeds to provide the most up to date information.

“We are the eyes and ears of Haiti now,” says Tamara Philippeaux, owner of Miami-based Island Television, a program on Comcast that broadcasts in Creole and English to more than 1 million homes in Dade and Broward counties. Philippeaux has traveled to Port-au-Prince four times since the earthquake.

Philippeaux was visiting Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck. She spent two nights in an abandoned Mitsubishi Montero in the parking lot of the Prime Minister’s office when her hotel collapsed. That Saturday, she found a flight back to Fort Lauderdale through the Dominican Republic. But by Monday, a feeling of “What am I doing here?” had settled in, and by Tuesday, she was back in Haiti.

Last week, she was back to cover the earthquake’s ripple effect in Jaqueville, a town in southern Haiti near to where she was born.

“You don’t see the constant images anymore on mainstream media,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong -- I love CNN. But in terms of covering what’s going on, they’ll do a two minute story where we’ll do a twenty minute story.”

Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor of the Brooklyn-based newspaper The Haitian Times agrees. He says he keeps going back to Haiti “to get way up close and personal.” Pierre-Pierre who started The Haitian Times in 1999 says the Haitian community has been unconsciously transforming itself “from an exile group to an immigrant community.”

But news portals like The Haitian Times aimed at the community have been shaken by the recession. Many have halved their staff. But Pierre-Pierre says they still need to get to Haiti to cover stories like those of the survivors who paid rescue crews to search for their loved ones versus those who could not afford it.

“The earthquake has been testing us,” says Ricot Dupuy, co-owner of Radio Soliel in Brooklyn. “It tests our capacity to deliver news to the community. Are you really there for them?”

In the days after the earthquake, pictures went up on the walls at Radio Soleil, of missing relatives brought in by Haitians in Brooklyn. Dupuy and his volunteers manned the phones, calling a radio station in Port-au-Prince, Signal FM, to coordinate a search. “We’d say, ‘At this particular house, on this part of the street, there are x numbers of people.’ We asked them to see what they could find,” Dupuy explains.

Back at WPFW radio in Washington D.C., Yves Dayiti cues up an audio clip. A man at the airport shouts over the lack of tents. The first drops of rain have fallen in Port-au-Prince. The rainy season is coming.

Yves cuts to an interview with a woman in a tent city who has returned to the capital from the provinces to find that there is nothing waiting for her, no tent, not even “a bag of water,” Yves explains.

“There are newborns under those tents,” he says, “and those people are going to have to wait until May to get tents! That’s according to Haitian officials.”

To lighten the mood, he cues up a song. But soon he is back at fevered pitch. He just heard of a recovery plan that has been drafted by the U.S. State Department.

“How can the U.S. put a plan together without Haitian involvement?" he shouts. "We have professionals in the diaspora – I am one of them! I am one of them, and you’re telling me that you have developed a plan? With nobody’s input!”

He implores anyone listening from the State Department to “get me a copy of that plan.”

As the phone lines open, callers speak in Creole from the Washington suburbs, in the same urgent pitch as the voices heard from the airport in Port-au-Prince.

But quickly the time is up, before he can get to all the callers.

“All right folks, next week, next week we’re going to do it again. And the next week, and the next. On Saturday nights, as I told you all, when everyone else is going to forget about Haiti, this is going to be the place.”

Alexandra Moe is a writer for New America Media based in Washington, D.C.
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