Printer Friendly

Weekly opens eyes, ears to Creole tongue.

Journalists promote liberation, literacy

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Like so many other organizations that supported the presidency of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the staff at Haiti's first Creole language weekly newspaper decided to suspend its operation after the 1991 coup but said they hoped Libete would be on the streets again shortly, especially when the Organization of American States pledged to reinstate Aristide.

But nearly 16 months later, the OAS effort shows little progress. Staff members at Libete, Creole for liberty, decided to resume publishing Nov. 25 what is today Haiti's largest newspaper -- and to challenge press working conditions, which are widely considered to be the most dangerous in Haiti's history.

Four journalists have been killed since the 1991 coup, and several independent news organizations have either been closed by the Haitian army or practice self-censorship to avoid state-sponsored repression. "We used the rhetoric of the de facto government. In June they invited journalists to go back to work. We did and we'll see," a Libete staff member told NCR after requesting anonymity.

"It's a sign of the times that I don't want my name mentioned. We take all the risks by starting up again. We are conscious of that." The staff member said that after Marc L. Bazin became head of state in June, Bazin invited journalists to go back to work.

Very few journalists accepted the challenge, realizing that Bazin is a puppet leader of an army-backed regime who has no authority to stop soldiers from carrying out a terror campaign against news-people.

But not only has Libete resumed publishing 6,000 issues a week, making it the largest newspaper in Haiti, but the staff also has not curtailed its message of support for popular organizations or its criticism of undemocratic institutions like the army and police forces.

A recent issue carried a banner headline slamming an illegal attempt by Bazin to organize congressional elections and also a month-by-month breakdown of human-rights violations since the Sept. 30, 1991, coup that crushed the freely elected Aristide government.

Only a few news organizations in Haiti, with the most prominent being independent radio station Tropic FM, reported on these two stories without first sanitizing them of all controversy.

"We may have the army come here and crush the paper. We may also run out of money. But we're back," the staff member said, explaining the army could easily find the paper's Port-au-Prince office by tracing Libete's government license number, which appears in every issue, along with the paper's telephone and facsimile numbers.

The working conditions Libete staff members face are indicative of a human-rights climate that several international organizations, including Americas Watch and the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights, have compared to the fallen Duvalier family dictatorship.

The people's tongue

But like so many other civil society organizations in Haiti, ranging from peasant collectives to new political parties, Libete was founded when a new Haiti was being created, a republic headed by the country's first democratically elected president, Aristide, who took office Feb. 7, 1991.

Only about 20 percent of Haitians can read and write, and with the Aristide government planning to start a national literacy campaign in Creole, Libete staff members thought their newspaper could be used by literacy teachers.

"A well-known law of alphabetization is that when you learn to read and write and if you don't find materials, you go back to being illiterate," the Libete staff member told NCR.

After one year of planning, which included fact-finding trips to Haiti's rural provinces determining what potential readers wanted and, more important, what they needed, Libete debuted in November 1990.

"There had never been a weekly published in the language of the people" the Libete staff member said. "The press in Haiti had been reserved for the elite. Newspapers had been published only in French. We wanted to change that."

The first objective of the paper, which was shared by liberation theologians, was to use Creole as a vehicle to promote literacy. Although Creole has been spoken by Haitians since European colonial powers brought Creole-speaking African slaves to the island of Hispaniola in the early 16th century, it is a language with a long oral tradition.

Creole, a rich proverb-filled language, is a blend of several tongues, including English, but is dominated by a French vocabulary that is spoken and spelled phonetically.

Only recently, however, have scholars worked to organize Creole as a formal written language, and liberation theologians have embraced and promoted the language as the tongue of the Haitian people.

The United Methodist Church in Haiti and the Catholic Missionhurst Order publish their own Creole monthlies, which, like Libete, promote Creole as the language of Haiti.

As a former colony of France, the language of Haiti's high schools and universities is French. Although Haiti has two official languages, French and Creole, French is the language of government documents and spoken by Haiti's elite.

"Libete is a start of a process. You find people who are literate and insist they can't read Creole. The language has an inferiority complex. That's one of our jobs publish a newspaper that looked at least just as professional as French-language newspapers and to put Creole and French on an equal basis," the staff member said, proudly pointing to the Apple computers Libete uses.

"One hundred percent of Haitians speak Creole. Only 5 percent speak French correctly. Those who speak Creole deserve a paper as much as those who speak French."

Reading, writing, repression

Besides being the cheapest newspaper in Haiti, 10 cents a copy compared to 50 cents for the three Haitian weeklies (published in French), which are based in the United States, Libete is the only newspaper in the country distributed in Haiti's countryside.

"We went patiently from one town to another," the staff member said, adding that before the 1991 coup, Libete workers set up a distribution system in seven of Haiti's nine regional departments.

"After 10 months, farm suppliers like tool sellers began to advertise in Libete," the staff member said. "One businessman told me he was in a small village in the Artibonite (a farm region in central Haiti), and he saw a group of farmers standing around one man who was reading Libete. He realized it was important.

"That's the way it works in the countryside. The one farmer who can read, reads for his neighbors."

But as a consequence of the repression against popular organizations in the countryside, Libete workers are now trying to rebuild its distribution system. As of late December, Libete was being distributed mostly here in the capital, where the paper's bureau is.

Before the coup, Libete had eight staff members in Port-au-Prince and eight correspondents scattered throughout the country. Now after starting up again, the paper has seven Port-au-Prince staff members and two correspondents. One of Libete's correspondents was forced to flee to Canada, one is in hiding and another was forced to move to another section of Haiti for safety.

Libete workers also take security precautions in Port-au-Prince. "We don't go out at night with the paper in our cars," the Libete staff member said. "We distribute during the daytime. There are too many army roadblocks. If they'd catch us, there would be problems.

"We have the financial support to function for six months without money problems, and we are coming out with a two-year financial plan. But part of our thinking is that Haiti will go back to democracy in one year. But I know that's optimistic."
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:'Libete' - Haitian newspaper
Author:Slavin, Patrick
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 5, 1993
Previous Article:A touch of home to Americans in Rome.
Next Article:After 10 years, a long, hard journey home.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters