By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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By Zachary D. Roberts
Haitian journalist Michèle Montas has witnessed the ominous signs before: the anonymous nocturnal phone calls, the veiled acts of intimidation hurled publicly by those who claim to be connected to one of the many factions criticized in Radio Haiti Inter's editorials, the occasional prowling of unidentified individuals in front of the station's gate.
Montas is the widow of Haiti's most celebrated journalist, Jean Léopold Dominique, with whom she co-anchored a popular radio show. Dominique was shot dead execution-style on April 3 of this year in the station's garage, apparently by a lone gunman who then walked brazenly to a waiting vehicle. Also gunned down was Jean-Claude Louissaint, a caretaker at the station.
A few weeks ago, a spate of new warnings grew into overt threats when a relative of a well-known member of a new street gang named Chimères, after the mythological fire-breathing monster, told a young female reporter at the station, "We will make sure that every one at Radio Haiti experiences Dominique's fate." Montas recalled in a telephone interview from Port-au-Prince that "Jean and I used to listen together to recordings of similar threats a few days before his murder."
The Chimères, whose tactics uncannily resemble those of the dreaded Tonton Macoutes, are made up of self-proclaimed allies of Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family), the party foundedby Jean-BertrandAristide, the former president who was reelected over the weekend. Strangely, Lavalas officials have yet to publicly dissociate the party from this gang, which has been rampaging on the streets of Port-au-Prince and other cities with impunity.
In a blistering editorial broadcast following renewed threats to station members, Montas rebuked authorities, declaring, 'If an employee of Radio Haiti loses a hair, if the blood of one of our journalists is shed again, you will pay for this.'
Dominique, 69 at the time of his death, founded Radio Haiti in 1971. His daily criticisms of the dictatorial regimes of both Duvaliers (Papa Doc and Baby Doc) and his unadulterated passion for advocating the aspirations of the masses propelled him and Montas into exile in the U.S. in 1980. They returned after the popular uprising that overthrew Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier in 1986. Again in 1991, the couple found themselves in exile in the U.S. when the Haitian militarymany of whose officers are graduates of the U.S. military's School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgiastaged the bloodiest coup in the country's history. Dominique and Montas finally returned to Haiti in 1994 when Aristide was restored by a U.S.-led multinational force.
At Dominique's funeral, more than 15,000 people crowded Port-au-Prince's soccer stadium to pay tribute to the man they affectionately nicknamed "Jean Do." Today Montas believes that "most of the people who admired him strongly believe that things would have been different if he were alive." Indeed, on the third day of every month since Dominique was murdered, there have been demonstrations throughout the countryespecially in the rice-rich region of the Artibonite Valley where Dominique, an agronomist by profession, was extremely popular among the peasants.
Since her husband's murder, Montas has been at the helm of Radio Haiti. Early each morning she begins Inter Actualités, the show they used to host together, with the words, "Bonjour, Jean."
A graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, class of '69, Montas returned to her native Haiti in 1970, working at the daily newspaper Le Nouvelliste. She recalls that her uncle Lucien Montas, who was editor in chief, taught her how to navigate the perilous waters of the profession under a dictatorship. Three years later, after stints with the French daily Le Monde and the African weekly Jeune Afrique, she returned to join Dominique at Radio Haiti. (Subsequently, during both of her periods of exile, she worked at the UN as a press officer and radio producer.)
In contrast to Dominique's free-spirited, improvisational commentaries, Montas has always specialized in hard news, insightful essays, and penetrating interviews. Lately, however, this has been changing. In a blistering editorial broadcast three weeks ago following renewed threats to station members, she rebuked Haitian authorities for allowing what she called "the virtual new Tonton Macoutes and mercenaries of change in the country to act with license and arrogance," and added, "If an employee of Radio Haiti loses a hair, if the blood of one of our journalists is shed again, you will pay for this."
In Haiti, the saying goes, "L'enquête se poursuit" (the investigation continues). After Dominique was killed, the government's investigation led to the apprehension of one Jean Wilner Lalanne, who was admitted to a hospital because of a leg wound sustained during his arrest. A few days later, Lalanne was found dead in his hospital bed. The official cause of death: a massive heart attack. He was 35 years old. The week before last, Lalanne's body disappeared from the morgue. The investigation continues.
Amid a storm of coup rumors on the eve of the presidential election, Haiti's police commissioner, Pierre Denizé, Minister of Justice Camille Leblanc, and Judge Claudy Gassant, who is in charge of the Dominique case, all left the country with their families.
Meanwhile, Port-au-Prince experienced yet another of its traditionally violent pre-election weeks. Dozens of bombs exploded in the streets in the most populated quarters, killing and injuring scores of people.
Not that the government has done nothing. However, some of its timid efforts have been stymied by members of the new legislaturemost of them are from the Lavalas Partywho won office last May. A key issue in those elections: the method of tabulating the vote. (Sound familiar?) Short of changes in the way votes are tabulated, the opposition partiesas well as the U.S. governmentnow say they will not recognize anyone who is elected, including Aristide, who is still the most popular politician in Haiti.
Does all of this signal the end of the investigation of Dominique's murder? "I believe it is just temporary," replies Montas firmly. "As long as I'm alive and as long as Radio Haiti exists, this crime will not stay unsolved."
In the background, the clearly audible reverberation of machine-gun shots is a reminder that the investigation undoubtedly will take a bit longer.
On Sunday, December 10 (International Human Rights Day), filmmaker Jonathan Demme and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights will honor the work of Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, Broadway and 116th Street, Manhattan. A 30-minute segment of a "documentary-in-progress" by Demme about Dominique will be shown. Montas will receive the Michael F. Hooper Award for Human Rights. The program will begin at 5 p.m. For further information, call 212-337-0005.