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The myriad bullet holes embedded in the facade of Radio Haiti since the military staged the bloodiest coup d’etat in Haiti’s history in 1991 stand as a reminder of the precariousness of practicing independent journalism there. Memories of the expulsion and torture of scores of journalists and human rights activists and the total destruction of Radio Haiti by the regime of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier in the wake of the 1980 U.S. presidential election are indelibly etched in the national consciousness.
But last week, a voice that had survived all those perilous episodes was silenced forever. Early on Monday, April 3, journalist and radio station owner Jean Léopold Dominique was shot dead, execution style, in Radio Haiti’s garage in Delmas, just outside of Port-au-Prince, as he was about to enter the building to host his popular daily program, Inter-Actualités.
Michelle Montas, his wife and co-anchor, missed the assassin or assassins by minutes. She discovered the bodies of Dominique and caretaker Jean-Claude Louissaint, also murdered, lying a few feet from each other. “Today was one of the rare occasions we drove to the station in separate vehicles,” she said in a telephone interview from Port-au-Prince.
With the odious murder of this courageous journalist much of the hope entertained by many Haitians about the future of democracy in their country was wiped out. Indeed Jean Dominique epitomized the difficult battle for freedom of expression in Haiti.
An agronomist by profession, Dominique, 69, began his broadcasting career in the early ’60s with a time-leased commercial program on Radio Haiti. After he purchased the station in the mid ’70s, he changed its name to Radio Haiti Inter. Dominique gained prominence in 1973 when U.S. ambassador and Duvalier apologist Clinton Knox was kidnapped by a group of leftists. They demanded the release of political prisoners, $500,000 ransom, and a plane to Mexico. Dominique’s nonstop reportage and the subsequent cave-in of Baby Doc emboldened journalists and activists. Dominique’s work, along with that of the weekly newspaper Le Petit Samedi Soir, laid the groundwork for an independent press in Haiti.
In the late ’60s, Dominique introduced the first daily Creole program in Haiti. Prior to that, all programs other than government propaganda and time-leased shows were broadcast in French, the colonialist tongue, as a way of keeping the masses outside of the mainstream.
Following the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, his administration’s human rights-oriented foreign policy helped create a new journalistic paradigm in Haiti. This allowed Dominique and an increasing number of people working in the media to challenge the repressive rule of the Duvaliers and their thuggish Tonton Macoutes. Dominique took advantage of U.S. pressure on the dictator to begin broadcasting editorials critical of the government.
Through it all, Dominique always sought to inform his listeners on the role Washington played in Haitian politics. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 focused his analysis. Less than one month after the election, the Duvalier government sent more than 30 journalists and human rights activists into exile. Dominique escaped to the Venezuelan embassy and later to the U.S., where he was reunited with his wife, who was among the exiles. They remained in New York for the next six years.
In February 1986, in the aftermath of the popular revolt that overthrew Baby Doc, they returned to Haiti. More than 50,000 people greeted them at the airport. Radio Haiti had to be rebuilt from scratch. Haitians from every shade of the socioeconomic spectrum—from the impoverished street vendor in Port-au-Prince to those living in the diaspora—poured in thousands of dollars. In late 1986, Dominique was back on the air.
In December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency in what was called the first truly democratic election in Haitian history. Although Dominique was a fervent Aristide supporter from the start, he refused the president’s offer to become minister of information. “I am an independent, and I will die an independent,” he often said. Yet his advice was often sought by Aristide (as it was by René Préval, the current president), fueling rumors that he was in Aristide’s pocket until his death.
However, the acerbic editorials of the sometimes irascible journalist spared no one. Dominique was known to publicly and privately criticize the popular Aristide for his intractability, as well as for his penchant to surround himself with sycophants.
The violent 1991 military coup thrust Dominique and his wife into three more years of exile in the U.S. Upon his return to Haiti in 1994, when Aristide was restored by a U.S.-led multinational force, Dominique faced some of the toughest hurdles of his career: The oligarchy refused to air commercials on his station. “You have betrayed our class,” he once recalled being told by some of his former sponsors.
In a country where privileges are commensurate with the lightness of one’s skin, Dominique, a mulatto from a well-to-do family, chose agronomy, a profession which, in Haiti—then a truly agricultural country—brought him closer to the peasants. As a journalist, he grew into a passionate advocate for social justice for the downtrodden.
Filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who was working on a docmentary on Dominique at the time of his death, referred to him as “a composite of Edward R. Murrow and Paul Revere in that he was the quintessential professional and patriot.”
News of Dominique’s murder brought a disturbing dose of new reality to the Haitians in the diaspora, as both of his daily programs— Inter-Actualités at 7 a.m. and the interview-oriented Face à l’Opinion (Face the Opinion) in the afternoon—have been simulcast since 1995 in the tri-state area over Haitian-owned Radio Soleil, a Brooklyn-based subcarrier, which reaches over 275,000 people.
As speculations abound as to who was responsible for the assassinations of Dominique and Louissaint, some suspicions have focused on the atavistic Tonton Macoutes, while others hint at participation of the left. Jean Dominique was a staunch opponent of the Duvaliers and their murderous Tonton Macoutes, who had tortured and jailed him. And a celebrated editorial last fall addressing what he believed was unjust pressure being put on him by Aristide’s former chief of police, Danny Toussaint—now a senatorial candidate—reads like a testament: ” . . . and if I am still alive, I will close down the station after having denounced the plot hatched against me and I will return into exile one more time with my wife and my children.”
Nevertheless, in spite of the tears of his friends, nobody on the political scene in Haiti today can be exculpated. Friends and foes alike have helped create a climate of violence in which a life is not even worth the $100 that is reportedly the asking price for hired guns these days in the country.
Jean Dominique recently told a journalist, “I have no tolerance for those who speak with guns in their hands.” Once again in Haiti, we are reminded that those with the guns have no tolerance for people who speak with their hearts and minds.
A memorial service for Jean Dominique will be held at Columbia University next month. Time and date will be announced.