Investigative Reports Take Root in the Seaside Haitian Town of Miragoane

Sep 62011

Miragoane, Haiti: The investigative journalism training last weekend in Miragoane coincided with the town’s “fête patrimonial.” This might have been exciting if it didn’t mean that the only hotel with decent services in the entire city of some 30,000 was ground zero for the festivities. The 14-piece big bands that commemorated the celebration came alive at midnight and rocked until 4:00 a.m. two nights in a row. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep.

Still, it didn’t curb my enthusiasm for the training. Most of the nearly two dozen part-time journalists who participated are ‘correspondents’ for radio stations which are based in Port-au-Prince, some two hours away from this coastal town. They all have other jobs to compensate for their shamefully low salaries. In most other circumstances this would be considered a conflict of interest given who their employees are and the stories they are sent to cover, but in Haiti it is the status quo.

This training was five days, as opposed to the previous format of four consecutive weekends. The first two days focused on defining the characteristics of an investigative report as contrasted to a conventional radio report or article. Then each journalist was asked to come up with a topic to investigate and create a plan: a hypothesis, documentation, interviews and on-the-scene description.

The next two days were spent in the field executing the investigations. The subjects the journalists chose reflect Miragoane’s reality - much of the corruption is driven by the economy from the port. The lack of a clear process for taxing incoming goods spawns racketeering, grafting and outright corruption. Several journalists did investigations about just this topic. They found that not only is there a lack of transparency in the taxation process (particularly of vehicles which makes up a huge percentage of received goods), but there is no official ‘system’ to follow. There are no signs with information or plaques on doors to know who to go to for what. Locals say that sometimes the taxes are arbitrarily so high that owners who have sent their vehicles end up abandoning them.

In addition to several stories involving port corruption, another investigation looked at the poor sanitation conditions in the prison. Yet another looked at the procedures to register a birth. Without a birth certificate Haitians can’t take a baccalaureate exam, get a driver’s license or marry, among other things. The government provides no materials for local government officials to register births – the state official we interviewed has been using his own money just to buy the ledgers to record the births.

Only five of the 23 journalists completed their investigations, but I still considered this training a huge success. Almost all the participants seemed to now understand, in just the short time we were together, exactly what goes in to an investigative report. Many of the journalists said they’d been intimidated by the idea of ‘investigative’ journalism but now see it can be managed if it’s broken down by steps. I hoping that in the upcoming weeks those journalists that didn’t finish their investigations will have time to do so. I already look forward to hearing what they have to say, and receiving more investigations from all of them in the months to come.