Covering the Pandemic's Impact on Haiti's Deaf Community

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This story was first published on IJNet, an ICFJ project that provides the latest tips, trends and training opportunities in seven languages. We’re committed to providing resources to help journalists in our network produce quality reporting on COVID-19 and other pressing topics.

Haitian journalist Milo Milfort's mantra is to never accept authorities' words as the undeniable truth before questioning them. He is an active participant in the Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum, a project of the International Journalists’ Network and their parent organization, International Center for Journalists. He is the author of an article about the impact of the pandemic and mask wearing on Haiti's deaf population, which was chosen as one of the Forum’s top stories in its monthly story contest.

Milfort boasts more than nine years of experience in journalism and social communications. He currently works for Enquet’Action, an independent investigative media organization based in Port-au-Prince. He is also a correspondent for the Spanish news agency EFE and Noticias SIN, a Dominican media outlet. His work has also appeared in many renowned international publications such as IPS News, Noticias Aliadas, Eldias.es, Directa and Equal Time.

Milfort is a graduate of Haiti's State University and studied social communications and public administration. His work has been celebrated throughout his career, and he has received many international prizes and accolades. The media organization, Enquet'Action, where Milfort works was awarded the first Francophone media innovation prize in 2019 by the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, the international organization for the Francophone community.

IJNet: Why did you decide to write about the impact of masks on deaf people?

Milfort: I tend to pay attention to vulnerable and marginalized people. I like going left when others go right. [They] repeat figures and rehash the authorities' speeches without even going on the field to see the real repercussions of official decisions on the most vulnerable communities.

When the mandatory mask-wearing order was announced, this topic came to me very quickly. What about the deaf — those who in Haiti are unfortunately called ”bèbè?” They were already considered outcasts and were going to be even more affected by the pandemic's consequences. Soon I discovered that wearing a mask would contribute further to deaf people's precarious living conditions in the country because they are not suited for their daily needs.

Between mid-March, when the state of emergency was announced, and July, when it was lifted, authorities were never able to find masks suited for the daily realities of deaf people. The pandemic worsens the living conditions of those who are hard of hearing. Education, housing and employment rights were completely violated. Deaf people's living conditions were already dire before the pandemic, they continue to be during the crisis, and it will be worse once it ends. That's because they were never a priority for the authorities.

What challenges did you face while gathering information for this story?

My main challenge was accessing information and sources. It's a pretty common challenge in our field in Haiti, and the pandemic made it even more difficult. For this story, we wanted to gather a lot of information on a subject that's often overlooked. Sources didn't want to see us for interviews or field observations. For example, we wanted to visit an institution that cares for deaf people, but our request was denied for fear we would upset the children. Very little research has been conducted on this subject in academic or scientific fields. We only have bits and pieces of outdated information here and there. For example, we don't even have a reliable figure of how many deaf people live in Haiti.

[Read more: Colombian journalist Karoll Pineda discusses reporting during COVID-19]

What do you think are the main challenges facing Haitian journalists today?

There are many challenges. For one, there is the authorities' lack of transparency, which leads to the withholding of information within the public administration. Political, social and economic players focus on communications but cannot handle uncomfortable information. They're more inclined to give a press conference or put out a press release than give an interview where their talking points might be challenged.

There is also a lot of insecurity in the country. The growing number of gangs makes journalists' work even more difficult as the authorities lose control of cities and regions. Journalists have been murdered without their families ever receiving justice, and there is total impunity for those who kill in broad daylight. Being a journalist in Haiti is not easy. There are many challenges and blatant dangers.

What impact did your article have?

The article contributed to starting a public conversation about the fate of a neglected group of people in our society. It exposed the weakness and the lack of responsibility shown by the state towards one of many marginalized social groups in Haiti. When we went out to report on deaf communities that live outside of the capital, the people living in these communities were happy to see us. It was like they'd been waiting for this moment for years. They took the opportunity to tell us their grievances, which are constantly brushed off by central and local authorities. We gave them a chance to be heard, to tell the world they were fed up and to speak up against the unacceptable. 

With this story, I think I produced useful public interest journalism.

To read Milo Milfort's article on the effects of the pandemic on Haiti’s deaf communities, click here.

Photo courtesy of Milo Milfort.

Stéphanie Fillion is a Canadian journalist based in New York covering international affairs. She is a frequent contributor for Pass Blue, an independent media organization covering UN-related news. She is a Columbia University graduate, and has also written a piece for IJNet French detailing the 5 ways to boost your career when you've lost your job.

The Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum from ICFJ and IJNet is a place for reporters around the world to connect on how COVID-19 is impacting both their country and their work. This is the second in a series of features through which we take a deeper look at the individual stories and work of journalists in the Forum.

This article is part of our online coverage of reporting on COVID-19. To see more resources, click here

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