Press freedom has dramatically improved in Haiti since the fall of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide earlier this year, a Reporters Without Borders fact-finding mission said today.
It warned however that rebel forces still controlling half the country, as well as fervent supporters of the ex-president, remained a threat to journalists and that if the government failed to disarm them before elections planned for next year, the media might become the target of new violence.
The report, "Press freedom returns: a gain to be nurtured," said journalists working in the provinces were being forced to censor themselves for fear of the rebels, while those working the capital had very much more freedom.
The Haitian media has lived a nightmare since the April 2000 murder of the country’s best-known journalist, Jean Dominique. Aristide’s street gangs physically attacked journalists and radio stations and in early 2002 Aristide was added to the Reporters Without Borders worldwide list of "predators of press freedom." A few weeks before, a second journalist, Brignol Lindor, was murdered and after Aristide protected the killers from punishment, the media worked in an atmosphere of constant fear.
The report, after a 7-11 June visit to Haiti, said the new rulers were taking a very different attitude to the murders of Dominique and Lindor and seemed determined to solve the cases. If they did so, it would "show that a return to the rule of law is under way for the whole society as well as for journalists, who have no defence against armed groups."
The press freedom organisation welcomed the "firm promises" made to the fact-finding mission and also awaited further information on the case of Spanish journalist Ricardo Ortega, who was shot dead, apparently by Aristide supporters, during an attack on an anti-Aristide demonstration on 7 March.
The report said that though the media was now much freer, the task of consolidating the gains - through disarmament and a return to the rule of law - was "enormous and goes beyond the issue of press freedom. Nothing is yet certain," it warned. But for the moment, one journalist told the mission, "we can breathe again."
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