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Desperate for News, Haitian-Americans Turn to Grassroots Media

Readers and listeners turn to community newspapers and radio for a crucial link to loved ones

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In an unassuming storefront locale amid hairstylists, ethnic bakeries and little churches, Radio Soleil d'Haiti is a community radio station which has broadcasted from the heart of Brooklyn's teeming Haitian-American community for 16 years. Normally, Radio Soleil broadcasts news of interest to the Haitian-American community with a strong emphasis on music and other cultural programming, primarily in Creole French.

Radio Soleil has been broadcasting around the clock, offering news and information to New York's Haitian American community
Radio Soleil has been broadcasting around the clock, offering news and information to New York's Haitian American community

But these are not normal times. Moments after the earthquake struck in Haiti on January 12, Radio Soleil became a community center as well as a vital communications link to the homeland through its hookup with Signal FM, the Haitian mega-station that was miraculously undamaged by the quake.

Vital link

Haitian-American Mona Louis came to Radio Soleil for information about traveling to Haiti to rescue her ailing mother from the island nation
Haitian-American Mona Louis came to Radio Soleil for information about traveling to Haiti to rescue her ailing mother from the island nation

"The phone has been ringing non-stop since then," says station manager Ricot DuPuy. "The communication system has broken down entirely in Haiti, [so our community members ask us] 'Can you get through?' 'Can you help us?' Radio Soleil then broadcasts the names of the loved ones they are looking for, hoping that somehow they will find a way to tell [family members abroad] 'I am still alive.''' DuPuy says many relatives, both living and dead, have been located in this way and the station continues to act as a clearinghouse for listeners and walk-ins from the community.

Rev. Dr. Robert Doltenus broadcasts word of spiritual encouragement to Radio Soleil's many Christian listeners
Rev. Dr. Robert Doltenus broadcasts word of spiritual encouragement to Radio Soleil's many Christian listeners

Meanwhile, Radio Soleil also broadcasts other information, such as where Haiti-bound donations of food, clothing and medicine can be dropped off throughout the city. There have been interviews with U.S. immigration officials clarifying President Obama's order offering temporary protected status to Haitian nationals who were in the United States prior to January 12. Talks by clergy offer spiritual guidance and comfort.

Mainstream news organizations, such as CNN and Fox News, turn to Radio Soleil as a public face of the Haitian-American community. The New York Times called the station "the heartbeat of the Haitian community." DuPuy is gratified his small-scale station has been useful in getting the word out about the urgency of the crisis.  "There is no way this country could recover from this without the total dedication and support of the rest of the world," he says.

Keeping them honest

Haiti Observateur editor and publisher Leo Joseph takes his journalistic role as government gadfly seriously
Haiti Observateur editor and publisher Leo Joseph takes his journalistic role as government gadfly seriously

Radio Soleil is not alone. Radio Panou also serves the Haitian-American community along with at least four well-respected newspapers. "The Haitians at home need to know that they are not forgotten," says Leo Joseph, editor and publisher of the Haiti Observateur weekly newspaper. "And the United States government has said that they are not going to forget them." Joseph's  newspaper runs stories about people organizing in churches, schools, and commercial institutions such as banks.

Joseph continues to take his journalistic role as gadfly seriously. The January 20 Haiti Observateur banner headline read, "US Marines Install Themselves in the [Presidential] Palace". It's an ambiguous message in a land that has been forcefully occupied more than once by American troops.

A painting in the Haiti Observateur offices depicts the role its editors and reporters feel the newspaper an others like it should play in the community
A painting in the Haiti Observateur offices depicts the role its editors and reporters feel the newspaper an others like it should play in the community

Joseph acknowledges the United States says it's there to help. "But we don't know what this help consists of because the government of Haiti does not operate in total transparency." Joseph says there is no way to know what deal Haiti's government signed with the United States. "They could have signed anything."

Joseph likens the Haitian American community to a ship, and its media to a port. "Every ship needs a port," he says. "Whatever is happening in the community, we mirror it and people depend on us for that. Good news, bad news, we are here."

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