Radio Haïti-Inter, the first independent radio station in Haiti, was remarkable for its broad democratic appeal and unparalleled popularity with the Haitian people.
Founded in 1935 by Haitian radio pioneer Ricardo Widmaier as an entertainment medium, Radio Haiti came into its own in the late 1960s, when prominent and outspoken agronomist-turned-journalist Jean Dominique bought the station. Dominique had been arrested and forced to leave his post as an agronomist in the northern part of the country during the early years of the Duvalier dictatorship.
Seeking work in Port-au-Prince in the mid-1960s, he began anchoring cultural programs and talk shows on Radio Haiti’s airwaves. By 1971, when he rechristened the station Radio Haïti-Inter, Dominique had begun to transform it into a powerful instrument of resistance to dictatorial rule and political corruption. During the 1970s, Radio Haïti-Inter was the sole station providing news and commentary in Creole, the language of the majority of Haitians, as well as in French, which – despite being understood by less than 10% of the population – was the traditional language of the media.
The decades covered by the archive were tumultuous ones in Haiti. As the country was buffeted by the tides of political strife and instability, so too was the station. On November 28, 1980, the Duvalier regime undertook a massive campaign of repression against journalists, human rights advocates and nascent opposition parties. All of Radio Haïti’s reporters were arrested. Most were jailed and later sent into exile in the US, Venezuela and Canada. Some were tortured, such as station manager Richard Brisson, who was ultimately executed by the regime in 1982.
Dominique narrowly escaped and fled to Caracas, then later to New York, where he was reunited with his wife and professional partner, Michèle Montas, who was forcibly exiled there after her release from prison. When the Duvalier regime fell in 1986, the couple immediately returned to Port-au-Prince to rebuild the station with funds raised from the Haitian people.
During the tumultuous transition years under various military regimes in the late 1980s, the station was attacked several times; its façade bore the scars of bullets and grenades. Nonetheless, Radio Haïti remained on the frontlines of the fight for free expression, opening its microphones to the previously voiceless and sending reporters into the countryside and crime-ravaged “no-go” areas of Port-au-Prince.
The station was forced to close again in 1991 when the elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide was overthrown by a military coup after only seven months in power. Dominique and Montas fled once more into exile, returning in 1994 when U.S. troops invaded Haiti and re-instated Aristide.
As he had throughout his career, Dominique remained unwavering in his efforts to unearth and report government corruption and human rights abuses. On April 3, 2000, Jean Dominique and station employee Jean Claude Louissaint were murdered by hired gunmen in the courtyard of Radio Haiti. Montas, along with Dominique’s daughter, journalist Jan (J.J.) Dominique, who had been the executive director of the station since 1994, continued Jean’s quest for truth and justice and kept the station open. The team of young, courageous and dedicated reporters remained on board and, despite constant danger, redoubled their commitment to justice and human rights issues. They pursued in-depth investigations into unpunished crimes, in particular an investigation into the controversial and highly political circumstances of Dominique’s assassination. After an attempt on Montas’ life in 2002, during which her bodyguard, Maxime Seide, was gunned down, and amid escalating threats against the station’s staff, Michèle Montas and J.J. Dominique closed the station in February 2003, and again went into exile.
During its proud history, Radio Haiti Inter broadcast daily from 6am to midnight and offered hourly five-minute news summaries, six one-hour news programs (three in Creole, and three in French), an afternoon feature program (Micro Témoin /French), as well as a one-hour round table or interview program in either French or Creole (Forum démocratique, Pawòl la Pale or Face à l’Opinion) depending on the season. It also hosted a number of educational programs on health, women’s rights, agriculture, and children’s issues. Over its three decades of operation, the station was driven by the efforts and courage of impressive teams of reporters and correspondents. Montas, who worked first in the 1970s as a reporter and investigative journalist, headed the newsroom from 1990 to 2003 and trained several generations of Haitian journalists during her thirty-year career. Marcus Garcia later founded Radio Mélodie. Konpè Filo (real name Anthony Pascal) is a journalist and well known radio and TV personality. Liliane Pierre-Paul, Marvel Dandin, and Sony Bastien, founded Radio Kiskeya, a station that to this day continues Radio Haiti’s commitment to public interest programming. Harold Isaac, chief editor at the time of the 1980 crackdown, resettled in Canada after his forced exile. J.J. Dominique anchored the daily “Micro Témoin” and the cultural magazine “Entre Nous,” and is now a well-known writer in Montreal. Pierre Emmanuel served as chief editor of the newsroom from 1990 t0 2003, and is currently a broadcast journalist in Montreal. That same period saw the efforts of reporters such as Jean Roland Chery, Immacula Placide, and Guerby Dujour. Paul Dubois oversaw cultural programming. Sony Esteus headed the Sosyete Animasyon ak Kominikasyon Sosyal, a network of community radio stations in Haiti, until his death in 2015. Gregory Casimir and Fritzson Orius have since founded their own radio stations.
These individuals and many other staff members possessed the high journalistic standards and fierce commitment to in-depth reporting that were the hallmark of Radio Haiti’s broadcasts. Through daily coverage of events, interviews with major writers, artists and thinkers, political analysis, and roundtable discussions on Haiti’s history and culture, Radio Haiti’s staff brought together a collection of voices and perspectives that constitutes perhaps the most important and complete single archive of late 20th century Haitian history.
These recordings also bear witness to the evolution of Haitian society and media over more than thirty years. In the 1960s and 1970s, newspapers and the few existing radio stations published and broadcast primarily in French, while Creole, the language of the majority of Haitians, was relegated to advertising, music and entertainment. As new media outlets emerged after the fall of Duvalier and as technological innovation made radio accessible to all, the media landscape changed dramatically. Today, news coverage in Creole is far more prevalent; the majority of Haitians, at last, can understand and be heard on the news. Radio Haiti pioneered and actively shaped this change.
The Radio Haïti archives extend over a wide breadth of material, ranging from cultural programming during the 1970s and early interviews on haïtianité or “what it means to be Haitian” — often with intellectuals and conducted in French — to Creole-language reportage and debates during the period 1986 to 2003 when the concerns and voices of masses, at last, featured prominently on the airwaves. In short, these recordings serve as testimony to a difficult and too often bloody battle for freedom of speech and freedom of association, led by Radio Haiti and Haitian civil society.
The remarkable lives of Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas and the history of Radio Haiti are the subject of the 2003 documentary film, The Agronomist, produced by the award-winning film director, Jonathan Demme.