Customs Grinch relents; journalists get laptops

        

           Maybe it was the holiday spirit. Who knows?  The good news is that Customs authorities have finally released Haiti News Project computers and printers that were destined for Haitian journalists.   

       The shipment of seven computers, two printers and 52 laptop computer bags had been held in limbo by Customs at Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture airport since November 15 when I went to Haiti to meet with journalists and editors. 

          Customs officials  said that papers showing the cost of the equipment, including delivery and shipping fees, weren’t in precise order.  So they held the equipment for a month, sending it once to a warehouse in downtown Port-au-Prince only to later return it to the airport.

            The breakthrough came a week before Christmas when Georges Gedeon, a local broker that HNP hired to unravel the  tangle at Customs, sent me a text message.  “The clearance is done  for the computers and bags,” the note said.  It would take another week to get possession of the computers and printers, but not the bags, which are still being held.

        Linda Francois, HNP’s local contact in Port-au-Prince, retrieved the computers and printers and began getting them to journalists last week. One of the first to get a new computer was Wislin Vital, a radio/television journalist.  “I thank you so much; it’s like a Christmas gift,” he said in an email to me.    

         Wislin is one of the many Haitian journalists whose salary was cut by half or more after last year’s earthquake. He hopes the computer will help him improve his chances of keeping his job and, eventually, regaining some of his previous salary.

        The printers will be given to Elsie Etheart, owner of a joint radio/newspaper business: Melodie FM radio and Haiti en Marche newspaper.  Etheart’s small offices in Port-au-Prince suffered minor damage, but the earthquake still inflicted a serious setback to her ability to continue her operations. Furniture, computers and printers were destroyed or damaged, and Etheart said she didn’t have the wherewithal to recover without help. 

          Nevertheless, Etheart and her determined staff continued to soldier on with a few computers that were not severely damaged.  HNP helped by replacing the operation’s computers last summer. This week HNP re-equip the office with printers.  

         Meanwhile, the laptop bags — a gift to Haitian journalists from members of the National Association of Black journalists —  remain in limbo, awaiting confirmation that the holiday spirit at Customs is real.

Who will end the skullduggery at Haiti’s airport?

        We’ve had this discussion before, and now we’re having it again. It’s about Haiti’s uncanny ability to get in its own way, to stop progress in its track, to be its own worst enemy.

         It happens far too often: People who do their level best to extend kindness to Haiti’s poor, under-served working class are given a kick in the pants by the country’s morbidly greedy, ethically inept and persistently corrupt governing class. The Customs personnel at the Toussaint Louverture airport in Port-au-Prince are the prime culprits in this unhealthy connivance.

         I arrived at the airport Monday morning with a shipment of 7 computers, two printers and 52 computer bags, which will be given to working journalists in Haiti to assist them in their jobs. The equipment cost a tad more than $3,300. Based on previous experience, I was fully prepared to pay the extortionate, but customary, fee of 30 percent (See “Mindless bureaucracy hurts Haiti’s cause” on this site).

           This time, there is an additional, surprise cost. To retrieve the equipment, the ever-creative employees at Customs now tack onto the bill the cost of shipping the equipment to Haiti. Anyone who has shipped goods knows that shipping fees — calculated by weight and dimension — tally up to real dollars.

             So the Customs’ fees for getting this load of donated goods into the country exceeds $1,800. At this point, a reasonable person is bound to ask: Why bother? What’s the point of extending the hand of friendship if the gatekeepers, with no limit to their discretion,  can tack on 50+ percent for the privilege of entering the country? What sense does this make when the majority population is forced to eke out a living on roughly $1 per day? Why can’t government overseers suspend business as usual, even temporarily, to allow a generous world to help its people? 

      The government of outgoing president Rene Preval, after years of good intentions producing meager results, will soon be replaced by one of a dozen candidates who represent a vast array political perspectives. The favorite is the candidate hand-picked by Mr. Preval to be his successor. 

One can only hope that the next occupant of that office is smart enough to make the government get out of its own way.

U.S., Haitian journalists getting connected

      This week, the Haiti News Project began a  pen pal service between journalists in Haiti and the United States. 

      The idea was suggested a few weeks ago by reporters working with Haiti-based Reuters correspondent Joseph Guy Delva. The reporters told me that exchanging messages with journalists in the United States would give them a chance to share their experiences, practice English and hone their reporting skills.

      I discussed the idea with journalists at the recent NABJ convention in San Diego, and found many reporters and editors there eager to participate. 

      The next step was to create a place where the email pen pals could find each other. Thus was born the HNP PenPal registry, which can be found on  the HNP blog.   

       Thus far, 22 journalists have  registered as pen pals and 18 of them have begun exchanging emails.  Claudel Victor, who edited Ticket magazine before it was shut down after the earthquake, told his pen pal Sunni Khalid, managing editor of WYPR-Radio in Baltimore, that the eartquake had “completely changed my life.”   He invited Khalid to visit his blog sites at http://surlesondes.blogspot.com and http://haitionair.blogspot.com.

     Investigative journalist Faradjine Alfred said he welcomed the chance to be a pen pal and had begun “to share beneficial information” with Florida A&M University journalism student Kierra King.

      If you would like to be  a pen pal,  you can register at the site or send me a message at joglesby01@gmail.com requesting a pen pal. Be sure to include a note of 50 words or less describing your work and interests.

The Haiti News Project Video

Conference over, NABJ conventioneers bag it

        Yes they did! And they should be proud of it, too.

       When the NABJ 2010 convention concluded in San Diego two weeks ago, more than 35 guests left the soft-sided carry bags they received in their convention package at the front desk of the host hotel, Manchester Hyatt. They were responding to a request by NABJ President Kathy Times and the Haiti News Project that any unwanted bags be left at the hotel so they can be donated to Haitian journalists. 

        The response was impressive, especially considering that a single announcement requesting the bag donation was made on the last night of the convention.  John Yearwood, World Editor at the Miami Herald and a HNP consortium member, came up with the idea during the annual awards dinner, a black-tie affair that attracted several hundred guests. “I knew from past conventions that some people don’t want or don’t have enough space for the bags, so they leave them in the room,”  Yearwood said.  He asked Times if she would make the pitch before the dinner ended. She immediately agreed. 

        Times made the announcement as the dinner concluded, so there was no expectation that anyone would even remember to leave the bag as they hurried to catch planes the next day.

          It turns out that quite a few NABJers got the message: The bags will be a bonus gift to each Haitian journalist who receives a computer donated by the HNP.

         Word about the bag donations spread beyond San Diego.  A week later,  journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer found 15  “nearly new” bags from a previous convention, which they donated to the project. 

          The carry bags have become a valued freebie at NABJ conventions. Sponsors recognize the value of having journalists carry a product with their logo on it as they travel around the country and the world in pursuit of news. So the sponsors don’t skimp on quality when ordering a supply of 2,000 or so bags. They want the bags to be used and to last. Many journalists have been known to hang onto the best-quality bags for years.

        Most of the bags are designed to carry a computer, with compartments for notebooks, pens, cell phones and other reportorial accoutrements. This year’s bag sponsor, Toyota, came up with an over-size bag large enough for a computer and much more.

         Haitian journalists, some of whom lost everything in the Jan. 12 earthquake including homes and all their worldly possessions, are sure to put the bags — and computers — to good use. 

          If you have a bag to donate — it should be new or excellent condition — call HNP coordinator Joe Oglesby at 305-608-2333 or email me at joglesby01@gmail.com for instructions.

Love and loss among the ruins in Haiti

 

          Simon Wendy, a young journalist and linguistics student, lost everything in the January earthquake.

         His chance for a college degree disappeared when the Faculty of Applied Linguistics building in Port-au-Prince collapsed in the disaster. He was among the scores of reporters across the country who lost their jobs with newspapers damaged by the quake and weakened by financial losses. 

         However, the most-wrenching loss for Simon was the agonizing death of his sweetheart, Lyse Annie Bienaeme. She was the love of his life.

         Lyse, 21, was trapped beneath the rubble of the five-story building after the quake, pinned at the knees but alive and alert. Simon, 22, a cultural-affairs reporter for Le Nouvellist, was at his desk on the fifth floor when the ground shook violently that Tuesday at 4:34 p.m. He and others in the building ran outside. They found a scene of mind-numbing death, destruction and mass hysteria.

Haitian journalist

Getting a fresh start with donated computer

        “I was in a state of shock,” Simon said in an interview Saturday at the office of Reporters Without Borders in Port-au-Prince.” I held my hands to my head. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know if I would survive the next shock.”

          Simon saw cars ripped apart, saw people die, saw the body of a colleague at the paper nearly severed in half under the wheel of a pickup truck.  He was afraid and confused. The streets were wild and chaotic with people running, screaming. Dust clogged the air, people were dead and dying. Chaos was everywhere.

         Simon focused on survival and of finding his family, his younger brother.  He tried his phone, but there was no service. He began walking to his family’s house in Petion-Ville, miles away. The house had collapsed, but his relatives were not hurt. 

         Then he headed back downtown to check on Lyse at the university. He found the collapsed building, but didn’t see Lyse and, worse, didn’t know where to begin looking for her in the debris. He spent the night at the site amid the cadavers and rancid air.

          The next day, he came across two students from the school who had managed to get out of the rear of the crumpled building. They had seen Lyse in the building and knew she was alive. She was trapped under the debris, they said. They helped him find a small opening that led close to where Lyse was. There was barely enough for a small animal to squeeze through. Simon crawled in, calling for Lyse. He could see and smell bodies along the way. After a while, Lyse answered.

          “She was stuck at the knees, but she wasn’t badly injured,” he said.” She was taking care of another student, trying to get a little air to her. Simon and Lyse talked through the night. Lyse was incredibly positive, certain that eventually she would be rescued. She told him she could hang on for days.

           The next night — Thursday — Firefighters from France came looking for survivors. They hoped to find French professors who taught at the school. They found Lyse instead. They gave her an IV, medicine and food. But the firefighters and crowds that gathered  couldn’t move enough of the rock and debris to get Lyse out. They considered cutting her legs, but said it would have killed her.

           Simon tried desperately to find heavy machinery to move the rocks. He searched near and far, including at the airport. He pleaded for help, but there was none to be had. The firefighters left on Friday. They said Lyse was stable and lucid.

         She died the next day, Saturday, between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. “She wanted me to tell her father that she loved him. She asked me not to leave her there. She told me not to cry because she believed she was coming out.”  

         Simon and Lyse had met at the school two years earlier, but at first neither cared much for the other. She thought he was mischievous, bratty and not serious enough about his studies. He told her she should loosen up, enjoy life more. But they found that they shared much in common. Simon’s father died in 2000 of Hepatitis and his mother died a few years later. Lyse’s mother is ill. They practiced the same faith — Catholicism — and wanted many of the same things out of life: stability, careers, close families.

    In time, they became good friends. They dated, worked on projects, planned weekly activities. They planned to marry and raise a family. But those dreams perished in the earthquake. 

          Since January, Simon has been jobless and homeless, living in a tent in a crowded encampment. The Reporters Without Borders office is his daytime refuge. There he finds access to computers and companionship with fellow journalists.

          Two weeks ago, he was rehired at Le Nouvelliste, although he worked without access to a dedicated computer. Last week, he was among the 20 journalists who received computers donated by the Haiti News Project. He was thrilled to get the computer and thanked the donors repeatedly for the gift. He has suffered much in his young life, but says the computer is a tool he can use to begin rebuilding his life.

Mindless bureaucracy hurts Haiti’s cause

         Since May 26, the Haiti News Project has been trying to donate a shipment of computers and cameras to Haitian journalists. Finally, on Thursday, nearly two months later, the long odyssey ended. The story of what happened — red tape, paperwork, needless delays and a bureaucracy that can’t get out of its own way — is one small example of  why, on a much grander scale, Haiti’s recovery from the January earthquake seems to be going nowhere.

      A great many people from all over the world saw the terrible destruction of the 7.0 earthquake on Haiti’s already destitute and impoverished people, and rallied collectively to help them. The losses were of epic proportions: 1.5 million people displaced;  more than 250,000 killed. 

         In quick order the international community pledged $5 billion to help Haitians fight their way out of the rubble. Amazingly, thanks to nearly universal support, it seems this time that Haiti not only would be helped to recover, but could be rebuilt better than it was.

        Six months later, a depressing reality is taking shape: an improved Haiti may still be possible; but for that to happen, Haiti needs to get out of its own way.

         Our consortium of media groups from Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States pledged to do its part by helping Haitian newspapers and journalists recover from their losses and become viable again. We offered advice and technical assistance. We helped line up low-interest loans, promised to re-equip newsrooms, to train journalists and to establish a journalism center for ongoing watchdog reporting.  

       Damage and losses from the earthquake nearly put Haiti’s media on life support. Thirty journalists were killed and more than a dozen were injured. The offices of two newspapers, Le Rouleau and Haiti Liberte were destroyed. Le Matin, the country’s second-largest newspaper, suffered severe damage; and the largest paper, Le Nouvelliste was forced out of its offices in Petion-Ville. The disaster cut deeply into the newspapers’ primary revenue source — advertising. So many businesses that buy newspaper ads were destroyed or badly damaged that newspapers’ income dropped by 75 percent. And no one expects a quick recovery.

         To survive, newspapers downsized operations, including dismissing staff. Some reporters joined to the flood of NGO’s (nongovernmental humanitarian organizations) arriving in the country where the pay was good and the work similar.  

         In May, the Haiti News Project began to send laptop computers to newspapers and journalists in small lots via reporters and couriers. In early June, we purchased 20 computers and two digital cameras to be delivered by traditional means using a local distributor to ship the equipment. We added two donated used digital cameras and four lenses to the lot.

      We asked for an exemption from Haiti’s usual 30 percent Customs fees to maximize the amount of equipment we could buy and because the laptops and cameras would be given without cost to struggling journalists. The Haitian government must approve exemptions, and it does so through the Ministry of Commerce, which issues a letter of authorization.

        Considering that Haiti was in a deep crisis and our charitable cause was meritorious, it seemed that the government would quickly approve. That, however, was not to be the case. We sent and re-sent letters to the Ministry, asked the Haitian Consul in Miami for help and appealed directly to the Prime Minister. After six weeks, nothing had happened. Getting the exemption seemed impossible. It also became clear that getting the equipment into journalists hands was more important that avoiding Customs’ exorbitant fees, which for this shipment would be $3,600. 

        But there was a surprise in store for us at the Customs office at the airport in Port-au-Prince. A Customs official explained that because the equipment was being donated and was valued at more than $5,000, it would have to go through the government’s formal “SGS” process. The process requires an authorization letter from the Minister of Commerce and support from, or designation as, an NGO. This was a classic Catch 22, revived to cruel effect in impoverished Haiti. 

        Two days of anxious pleadings to government officials produced nothing useful. The computers seemed destined to sit for weeks or months in a Customs black hole.  That has been the fate of much larger shipments, including of essential medical supplies mere days after the earthquake.

        This is the point where a sharp understanding of how things work in Haiti saved the day. The woman who served as driver and translator on my visits to Haiti suggested we hire the owner of a local import-export business as broker. The man obviously had done this before. He was well-acquainted with Customs rules,  and its seemingly discretionary rule makers.  In a matter of hours, he had sliced through the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, paid reduced Customs fees and presented me with a bill that nearly matched the 30 percent duty.

        On Thursday evening, I delivered the first Dell Mini laptop to Desmond Loramus, 42. Before the earthquake, he covered cultural affairs for Le Nouvelliste’s Ticket magazine. Loramus survived the quake but lost his home and his job. He has been living in a tent in Jean-Mary park since Janauary. He spends his days at a Reporters Without Borders compound that has become a place of refuge and comfort for dozens of displaced and dispirited journalists.

        Loramus was happy and grateful for the laptop. He will use it to look for work and to research and write freelance stories, he said.   The computer will help him  become whole again. 

        That is something for which Haitian government should be removing barriers, not erecting them.