Wagner Essay: The Right to Lapawòl

Community Radio Stations in the Archive of Radio Haïti-Inter

Laura Wagner

In July and October 1999, Joseph “Ti Jò” Georges and Sony Estéus, the directors of the Sosyete Animasyon ak Kominikasyon Sosyal (SAKS), Haiti’s nationwide network of community radio stations, appeared on “Face à l’Opinion,” the popular daily interview program hosted by Jean Léopold Dominique on Radio Haïti-Inter. In these conversations, the three journalists discussed the role of community radio in promoting Haitian identity, resistance, and expression.

For more than four years, I processed the archive of Radio Haïti-Inter (hereafter Radio Haiti) at Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Today, the archive is fully digitized and publicly available, with detailed narrative description and metadata in Haitian Creole (Kreyòl), French, and English. Radio Haiti was the country’s preeminent independent radio station, and Dominique, its director, the most recognized journalist in Haiti. Over time, the station increasingly became a platform for the poorest of the poor. Among more than 5400 recordings, the Radio Haiti Archive contains several interviews about the importance of grassroots community radio.


While Radio Haiti broadcast nationwide on matters of international, domestic, and regional importance and SAKS was concerned primarily with hyperlocal news and information, they shared a commitment to creating spaces for ordinary Haitians who had been systematically excluded from public discourse to have lapawòl, the power of speech. They also shared personnel: In addition to his work at SAKS, Estéus was a reporter at Radio Haiti, where he hosted “Pawòl la Pale,” a weekly call-in show that allowed listeners to ask questions of guests and share their opinions with the wider public.

With the fall of the right-wing Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, poor Haitians and their allies in the democratic movement hoped that political, social, and economic exclusion would come to an end. In raw footage from The Agronomist, Jonathan Demme’s documentary about Radio Haiti, Dominique (speaking English) explains that Haiti had been “two countries for two centuries. Two countries. There was this small country of sophisticated, ‘civilized’ quote unquote, going to churches, going to school, speaking French, going to Paris, or Harvard, or Yale, or MIT. Doing business. And — the rest of the country. The rest of the country, they call the ‘outside country.’ Le pays en dehors. That means — the whole situation is in this word. Le pays en dehors. The outside country. As if they were the country, and six million people were not the country, were outside the country. And those six million people, [not only] they have been seen as outside, but they saw themselves as outside. When you ask a farmer from Nouvelle-Touraine, ‘Where do you come from?’ ‘Outside. M sot andeyò.’ Andeyò. Andeyò, sa vle di — andeyò means ‘I am not inside. I am not in the cities. I am not in the school. I am not in the church. No. I am in the countryside. I have no road. I go to ounfò. I worship African gods, you worship white God. You speak French, I speak Creole.’ It’s a tale of two countries. Now the outside country says, ‘Hey! I exist! I am not outside anymore! This country is ours! And I am this country, as much as you!’”[1]

As people from the peyi andeyò began to claim their rights, powerful factions, including former members of the Duvalier regime, known as makout, and wealthy landowners, known as grandon, attempted to silence them. Few media outlets privileged the voices of the poor. SAKS was founded, as Estéus explained, “with the idea of opening up communication in the baz,” the base of society It gave people in rural Haiti, called peyizan or ti peyizan, not only the opportunity “to hear, but to speak, too. Because it was rare, before ’92, to find radio stations that… were close to the population.” He cites Radio Haiti, as well as Radio Soleil, a now-defunct lay institution of the Catholic Church. “But apart from that, people were marginalized. You’d never hear a message from a grassroots organization on those stations! There were radio stations where you’d never hear a peyizan telling his story — unless a massacre had happened in the community, and then those big radio stations would go there, and in order to give the grandon more time on the air, they’d give the peyizan just a minute or two.”

Se sa,” Dominique concurred. “That’s right.”

“So the peyizan, in general, never had lapawòl.”

SAKS provided training and guidance, rather than financial support. The community radio stations were all non-profit, and their staff were volunteers. “That’s why we insist on the organization aspect, because these are people who were already committed to a struggle,” Estéus explained. “The radio becomes an additional tool that allows them to better engage in that struggle, so they can reach more people, not an economic activity that allows them to make money.”

In rural Haiti, where material resources are scarce, it was a challenge to keep community stations afloat. They generated some income by running advertisements, or accepting small contributions from people who needed to send a message out over the airwaves or dedicate a song to their sweetheart. This income was to be reinvested in the station’s upkeep. SAKS encouraged stations to only run ads that were in keeping with their values, i.e. local artisanal goods, and discouraged them from accepting advertisements from powerful makout or promoting products like packaged infant formula that could harm their listeners and undermine traditional practices. Personal contributions, however small, helped community members feel a sense of ownership in the station.

As the leaders of SAKS, Estéus and Georges were aware that community radio stations could be weaponized or exploited by politicians. In their training seminars, they were firm in their commitment to fostering democratic spaces on the airwaves. “We always say that if the station belongs to one party, that means there’s another party within the community that can’t speak on it,” Estéus explained. However, that didn’t mean that just anyone had the right to use the community radio as a platform. “By choice, these stations are grassroots stations. That means there are people who automatically do not have lapawòl on these stations: makout, landowners who repress the ti peyizan, thieves, killers. They already know that they’re not part of these stations.”

Community radio stations broadcast crucial educational and public interest programming, such as literacy, agriculture, public health, and hurricane preparedness. But, according to Georges, “It’s not only a question of education. It’s the people’s voice. Communication. This exclusion has been in effect for more than 500 years. People who did not have the right to lapawòl, who did not have the right to speak, who did not have the right to say what they were suffering! — the suffering of the dictatorship. Who did not have the right to experience their own culture. And especially, to speak in their own language. The radio is the first time they’ve been able to express themselves and say, ‘This is who I am, here is what I’m suffering, here’s what I want, and how I want to live.’”

Joseph Georges

Anba chal

SAKS was created in 1991, just before the army overthrew Haiti’s democratically-elected government. For three years, Haiti was ruled by a de facto military regime that, along with the paramilitary, targeted activists, grassroots organizers, and the press, among others. After the military shot up the station, any of Radio Haiti’s journalists went into exile. Politically-motivated massacres, sexual violence, assassinations, and disappearances were widespread. Perhaps 5,000 people, most of them poor and marginalized, died during the 1991-1994 coup years.

Paradoxically, the coup strengthened SAKS’s resolve. “When the coup d’état happened, we said, ‘The best way to resist is to establish community radio stations,’” explained Georges. Drawing on their experience and contacts, “we began to provide a guiding framework for small existing stations that wanted to resist the dictatorship during the coup d’état.”

But, as Estéus explained, SAKS had to work anba chal, covertly, hiding their true motives, during the coup years. Community radio stations couldn’t air the news. They played music and aired community announcements (“calling so-and-so, telling them ‘your mother says to come fetch her in town, because she’s coming to see you and she’s brought provisions,’” Estéus laughed, recalling how community radio served as a telephone for people who did not have them).

This tactic of working anba chal was familiar to Radio Haiti’s staff. As Dominique explained in another interview, “under François Duvalier, you couldn’t talk about politics. You couldn’t even report the local news, domestic news… I got into domestic news the way someone eats hot porridge: around the sides. Little by little! Tiny steps!” All of Radio Haiti’s early reporting was conducted with “an appearance of being apolitical.”

The strategy of SAKS, Radio Haiti, and other dissident media outlets was one of the oldest battle strategies of the Haitian people: mawonaj. The word originally described people who escaped slavery to form autonomous settlements. Mawonaj means speaking in double meanings, wordplay, and subversive jokes: subtle, fugitive forms of resistance, of dissembling, deflecting, and hiding in plain sight.

Kreyòl pale, kreyòl konprann

 The proverb “kreyòl pale, kreyòl konprann,” literally means “speak Kreyòl, understand Kreyòl,” but might be translated more loosely as “speak so as to be understood.” Both Radio Haiti and SAKS were committed to promoting Kreyòl, the language that all Haitian people speak, and SAKS benefited from Radio Haiti’s pioneering work in broadcasting in Kreyòl. “When, in 1968, when I tried to put a little tiny bit, a tiny taste of Kreyòl in our programming… it was a scandal,” Dominique had recalled in another broadcast, describing his early days as a radio journalist. “A huge scandal! Members of the public said, ‘Ohhh, my god, Radio Haiti is falling apart, they put Kreyòl on the air.’”[2]

By the time SAKS was created more than twenty years later, the landscape had shifted (thanks, in part, to Radio Haiti’s years of airing reportage, interviews, and news in Kreyòl), but only somewhat. “The prejudice is that the only people that matter in this country are the people who speak French, and everyone else is a moun andeyò, and they don’t have anything to communicate,” Georges explained. “They don’t need to know what’s happening in the government. They don’t need to have a say in the government, either.”

The prejudice extended into SAKS’s own work. “One of the difficulties we’ve encountered in community radio stations is that — as people have experienced it, they think that if you’re speaking on the radio, you have to speak French,” Estéus said. “Or when you speak Kreyòl, you have to show people that you can speak French, that you went to school.” Sometimes, he said, even the more educated people in the community would denigrate those who spoke Kreyòl on the radio, saying “peyizan pale lèd,” peyizan speak ugly.

Estéus summed it up. “The battle for Kreyòl is the battle for the dignity of the Haitian people themselves. When you look down on a people’s language, it’s the people themselves you’re looking down on.”

Sony Estéus

Kreyòl was one part of democratizing the airwaves for people who had been excluded from power linguistically, socially, economically, culturally, and geographically. “The guiding philosophy of SAKS is, firstly, that communication is a right,” Georges said. “The peyizan, who are the majority of the population, never enjoyed that right, they never had that right. They were excluded from the right to speak, the right to participate in the construction of the country.” Community radio stations, first and foremost, were “stations that connect with people, that value people.” That meant reconceptualizing what qualified as “news,” because most people in Haiti thought that the only news that mattered were major events that happened in the cities. “Local news — what’s happening in little communities, which never reaches the big radio stations in Port-au-Prince — peyizan wouldn’t value them, either.” That included both the bad things that happened in their communities, like repression and land dispossession, but also “their own production, the beautiful things they create.” Part of the mission of community radio stations was to promote local culture, because the dominant society had for so long “made peyizan hate themselves.”

Community radio not only allowed ordinary Haitians to participate in public discourse as speakers and listeners; it was also a publication medium for people who were not traditionally literate. Sometimes, a peyizan who did not know how to read or write would attend a SAKS training with the intention of working at a community radio station. Estéus told the story of such a woman. “Since we do hands-on work, having people write the news, practice writing the news, the people who didn’t know how to read and write followed the lesson, they listen, they listen to how other people present the news — and they compose their news in their head.”

Ohhh…!” said Jean, sounding impressed and intrigued.

Georges jumped in. “And the quality of their intervention was extraordinary. When they spoke, they’d have someone else write for them, and the results were better than people who already knew how to write.

“Wi! They compose it in their head, they ask someone to write it for them, and they present it in front of the panel: good-quality news, here’s what happened, where, when, how. And that makes them feel like people. They become conscious that they are people.”

Sony Estéus at Radio Haiti, 1995

In Haiti, both technological progress and lapawòl have long depended on local resourcefulness and innovation. Though radio was first introduced to the country as a tool of violence and propaganda during the 1915-1934 US Marine occupation, in the decades that followed, Haitians of diverse backgrounds would use the technology for a variety of purposes: politics, social control, promoting French, promoting Kreyòl, repression, resistance.[3] In the 1970s, churches distributed small transistor radios throughout the country. These radios were locked so that people could only listen to church stations, but listeners managed to unlock them and listen to other things, including Radio Haïti-Inter on 1330 am. And in 1999, Sony Estéus described how a group of young people in a rural locality in the Saint-Louis-du-Nord region made their own artisanal radio transmitter out of a microwave and broadcast to their community. It might seem as though Haitian national culture and modernity were in opposition. As Dominique told Estéus and Georges, warning of the “seductive” nature of global culture, “We are facing a huge campaign that is telling everyone, ‘Ah, very good, your little rara, oh that’s fine and good, marengwen pinga zonbi, that’s good, you’re playing your little kata drum, okay… Bu-u-ut, music from overseas is more beautiful, it’s more highbrow, it’s better – that’s what you should listen to.’ And the same way, what’s happening in music is happening with everything! When they say to you, ‘Hey, man, the internet is the best! If you’re not on the internet, you’re nobody at all!’”[4]

But the directors of SAKS countered that technology could be a tool for the promotion of local culture and identity, rather than suppressing it. For Georges, it was a question of “playing the game savvily. That means it’s not about rejecting modernity. It’s not about having an inferiority complex about my limitations around new technology. It’s looking at my reality and seeing how I can use both things.” And, he noted, that if it became cheaper and easier to “connect community radio stations to each other, peyizan to one another through the internet,” then that’s what they would do.

“That means that the development of community radio and the foundation of national culture are not incompatible with modern technology,” said Dominique. “Au contraire!”

“Of course not! Of course not!”

Many years later, as my colleagues at Duke and I created Radio Haiti’s digital archive, we sought to make the materials as accessible as possible to people in Haiti. As I listened to these conversations between Jean Dominique, Sony Estéus, and Joseph Georges, I felt almost as though they were endorsing my efforts to create Kreyòl metadata and an interface that would be usable on second hand smartphones and limited data plans. Back in 1999, they didn’t know how prescient Dominique’s words would be, when he declared, “In Haiti, you can’t have communication for the poorest of the poor, you can’t have communication with people who are andeyò… if it’s not communication in Kreyòl. That reminds me: if the internet ever becomes part of the question, the internet better give itself a little whack on the behind to make sure that Kreyòl is on the web-dot-com-dot-email!”

Jean Léopold Dominique

Batay la ap rapouswiv/The struggle goes on

It is bittersweet to listen to these interviews now, to hear all that integrity and  hope.

On the morning of April 3, 2000, less than six months after the second interview he conducted with the leaders of SAKS, Jean Dominique was assassinated in Radio Haiti’s courtyard as he arrived for work, along with a station employee, Jean-Claude Louissaint. They have never found justice. Their funeral on April 8, at Haiti’s largest outdoor stadium, was attended by more than 15,000 people, of whom 10,000 were rural farmers. Sony Estéus spoke on behalf of Radio Haiti’s team. “This week, a criminal came to Radio Haiti. He assassinated Jean, to stop Jean from speaking, to stop Jean from denouncing. But we say to the assassin, and everyone who sent him: Nou balanse. Jean tonbe. Radyo Ayiti la pi rèd.[5] He took a deep breath, as though composing himself, and the crowd broke into applause.

Three years later, amid mounting threats against the station’s staff, Radio Haiti closed for good. But many of its team continued to work as journalists, including Estéus, who remained at SAKS, helping create platforms for marginalized Haitians to have lapawòl, even after the catastrophic January 12, 2010 earthquake destroyed SAKS’s headquarters as well as several community radio stations throughout the country.[6] On March 1, 2015, he was to attend the inauguration of a community radio station, Radio Vwa Kominotè Ilavach, on Île-à-Vache, an island off Haiti’s southern coast. But that day, he died suddenly, of unknown causes. Sony Estéus was only fifty years old.

The injustice and impunity that Haiti’s independent journalists denounced on the air, whether at Radio Haiti, or at tiny community radio stations throughout the country, has deepened in the intervening years. Today, Haiti is descending into dictatorship again, under a president whose administration has been accused of embezzling billions of dollars, who has been ruling by decree for over a year, and who remains in power, even though many Haitians believe that his constitutionally-mandated term ended on February 7. In the last few weeks, Haitian journalists have been seriously wounded by government forces while covering anti-government demonstrations, and Haitian and international reporters alike have received threats and intimidation. Meanwhile, while addressing the UN Security Council on February 22, Moïse dismissed concerns about violence against the press, and declared that people “dressed up as journalists” had attacked the police.

The Radio Haiti Archive is a both testimony to the hope and struggles of the past, and a commentary, or warning, about the present. Though many of the people who spoke on the radio are gone now, whether struck down by assassins or worn down by ordinary injustice and ordinary structural violence, their voices remain, available to anyone who takes the time to listen.

Featured image: Community radio station in Estère, in the Artibonite in Haiti, with a poster of Jean Dominique on the wall that says “The peyizan will never forget you.” (Courtesy of Laura Wagner)


[1] https://repository.duke.edu/dc/radiohaiti/RL10059-VHS-0003

[2] https://repository.duke.edu/dc/radiohaiti/RL10059-RR-1223_01

[3] Alejandra Bronfman, Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean. University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

[4] Rara is the folk music of Easter week processions in Haiti. “Marengwen pinga zonbi” is a rara song. A kata is a small traditional drum.

[5] “Nou balanse, nou pa tonbe” (“We sway, we do not fall”) and “Nou la pi rèd” (“We’re here, stronger than ever”) were two of Radio Haiti’s mottos. Estéus changed the words to “We sway. Jean has fallen. Radio Haiti is here, stronger than ever.”

[6] https://cpj.org/2010/01/community-radio-stations-obliterated-off-the-air-i/


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