The assassination of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse on 7 July by a heavily armed hit squad has temporarily thrust the small Caribbean nation back into the global media spotlight. The attack came after years of widespread protests that drew international attention when they intensified in recent months, prompting thousands of Haitians to take to the streets to demand Moïse’s resignation from a presidency marked by violence, corruption, economic uncertainty and a rampant health crisis during the ongoing pandemic.
But as the situation continues to unfold and Haiti’s political future remains uncertain, Western mainstream media coverage has presented a familiar pattern of marginalization and problematic framing, which has real and lasting influence over the public’s imagination and interpretation of Haiti and its people.
When news of Moïse’s assassination broke, I was struck by the widespread and persistent references to poverty and crime in the country, and the drawing of over-simplified conclusions between the president’s killing and the perceived state of the nation. The New York Times wrote that Haiti was “one of the world’s most troubled nations” and was tipping into “lawlessness”. The Guardian referred to the “impoverished nation” as “on brink of chaos”, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) emphasized that Haiti was “the largest recipient of development assistance from Canada in the region.”
Readers of these articles might be forgiven for drawing narrow conclusions based on a limited understanding of a country that rarely makes headlines for non-disaster-related stories. As the political analyst and activist Nyanjala Nyabola sarcastically wrote on Twitter: “What if I told you that it was possible to write or say “Haiti” without adding “the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere”?”
While these are evidently selective extractions of problematic examples of the recent reporting from Haiti, they are well worth pointing out as symptomatic of a larger issue within the Western media’s coverage of the “developing world”. Indeed, Haiti is in the midst of a worsening humanitarian crisis and faces grim statistics around food insecurity and gang violence, among other social, economic and political issues. While these issues are highly relevant in any discussion of the country’s social and political future, context and nuance are vital in constructing a nation’s image and representation. In the absence of this information, Haiti will continue to be understood in the Western public imagination as holistically isolated and separate from the Western world.
Further to the issue is the omission of the Western world’s role in perpetuating the interconnected political, social and economic crises in Haiti. As journalist Amy Wilentz points out in The Nation, “the international media is quick to cover Haiti’s dysfunctions” but that it often leaves out the West’s role in perpetuating decades of instability in the country. Wilentz writes that a network of governments and institutions including Canada, France, the Dominican Republic, the European Union, the United States, the United Nations and The Organization of American States “have continued to support Haiti’s incompetent, irresponsible, corrupt, and deadly government” and that this network has been guiding Haitian affairs for decades.
Moreover, the “developmental gaze” which posits the West as a benevolent superpower that caters to developing nations is well established in Haiti, particularly following the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed 250,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more. That disaster has drawn billions of dollars in foreign aid but it also reinforced the inextricable link between the media and aid industries, and the developmental discourse that represents Haiti as a place of chronic suffering, violence and instability.
In his assessment of the developmental gaze and media framing of developing countries, Stuart Hall (1990) coined the term “white eye” which “specifically frames the racialization of impoverished [inhabitants of developing nations], simultaneously disavows a politic of accountability, while never actually entering the frame.” This is true in the case of Haiti where news coverage that reinforces the discourse of a “failed state” conveniently rids the West of any responsibility in the country’s deterioration.
At the time of this writing, many questions remain unanswered as to who was involved in carrying out the attack on President Moïse, how, and why. But what is clear is that the media’s persistent framing of poverty, violence and poor government in Haiti does little to inform the public or contribute to critical debate on development. More nuanced coverage has emerged on multiple platforms, such as this piece in OpenDemocracy about political instability and the COVID-19 response, this editorial in the Haitian Times about the role of the Haitian diaspora, or this piece in the Conversation which provides essential insight into the country’s history.
There is no doubt that the situation in Haiti deserves sustained global media attention, but it must be possible to continue to provide alternative representations of Haiti that do not fuel an agenda that does more harm than good. A Haitian-led solution will be key in the response to Moïse’s killing, as well as in response to other pressing issues. As the activist Vélina Elysée Charlier put it in an interview with Canadaland in March: “Haiti is an independent country, and we want to be able to live and do stuff as Haitians — the way that is good for Haiti and not the way that serves other peoples’, other countries’ interests.”
Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes.