A lush tropical background frames the shot as the young Haitian woman engages the camera lens completely, confidently, and boldly. Wearing a bright orange tunic and holding a microphone in one hand, she uses the other to open a primitive faucet jerry-rigged to a PVC pipe. As the woman begins the standup introduction for the Ayiti Kale Je video investigation of the cholera epidemic that has claimed over 4,000 lives since October 2010, she pauses. She has something else she wants to say, and it is not scripted.
"Hello, I am Samia Salomon, a feminist journalist."
Who is this young woman who boldly calls herself a feminist journalist? What is her background? This 16-minute video presentation is perhaps the best and most complete account of Haiti's cholera epidemic available on the Internet. Samia Salomon's story becomes even more relevant in the context of recent international debate over the role of female foreign correspondents after the brutal assault on CBS's Lara Logan in Cairo.
Do we need foreign correspondents when there are trained journalists in-country? Who can best tell the story? Who understands Haiti better than a Haitian journalist? Who can tell the story of women in Congo, Iraq, or China and Tibet better than Chouchou Namegabe, Atwar Bahjet, and Tsering Woeser?
Odds are you have never heard of any of them, but these women have consistently risked their lives to report from their homelands. Bahjat was killed in 2006 while covering the bombing of the Golden Mosque.
It is now a late February afternoon, two months after the Haiti Grassroots Watch Cholera Investigation video went public. The anniversary of the January earthquake has come and gone and so have the hordes of foreign journalists who descended upon Port-au-Prince, seeking interviews, stories and commentary to take home to the United States and elsewhere. Samia Salomon and her mentor and teacher, Jane Regan, walk into the lounge at the Plaza Hotel. Anderson Cooper and much of the CNN crew did not show up here in January, even though the rooms were booked. There was a breaking news story in Arizona that trumped the anniversary.
Less than 200 feet away and across the street, up to 60,000 homeless victims of the earthquake languish in a makeshift shantytown of plastic and tin. Rapists, robbers, thieves, and the occasional tear gas canister lobbed by UN and local security forces have their way with them. Predators recognize easy prey in the faces of the women and children of the camp Champ de Mars.
Salomon and Regan know this territory well. They live and work here. They know the people, the language, the customs, and the aftermath of the earthquake intimately. Regan is an American, Harvard and Radcliffe educated, fluent in English, Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole, and possesses enough awards, grants and fellowships to fill a web page resume in 9 point Arial type. Among other things, Regan is the coordinator of the Ayiti Kale Je/Haiti Grassroots Watch multimedia "reconstruction watch." But this is Salomon's story and Regan is along to provide introductions and assist in translation.
Regan might not have known that we always travel with an interpreter, and we got an earful about foreign journalists who have no respect for the national language of Creole, not to mention French, the language of the privileged. Regan said that during the quake anniversary, foreigners were not interested in interviewing Haitians who could not speak English. She is not happy about it.
That ethnocentric fact is one of the many hurdles facing journalists in Haiti and the main reason it was important to talk with Salomon about her work with Haiti Grassroots Watch-- a collaboration between the Haitian media organizations, Groupe Medialternatif/Alterpresse and the Society for the Animation of Social Communication (SAKS). SAKS and Alterpresse coordinate with a network of women community radio broadcasters (REFRAKA) and the Association of Haitian Community Media (AMEKA). Salomon has worked with all of them, and was one of the founders of REFRAKA.
As we settled in at the table, Regan moved a bottle of local beer out of camera range. Were they embarrassed to be seen drinking with us? Not at all. "As a feminist, I don't want to do advertising for (the local popular beer) because they do their advertising with women's bodies," Salomon said.
There was the word again. Feminism. It is almost an antiquated term in the United States, but to Salomon, it is her passion and her identity. She wraps her work in its tenets and infuses her actions with its meaning.
We commented about a billboard we saw looming over a nearby market. The male and female models are white, the women barely clothed, and they are selling whiskey to the upper class residents of Peitionville. A few blocks away, thousands of Haitians are living under plastic tarps.
What does it mean, exactly, to be a feminist journalist in Haiti?
Salomon delivered a rapid-fire response through Regan. She did not have to think about it.
"We believe in equality completely balanced in every domain. We are fighting for all women; women in the city; women in the countryside. Rich women. Poor women. We are fighting for none of them to be left on the margins of society."
So was Solomon's stunning introduction to the Ayiti Kale Je investigation scripted? Regan took the question.
"I was also surprised, because I was doing the filming. The standups are the last thing we do. We write it out and I was holding the card, but it did not say "I am a feminist.'"
Regan translated her response for Salomon, who laughed and offered an important observation. "In Haiti it is not so simple to be in a public space and say that I am a feminist."
In Haiti it is not so simple to be a woman, period.
Amnesty International has spoken about the increase in gender-based violence since the January 2010 earthquake that left up to 300,000 dead and more than one million living in reprehensible conditions. Women are constantly at serious risk of sexual attack by armed men who roam the camps at night.
"There is a need for us to show how we see things," Salomon says. "But how do we get the Haitian perspective out to the world?"
It is a perspective that you cannot possibly understand unless you have spent time in the camps, especially at night, where the passageways between shelters take on an almost medieval ambience, and there are many places for evil to hide.
Salomon has spent a good part of the last year visiting and working with rape groups in the camps. After the wave of violence began, Salomon and others set up "a listening center to receive victims and support women and young girls."
"There seem to be less people in the camps than before, but the question of violence has different aspects," Salomon explained. "In the camps, people do not live as families; there might be a single parent who has three young girls. They try to get more aid and assistance when it is available, so they split up. There is no control and the children end up on their own practically."
Sound familiar? It might be a scenario in New Orleans post Katrina in the Superdome. In the wake of natural disaster, societal collapse will inevitably follow, tearing the tenuous and fragile fabric of morality. The poor, the dispossessed, have little protection and no shelter. Their world collapses and decency is buried in the rubble.
It is at this juncture of the untold story and the moral imperative to present truth that the collaboration between Regan and Salomon finds form. The two met in 1996 when Salomon was 15 and just beginning to work in Community radio in Les Cayes through SAKS radio. Radio is an important conduit for news in Haiti's remote and mountainous communities, operating with low transmissions between 10 and 500 watts.
The SAKS office was destroyed in the earthquake. Regan, who also blogs at the Huffington Post, filmed and posted this YouTube
"Even though Jane is not Haitian, she has always been interested in Haiti," Salomon says.
REFRAKA's offices were also destroyed, but Salomon endured a profound personal and professional loss--a loss that cannot be measured or chronicled on videotape or explained fully in conversation.
Myriam Merlet, a huge force in the formation of Salomon's work ethic, was the Chief of Staff of the Haitian Ministry of Women. She perished in the rubble of her collapsed home. This was a defining moment for Saloman and many Haitian women who had come to depend upon the guidance of Merlet, a woman who is recognized as one of the most influential feminists in the world. Merlot brought international attention to the use of rape as a political weapon.
The quake may have cost women an important leader, among many women activists lost, but that did not stop Salomon, who continues to challenge herself. She is taking a class from Regan at the State University of Haiti, where Regan has developed a curriculum in investigative journalism. This offering, through the faculty of Human Sciences, is the first time investigative journalism has been offered in the history of Haiti. Currently, there are 26 students in the class doing real-world investigative reporting as they learn the ins and outs of newspaper and broadcast journalism. Regan is teaching them the rudiments of film editing using the Mac iMovie program.
Post-earthquake, in what is known as the "reconstruction" phase, there is plenty to investigate. Salomon's guest shot in the cholera video was one of a series that examines aid and reconstruction from the point of view of Haiti's poor--poor that make up the majority of the population and speak Creole. The producers and writers know the language, the culture, and the history. They translate the content into French, English and Spanish for audiences in Haiti, in the Haitian diaspora (in Creole and English), as well as in North America, Latin America and throughout the world.
Saloman pushes herself constantly to learn more, to do more, and to "Get the Haitian perspective across to the world. "We see that it is mostly foreign journalists who are talking about what is happening in Haiti when there is a need for us to show how we see things."
It is also difficult for women journalists to be heard in Haiti.
The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a white paper on gender equality in media.
Currently women are only a small percentage of professionals in the Haitian media, despite very active organizations of female media professionals. Gender equity is an important component of the modernization of the media landscape in Haiti. In addition to including women's perspectives in the media, improved access to training and jobs for women provides a more equal society. This cannot be achieved solely by increasing the number of women trained, but requires comprehensive support for women's media organizations and for the position of women in the media.
"A lot of (Haitian) radio stations that are not doing the work they should be doing. They do the breaking news, but as a listener, I want to know more," Saloman says.
When asked about equal opportunity for women in broadcasting, she is blunt.
"It's not an equal business. Women are used more for their pretty voices."
It is a difficult road, but Saloman vows to press on.
"As long a women are not free they will keep marching."
Salomon has traveled the world, to Spain, Mexico, Canada, Ecuador and Jamaica on behalf of women's right to be heard. Meanwhile, she says she "would like to have work that is a marriage between women's issues and communication; something that is valuable to society."
And then Salomon offers a final statement--another unscripted response to a question that was not asked.
"I want to move forward as a journalist. I want to achieve, and I want to move forward as a feminist journalist."
Salomon's words echo that of her inspiration, the late Myriam Merlot, who offered this observation in her article "The More People Dream." This excerpt is from Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance.
I look at things through the eyes of women, very conscious of the roles, limitations, and stereotypes imposed on us. Everything I do is informed by that consciousness. So I want to get to a different concept and application of power than the one that keeps women from attaining their full potential...The basis of my work with women is to open them up to other things, give them new tools, give them new capabilities...give women the opportunity to grow...