Michèle Montas is having lunch at a restaurant in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. While commenting on the schedule being presented to her by National Coalition for Haitian Rights executive director Jocelyn McCalla for her weeklong visit to the United States, Montas barely manages to sip her water.
When the waiter comes to refill her half-full glass, he stops to ask about a button pinned to her jacket.
On the button is a picture of a curly-haired man with piercing eyes. Above his high forehead and raised eyebrows are the words Jean Dominique Vivan (“Jean Dominique Lives”).
“Who is Jean Dominique?” asks the waiter.
“My husband,” answers Montas.
When the waiter asked that question this past December, it had been eight months since Jean Léopold Dominique, Haiti’s best-known and most outspoken radio journalist, was murdered as he arrived for work at his radio station in the Delmas section of Port-au-Prince. For more than two decades, excluding stretches of time when they were twice forced into exile, the two had worked together, co-anchoring a morning news program, the highlights of which were Dominique’s commentaries on Haitian social and political life. Friends and foes listened to Dominique, to “smell the air and test the waters,” as he liked to say, “get closer to the béton,” gauge the mood of the streets. Being the owner and director of his own station, Radio Haiti Inter, allowed Dominique a kind of autonomy that few hired journalists could manage in a volatile political climate. Having survived a slew of provisional military regimes that followed the thirty-year Duvalier father-and-son dictatorships, during which his brother was murdered and he and Montas were arrested, it seemed that he had lived through the worst times in Haiti. All that changed, however, on the morning of April 3, 2000, when Dominique’s death itself became a symbol of unsettling times ahead.
Had this been any other morning, Montas and Dominique would have been together when he and Jean Claude Louissaint, a watchman at their radio station, were gunned down in the station’s parking lot. “We usually drove to work together,” Montas explains. “That morning, Jean left ten minutes before me to look at some international news for the program. As I got in the car, leaving home, I heard some usual announcements on the radio and then silence. I called the station and the person who answered told me, ‘Just come!’ When I pulled into the parking lot, the police were there. I saw Jean Claude Louissaint, then I saw Jean’s body on the ground. I called to him, but he didn’t answer. I rushed upstairs to call the doctor, thinking something could be done. I didn’t believe he was dead until the doctor confirmed it.”
Even though the outgoing president of Haiti, René Préval, was a close friend of Dominique’s, ten months later the murder remains unsolved. In his final State of the Nation address this past January, Préval admitted that “the biggest weakness of my five-year presidency is justice.” Citing Dominique’s case, he warned parliamentarians, “If we leave this corpse at the crossroads of impunity, we should watch out so that the same people who killed Jean do not kill us as well.”
Last fall an important lead in the case vanished when a suspect, Jean Wilner Lalanne, was shot as he was being arrested. The 32-year-old Lalanne later died, reportedly of respiratory complications and cardiac arrest, during surgery meant to remove three bullets from his buttocks. Lalanne’s body then disappeared from the morgue and has never been found.
A month after Dominique’s death, Montas reopened Radio Haiti Inter, starting her first solo broadcast with her habitual greeting to Dominique, “Bonjour, Jean.” In a poignant and poetic editorial, she announced that “Jean Léopold Dominique, independent journalist…is not dead…. He is with us in our studios.” Her broadcast was followed by three days of old Dominique programs, ranging from an interview with a woman whose child, like sixty other Haitian children, had died after taking toxic cough medication made by a Haitian pharmaceutical company, to a peasant leader contesting a fertilizer price hike, to conversations with Haitian playwrights and filmmakers.
During the months that followed Dominique’s assassination, Montas often had the impossible task of reporting on the air about the investigation into his death. Though Haitian law binds her to secrecy as a party in the investigation, she is not prevented from commenting on aspects of the inquest that are in the public record.
“Every time I feel that the investigation is slowing down, I realize I must say something,” Montas told me. “I have to ask the judge’s permission to do it, but if there is something I feel that people must know, I have to report it. What I am trying to do is get it to the point of no return, where things must be resolved.”
This is not the first time that Montas has been part of a story she is covering. While addressing a group of students this past December at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, her alma mater, she recalled one night in November 1987, when polling stations were being set on fire in Port-au-Prince on the eve of the first post-Duvalier presidential elections. Radio Haiti Inter staff members were on the station’s rooftop monitoring the situation when they suddenly found themselves being fired at. To defend themselves, they threw rocks at their attackers, who eventually fled. “Rather than reporting the story,” Montas told the crowd of more than 200 aspiring journalists, “we became part of the story. There are times when you cannot stay out of the story even if you want to.”
During the past ten months Montas has participated in rallies and demonstrations, picketing along with other journalists, victims’ rights groups and peasant organizations, demanding that Dominique’s killers be found and prosecuted. When she came to the United States in December it was also to rally support.
“I am here to ask for justice,” she told a gathering of twenty or so at a meeting of the Haiti Study Group at Trinity College in Washington, DC. “This corpse will not lie cold. The issue of Jean’s death has taken a large place in the country. People are asking for justice for Jean but also for protection. People feel that if my husband can be killed, then others can be too. We need to end this climate of impunity and find justice now.”
Perhaps more than anyone else in Haiti today, Montas knows how difficult the task might be. She worries as time passes that Dominique’s name will be added to a list of martyrs, some of whose faces loom from posters lining the hallway of her radio station.
“A lot of what I have been trying to do is keep Jean alive,” she elaborates later. “It’s an important thing for me right now. Fifty percent of my energy goes toward that.”
At Montas’s public events in New York and Washington, the question she was asked most often, besides who she thought killed Dominique, was about the November 26 elections, which will put former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide back in office on February 7.
“Could Aristide be another Duvalier?” many asked her.
“One thing I have learned,” she replied, “is to respect the will of the majority, and the majority of the people have voted for Jean-Bertrand Aristide. I fought for a very long time alongside the democratic movement in Haiti. The Haitian people stood up and overthrew Duvalier, and I don’t think the same people would accept another dictatorship again in Haiti.”
This could be another challenging presidency for Aristide, however. Fifty million dollars in aid from the United States may not be released until Aristide, among other things, rectifies “problems associated with the May 21 elections through runoffs from disputed Senate seats.” Haiti’s national debt is more than a billion dollars, two-thirds of which was accumulated during the Duvalier years. And recently, pressure has been mounting for Aristide to address political conflict, with Amnesty International and senior US policy-makers demanding that he “take steps to curb threatened violence by all political sectors.” Expectations are high inside Haiti as well. Inflation and unemployment persist, and those who voted for Aristide want him to provide immediate solutions. Montas recalled an interview with one of her listeners in which the listener stated that she expected the price of rice to be cut by 50 percent the day after Aristide is inaugurated. In the meantime, Aristide’s inauguration is being bitterly contested by the Convergence Démocratique, a coalition of fifteen opposition parties calling for new elections and for a transitional government to organize them.
With the constant talk of elections and their aftermath, Montas worries that a number of Haiti’s other problems and a substantial percentage of its population are being ignored.
“There is the republic of Port-au-Prince, where all the actors are agitating in the same political brew,” she says. “And then you have the other country, the peyi andeyò, the countryside, where 80 percent of the population lives. There are more important things than elections in Haiti. There is a country, the resistance of a people, 200 years of history. We need to think beyond current administrations. We need to talk about the Haitian people.”
As to who might have killed Dominique:
“I don’t know,” she says. “After all, I am a journalist. I cannot deal in rumors. I am looking for facts, for proof. The most important step to resolution is knowing the truth. All I know is, the fact that we don’t know who paid for this crime puts us all in danger.”
Montas was somewhat encouraged by a development on December 29, when a police officer was arrested after he was found in possession of a car that had been owned by Lalanne and was identified as having been at the crime scene. “I feel that something is moving,” she says. “We are approaching something. We are getting closer to more apparent leads.”
While the presidency is passed from Préval to Aristide, Montas will continue to ponder her husband’s legacy.
“Jean’s life inspired a tremendous number of journalists,” she says. “There are about two generations of journalists who owe their choices to Jean. These journalists wanted to be part of a change in Haiti. We trained several of them at Radio Haiti. Jean’s death has shaken them and now many of them want to quit.”
Montas, however, cannot quit. Radio Haiti Inter’s motto is Au service du peuple Haitien: to serve the Haitian people. This has become a constant source of inspiration for her. That and the investigation, which she is determined to see through its final steps.
“I guess I have a survivor’s mentality,” she says. “I am beyond worrying about my safety now to simply going on from day to day and doing what must be done. I must continue this work. Silence is seen by many as a security measure now. There are a number of journalists who are self-censoring. However, at Radio Haiti we have always tried not to censor ourselves. The future will be a continuous fight. I don’t think things are going to be easy. A lot of people seem to be putting pressure on the press. For the rest of the population, life is getting more and more expensive. It is a difficult season. We must simply keep on fighting for what we already have.”