“The elite despised me, considered me very low level,” she said. “They didn’t take into account what I was doing because I was not speaking and writing in French. They used to not even consider me a journalist, not someone even to be reckoned with.”
That changed after she won the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award.
“They saw me as a better journalist. … They had felt I wasn’t doing much but, with the prize, they saw what I was doing and who I was. All of a sudden they ‘discovered’ me and the work I was doing.”
The Courage Award was more than professional recognition for Pierre-Paul. It was validation for her strategy of broadcasting in Creole in order to reach the vast majority of Haitians.
Even before the Courage Award, Pierre-Paul never doubted the wisdom of her choice. “I learned French in school but Creole is the language of the country, and I knew that so many people do not know French,” she said. “I always said I would do a radio program in Creole so I could reach the people.”
Pierre-Paul feels that her insistence on broadcasting in Creole helped fuel grass roots support for changes in the government. She wanted to help foment a “revolutionary movement” that would lead to “illiterate but informed citizens.” Her goal was to give the mass of Haitians basic information about what was happening not just in Haiti but elsewhere in the world. “Because it was provided in their language, they were informed even if they couldn’t read and write.”
This philosophy of the media has also made Pierre-Paul a target of several Haitian governments. She was an outspoken critic of the Duvalier regimes. At one point, her efforts to expose social problems and injustice forced her into a six-year exile in Venezuela and Curacao.
Pierre-Paul also faced many death threats during the Duvalier years. She would return to Haiti from exile only to be forced into hiding because she was on a government hit list.
The pressure intensified under the regime of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Two journalists were murdered and up to 30 fled abroad in the three years after the contested 2000 elections, with international press freedom groups blaming grass roots backers of Aristide or his political party, Fanmi Lavalas.
In the 1980s, Pierre-Paul worked for the independent Radio Haiti International. Partially as a result of receiving the Courage Award, she was able to start her own station, Radio Kiskeya, which she still runs today with a staff of 50. She is co-owner, program director and anchor of a key news broadcast.
After receiving the award, instead of encountering the usual obstacles, Pierre-Paul said, “the doors were open for me. And the Haitian people on whose behalf I was speaking were very proud.”
Just before Aristide took office in January 2001, she referred on the radio to the “contested parliament” that was selected after the July 2000 legislative elections. That brought her death threats. Along with Pierre-Paul, the editor of the daily Le Nouvelliste and 100 other Haitians were accused by groups close to Fanmi Lavalas of forming an opposition-backed or “unofficial” government to counter Aristide. A gasoline-filled container was thrown into the courtyard of Radio Kiskeya the night those accusations were made, but it did not ignite.
Pierre-Paul got another death threat in 2003, when she received a 12 mm cartridge along with a letter demanding that she read a statement on the air each day calling for France to pay Haiti $21.7 billion to compensate for the sum that Haiti paid France in 1838 in exchange for its recognition of Haiti’s independence. Pierre-Paul had to suspend broadcasts temporarily when the station was threatened.
Three years ago, Pierre-Paul helped found the National Association for Haitian Media (ANMH), a group of independent newspapers and broadcast outlets, which she said “promotes pluralism, democracy and freedom of the press.” She is secretary of the association, which has 20 members so far.
The group’s goal is “to try and protect the independent media,” she said. With U.N. soldiers on the scene and Boniface Alexandre’s new government in place in Haiti, things are calmer than in the recent past “but we are remaining vigilant,” said Pierre-Paul. “We are a country that lacks institutional structures so we have to keep a careful watch to ensure stability of the media.”
Now 51, Pierre-Paul said that she is “not under a specific threat and I’m being very careful. I know that the Lavalas people are around. … The situation remains very unstable.”
She said that in addition to political opponents, she is wary of drug traffickers and “people who try to steal money from the Haitian people. They do not want a free press. So the situation remains difficult.”
She has no problem getting advertisers, partly because her audience is so large. She judges the reach of her programs, not from audience rating services, but from what she hears on the street. “When I walk down the street, people come to me with, ‘Hey Lilianne, here’s what we hear.’ Or they come with stories for us to do. So I know people listen and that what I do affects what they think.”
She has put Kiskeya programs on the Internet and she plans more programs in cooperation with other members of the journalists association.
She has also changed her definition of courage. “It used to be to fight and resist against dictatorship,” she said, but now she thinks of the courage needed “to consolidate democracy and to continue the fight so that Haiti can get out of poverty. It is this extreme poverty that is killing the Haitian people … .”
“We are absolutely tired of being the most miserable part of the Americas. We were one of the very first to have gained our independence and the miserable situation in which we find ourselves is simply not acceptable any more.”
“Many see no hope for Haiti,” she said. “But we must continue that fight. We must.”