Haiti’s Revolutionary Past Missing from Post-Earthquake UK News Coverage

By Southampton Media Observatory (@SotonMediaObs).

Today marks the five year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people. The 7.0 magnitude quake struck close to the Haitian capital Port au Prince on the afternoon of Tuesday 12th January, 2010, triggering an unprecedented social disaster. Yet January also holds an older historical significance for the people of Haiti, with the celebration of their Independence on New Year’s Day. In 1804, Haiti freed itself from French colonial rule, ending slavery and becoming the only country in history to be born from a successful slave revolt. However, this unique history is one that is often forgotten and its significance is underplayed.

In fact, the principle reason why the death toll following the earthquake was so high was because of systemic problems within Haiti’s developmental path that are inextricably linked to its fight for independence. However, this relationship is for the most part ignored in UK media coverage. Out of 1363 articles in UK national newspapers in the year following the earthquake (13th January 2010 to 12th January 2011) featuring the keyword ‘Haiti’, only 63 made reference to Haiti’s struggle for independence (Table 1) and only 15 mentioned the indemnity Haiti was subsequently forced to pay to France (Table 2).

Whilst 335 of the 1363 articles mentioned the impoverished nature of Haiti, making it a key frame of reporting (Table 1), only 41 also included a historical reference, with only 24 of these explicitly linking this historical context to poverty in Haiti. (Table 1)

Therefore, despite the direct linkage between disaster scale and poverty, and the readiness to acknowledge Haiti’s poverty in news coverage, UK national newspapers rarely made the connection between the social conditions in which the earthquake struck and Haiti’s historical experience since independence.

This omission is important not only because it makes the explanatory framework of the social disaster incomplete but also because it has potentially negative implications towards public perceptions about Haiti. Indeed, this exclusion is a substantial issue: Paul Farmer (2006, 191-192) notes that Haiti’s “bad press” is problematic “because it obscures Haiti’s real problems, their causes and their possible cures”.

Table 1: Poverty Key Words

Key Word Mentions Articles
Poverty 164 115
Poor 154 133
Poorest 153 137
Impoverished 58 55
Bankrupt 6 6
$2 (a day) 24 22
Western hemisphere 86 80
Unique Articles 335
History Mentions 41
Explicit Links 24

Table 2: Independence and Indemnity Key Words

Key Word Mentions Articles   Key Word Mentions Articles
Indemnity 3 1 1804 35 34
Reparation(s) 16 10 (1st/oldest) Black Republic 23 19
Compensation 4 3 Slave Rebellion 5 5
Restitution 2 1 Slave Revolt 13 13
Pay for lost colony 1 1 Slave colony 2 2
1825 6 5 Revolt (against slavery) 1 1
1947 9 8 Overthrew (slavery) 4 4
Independence debt 3 1 Independence 39 30
Compensate 2 2 Louverture/L’Ouverture 10 7
Unique Articles 15 Unique Articles 63

In Haiti, a continued lack of development and investment has led to widespread poverty, which is predominantly the result of an extended historical sequence of external and internal exploitation by unaccountable elites, relating back to the country’s very origins as a sovereign state.

The success of Haiti’s slave revolt was deeply troubling for the European powers and the USA who had slave-based colonies and populations. They feared the “contagion of rebellion” spreading and saw Haiti as a dramatic challenge to the prevailing world order that needed to be actively countered. One dramatic consequence of this was the USA’s refusal to recognise Haiti’s independence, thus limiting its access to international markets. Haiti thereby found itself in an international context of isolation with aggressive moves against it that “aggravated its internal problems and precipitated its economic decline.” In 1825 a massive French armada set out to retake the country; the invasion was only averted by Haitian acceptance to pay a vast indemnity to compensate France for the loss of its slave colony and incomes. By 1900, Haiti was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments for crippling loans borrowed to pay this indemnity. It was not paid off until 1947, which left Haiti “destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile.

The lack of historical context in UK national newspaper reporting on this key issue means that not only is a major part of the explanation of Haiti’s current plight missing from the narrative, but it also removes the crucial element of the role the world’s major powers have played in undermining Haiti’s development. This omission helps perpetuate an inaccurate public perception of the causes of Haiti’s social vulnerabilities that contributed to the exceedingly high death toll after the 2010 earthquake. This is problematic because an insufficient understanding of the causes inhibits the finding of successful, long-term solutions.

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