By Makana Eyre
When an earthquake ripped through Port-au-Prince in 2010, Kenny Alliance was 12 and living in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. Although both his parents immigrated to France from Haiti, Alliance’s vision of Haiti was foggy. Soon, though, the French media filled him in on what was happening, showing images of great suffering and devastation.
“At the time, I didn’t know that much about Haiti, so I didn’t know how to respond,” Alliance said.
At least 100,000 people died as a result of the earthquake, and much of Port-au-Prince was destroyed. But the quake also had indirect effects beyond Haiti, often in strange ways. For Alliance and other young Haitians in France, it was the first time their home country garnered focused media attention. At Alliance’s school the day of the earthquake, everyone around him was talking about Haiti. In a way, the attention of his classmates shocked Alliance. But also, it made him happy, even though it came in horrifying circumstances.
“It’s bad to say that I was proud in some way, because they talked about Haiti for the first time. I don’t know, I felt actually a bit impressed.”
From that point on, Alliance paid attention whenever the French media covered Haiti. But as he took in the coverage, he began to note how it was nearly always negative, and it started to impact his vision of the country. Alliance, now 18, has never visited Haiti and is conflicted about his vision of the country.
“Of course, I have the stories that my parents told me—you know, when they were kids,” he said. “But it’s difficult to put images on those stories. The only vision I have of Haiti is what the media shows.”
Alliance is not alone. A new generation of French-Haitians—those who were born in France—is just entering adulthood, and for them, the media has played an unusually big role in their perception of Haiti. Many don’t manage to visit, so their information comes from two sources—stories from their parents and a media establishment in France that is largely white, and often criticized for rarely covering stories about France’s millions of immigrants.
Because France bans any official calculation of demographics, it’s difficult to know exactly how many Haitian-French youth live here. The total community is estimated to be just over sixty-thousand, but that number may not include people living without papers.
The 2010 Haiti earthquake also had a formative impact on the life of Laurent-Jude Boisrond-Canal who is 18, Haitian-French, and a journalism student at Paris Sorbonne 4. Ten years old at the time, he watched the coverage with his parents. But almost immediately, he and his family did not trust what the media portrayed about the quake, especially after his father flew to Haiti.
“My dad was there, and he got a phone, so he could communicate with us back here,” Boisrond-Canal said. “The French media was completely overblowing the situation. My dad said that when he arrived in Port-au-Prince, he expected to see bodies everywhere, like it was on French TV. But it wasn’t that.”
Of course, the earthquake had a devastating effect on Haiti that lasts to this day, but to Boisrond-Canal, the coverage seemed inaccurate, even unfair. And what’s more, for him, there is a fundamental lack of information for young Haitians—and other immigrant groups in France too—about their homeland.
“Haitians who are my age only have two sources of information to build a vision of Haiti—their parents and the media,” Boisrond-Canal said.
Boisrond-Canal’s opinions about the media have shaped him. Because of the negative coverage, he added, “I don’t trust the media. I want to be a journalist but not in politics. I want to be a sports journalist.”
Boisrond-Canal’s mother, Blodine Harris Canal, understands her son’s dilemma and made a point, as he grew up, to give him a more nuanced understanding of her home country and their shared heritage.
“We always emphasized the difference between what is covered and what the truth is,” she said.
Like Alliance, Harris Canal also found an unexpected positive outcome of the 2010 earthquake. Although she agrees that the French media portrayed the earthquake in ways that were not fully accurate, it started an important conversation about the history of Haiti and the important contribution it has made to world history, and indeed, the history of France.
“It was the first time Haiti was spoken about in a positive way,” Harris Canal said. “[The media] talked about Haitian history and it being the first black republic. It was a very good thing for young people because it put Haiti in a different light after years of bad coverage.”
But she adds that this brief moment of Haiti being in the spotlight might have been squandered.
“It’s ironic. There was a horrible earthquake. It was a way to raise money, although Haiti got none of it.”
Some in the Haitian community in France argue that the roots of this problem go much deeper than simply the French media not being interested in covering Haiti, but that newsrooms in the main newspapers and television stations lack diversity and thus, their coverage is focused and serves only certain parts of society.
For professor Jean Eddy Saint Paul, the Director of the Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College, “The media is in the hands of a small group, an oligarchy, this is the reality of France.”
But whether French newsrooms have an obligation to inform the country’s immigrants about their home countries is up for debate. After all, in Paris alone live people from dozens of countries in Africa, Asia and Europe.
Some newsrooms do conduct extensive coverage of some of France’s former colonies, from which many immigrants come. The television channel, France 24, the radio station RFI, and, up until July 2018 when French Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, announced its closure by 2020, the television network, France Ô, focus most of their work on foreign reporting. But these newsrooms largely cover Africa and the Middle East. France Ô, for one, only covers French overseas departments, of which Haiti is not one.
The reason French media is not diverse may stem from the way journalists are trained in the country. Many barriers to entry are seen to exclude people of color, especially the journalism school entrance exams, which require a strong command of English and a type of primary education that not every French student gets. This, some argue, makes it hard for people of poorer means to access the top schools that then lead to the country’s top media outlets.
Others argue that there is a general lack of interest in the issues facing people of color in France. Even in the Paris suburbs, just miles from France’s biggest newspapers and channels, get little positive coverage.
“The French media has never been tender with Haiti,” said Anne-Louise Mesadieu, a City Councilor for the commune of Chaville who also holds a role in the Ile-de-France regional government. “They only give negative facts—political instability, poverty, misery and so on—and when I was younger, it was quite difficult to accept that fact.”
For Mesadieu, it’s vital for young people of Haitian descent living in France to learn about their culture on their own. Like other immigrant groups, she says, Haitians in France hold the burden of having to educate themselves, especially if their parents don’t play that role.
Géraldine Millet was born in Haiti but has spent most of her life in Paris. For her, it’s not just Haiti that receives negative coverage.
“What the media shows for Haiti, it shows for all the small countries,” she said. “The problem is that often they go even further, putting another nail in the coffin, only showing the misery of Haiti. I think it’s a warning for Martinique and Guadeloupe—you want to be independent? Take a look at what’s happening in Haiti.”
But Millet also sees change. With social media, information travels fast and young Haitians in France can connect directly with people on the ground in Haiti. When the 2010 earthquake hit, the best way for Boisrond-Canal to speak with his father just via phone. Today, it’s more likely that information would come through Twitter or Facebook, giving young Haitians in France the opportunity to get facts on the ground.
The problem of diversity in French media has resulted in several new publications aimed at certain ethnic groups or areas outside of the French capital. Bondy Blog is one example. The online publication was born during riots in the Parisian suburbs in 2005 and aims to cover parts of metropolitan Paris that the establishment media outlets ignore. There exist a few small Haitian-French outlets as well, including Radio Télé Haïtienne de France and Hlive. Haitian radio broadcasts can also reached in France.
The internet is also playing a larger and larger role in giving Haitians in France access to news and information back home. But for some young Haitian-French people, Haiti is a distant land to which they see few connections, no matter how close the internet brings their two countries. And despite newfound access to news online, some, don’t think that young Haitian-French people will take advantage of it.
“Of the young people who will a read newspaper, many of them will not choose a Haitian one, but one that gives info on French entertainment,” said Saint Paul, from Brooklyn College.
Both Alliance and Boisrond-Canal are entering adulthood, working summer jobs, and attending classes. Even if their exposure to Haiti might be limited, they get their fill in other ways—through the food and music and culture of Haiti that exists in pockets throughout Paris and in their homes.