Haiti: Caught between aid slowdown and media battle for influence

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On the margins of the Montreux Francophonie summit, the French-speaking world hailed international efforts to help victims of the Haiti earthquake but lamented the slow arrival of the aid. Meanwhile, francophone media on the scene at the time seemed to be crowded out by their omnipresent US counterparts.

Francophone networks were successfully mobilised very quickly after the earthquake, Clément Duhaime, general administrator of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), told a press conference at the 13th Francophonie summit on 22 October.

He drew particular attention to Centres de Lecture et d’Animation Culturelle – French-language bodies that encourage education, cultural activities and recreation – and teacher training centres, and reserved special praise for the solidarity shown between French universities.

However, the international aid committed so far is still a long way from satisfying the needs of the disaster-hit country, which has a population of eight million.

Of its total annual budget of just 90 million euros, the OIF is planning to spend five million euros in Haiti over the next three years. The EU and its member states are spending 450 million euros, a sum that has almost been matched by the United States.

The OIF's Duhaime spoke of the slow pace of the payments, which he described as being at odds with promises made at the aid conference on 31 March in New York, and stressed the importance of strengthening the Haitian state.

However, the rubble is yet to be cleared from the streets of Port-au-Prince. Asked about the importance of education and upcoming elections in December, he said both would be crucial if the population's morale was to be boosted quickly.

Media battle for influence

While aid is beginning to flow, another key battleground is starting to take shape: the media.

Radio France International and television station TV5 were well established in Haiti before the tragedy struck and they are currently repairing their broken transmitters.

Before the earthquake, TV5 launched a series documenting development initiatives in the country, funded by the European Union. Asked what it was like working with the EU, Marie-Christine Saragosse, director-general of TV5 Monde, spoke of "the complexity of EU procedures, which are even longer than governmental ones".

But Saragosse also praised the positive reaction in Brussels. "They stuck with us, allowing the TV5 teams who were already on the ground to adapt and step up their coverage."

Saragosse said Haitians mostly watched American television, a statistic which worried one African journalist, who said "he who loses his language loses his culture".

The TV5 boss said Europe could help reverse this trend because one of its goals was to support media pluralism worldwide.     

Drawing comparisons with other multicultural TV channels, Saragosse called on the EU to measure the actual audience of each of the channels it supports, rather than just counting the number of households a channel can theoretically reach.

In the US, for example, 360,000 households (over a million people) subscribe to TV5, generating a turnover of five million dollars, despite the fact that it is considered an ‘ethnic channel’ for which viewers must pay extra.

Saragosse also underlined how well the wide variety of channels designed to counteract English-language media complement one another.

For example, Euronews produces a single, continuous image stream of news, for which it makes available a soundtrack in ten languages (Persian is the latest). The channel, which is based in Lyon, reaches almost 300 million households and attracts around eight million viewers.

TV5, on the other hand, makes programmes that are adapted for different continents but shows them all in French only, offering subtitles in ten languages. Thanks to localised 'unhooking' to other national channels all over the world, TV5 is accessible in 207 million households worldwide and is watched by 53-55 million people every week, more than any rival national channel.

"TV5 is the biggest French classroom in the world. It's also the biggest French-language theatre and the biggest French-language cinema," the OIF's Duhaime concluded.

The earthquake which hit Haiti on 12 January was the strongest on Earth since 1770, according to scientists.

Tens of thousands of people were killed and the damage was catastrophic, as the 7.0 magnitude epicentre was just 10 miles west of capital Port-au-Prince and its two million inhabitants. 

Some 50 donors promised a total of 7.3 billion euros for the reconstruction of earthquake-hit Haiti in New York on 31 March. The EU was the largest among them.

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