Six months later, Puerto Rico is still witnessing the effects of Hurricane Maria. And it has taken a toll on journalism.
Earlier this week I spoke to Damaris Suarez, president of the Puerto Rico Journalists’ Association to discuss where journalism finds itself since the hurricane.
Last October, journalism faced the first wave of impact. The sheer force of the hurricane devastated infrastructure all around. Not only were newsrooms affected, but also were Puerto Rico’s telecommunication systems. With electric lines down and roads blocked, it impacted the way journalists operated in the country.
The lack of internet access was consequential for both journalists and consumers of media. Without access to phone services, it impeded journalists from contacting sources and reporting in a timely manner. Even the few people with access to phone services did not have internet. Even televisions had problems with satellite connections due to instability in the telecommunications sector. During those first months, this shortage of cable services, internet and electricity caused production of local news to plummet, and the local content had to adapt to the new system under the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
“The country was paralyzed.”
According to Suarez, the country’s journalism suffered so immensely at the time of the hurricane that the United States was more informed than Puerto Rico’s own residents. Roads were blocked and that prevented newspapers from distributing effectively around the country. The further way from San Juan, the capital, the more difficult the effort became to distribute news. Foreign journalists would come to Puerto Rico with sufficient resources to report, and would leave with the stories for an American audience but leave Puerto Rico uninformed of their own troubles.
Damaris recalls how it wasn’t just the country, but the profession of journalists that was challenged economically. It impacted jobs and forced publications to close. The first few months after the hurricane, newspapers faced financial hardship with increasing costs of production to maintain operations. They dismissed several journalists and graphic designers. They weren’t able to maintain costs, and left journalists without jobs.
Now, we are seeing a second wave for the struggle of journalism. The situation has not improved. The quality of phone services and internet signal is still poor. Television stations work together, and with a lack of Internet service they have not been able to return to their required or optimal status.
As traditional forms of media are having a hard time maintaining full operations, Suarez calls attention to the importance of alternative forms of media. She says digital media can make the profession of journalism resilient and ready for natural disasters in the future.
There is still much to do in terms of restoring complete access to the internet. As a chapter, we strive to protect journalism all around the world and help foster the mission of Reporters Without Borders. Our chapter plans to raise money that will go towards chargers and solar energy, because we believe journalism should not fall behind. When news isn’t adequately disseminated, consumers of news media shouldn’t be punished because a place has insufficient resources to practice journalism. Maintaining the operations of news outlets ensures residents stay informed. Hurricane Maria may have lasted two weeks, but the effects on the island can be forever if we don’t help.