As we’ve previously described, State Department cables Wikileaked last year revealed a State offensive against unfavorable media coverage of the U.S. role in the aid effort, with Hillary Clinton instructing all embassies to “push back” against “inaccurate and unfavorable international media coverage of America's role and intentions in Haiti.”
A newly released cable, made available through Wikileaks’ partnership with Haiti Liberté and The Nation, reveals in detail how such “push back” worked, in one case at least.
Diligently following up on Secretary Clinton’s instructions, the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar noticed that “On Sunday, January 17, Al Jazeera's English (AJE) news channel, headquartered in Doha, began running inaccurate coverage of U.S. and international relief efforts in Haiti.” In response, the Embassy took actions resulting in a State Department spokesperson appearing on Aljazeera English in Washington “within hours”; called Aljazeera English Director Tony Burman ahead of another call by Judith A. McHale, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and made sure Burman “understood the serious concerns that the Undersecretary would convey”; and, after said “flakking” took place, monitored Aljazeera coverage, which it noted with satisfaction became “less and less” “inaccurate and confrontational”, “evolv[ing] markedly” “with reporting focused on the work being done by U.S. military forces - particularly airdrops - and 50 orphans who had been sent to the United States on an expedited basis.” The coverage now included more context, the Embassy noted, including regarding logistical obstacles to U.S. efforts at aid distribution.
What may be most troubling about the State Department cables is the use of the term “inaccurate”. While the U.S. State Department may have felt that some of Aljazeera’s coverage was unfair or lopsided in its presentation, not giving the U.S. military the opportunity to explain their actions or the obstacles to a better aid effort, this is a subjective opinion, while the term “inaccurate” connotes incorrect information in the Aljazeera reports. If Aljazeera included “inaccurate” statements or reports, the cables do not reveal what these supposedly were.
So we can only guess what State found so objectionable (the cable mentions only a few examples, including reference to the U.S. "setting up a 'mini-Green Zone'"). Were they concerned by this January 17, 2010 report, perhaps, which included Haitian quake survivors’ complaints that the U.S. should not drop food in from the air, since “they’re not animals”, and that no aid was reaching certain areas, thus far? Did State find “inaccurate” correspondent Theresa Bo’s report that Léogâne, by that point, had not “seen any rescue teams” or aid, even as small children remained trapped in the rubble, crying out for help? Other reporters who ventured to Léogâne at the time reported a similar lack of aid.
Was State offended by this January 19 report, which found, at Cité Soleil, “dozens of injured residents still waiting for basic medical care”, and that in some places “no aid, no international organization, no army” had arrived yet?
This newly Wikileaked cable is also interesting in that it reveals some ways in which media often receive flak from people in positions of power. Journalists reporting from Haiti have privately described numerous incidents of negative feedback (often from powerful institutions or individuals) regarding their reporting, as well as disinterest from their editors in stories that would investigate powerful individuals in Haiti (and their supporters in Washington), for example. Of course, in Haiti, as in many other countries, journalists also often face very real threats to their physical safety.
All of these factors should be pondered when considering, for example, why there has been so little media coverage of human rights violations committed by MINUSTAH forces, for example, or so little mention of the thousands of people killed following the 2004 coup d’etat against the democratically elected government of Haiti.