NACLA Report on the Americas, September/October 2008
Media Channel, September 10, 2008
Protests in Haiti over high food prices have dominated U.S. media coverage of the country in recent months. While these reports have drawn international attention to an urgent situation, they have often lacked proper context. Haiti’s problems did not suddenly arise, yet the media began paying attention to them only after the food protests erupted in April, especially after six people were killed and the prime minister, Jacques-Edouard Alexis, was forced out of office.
If the U.S. media have failed to cover the story of political instability in Haiti with the depth it deserves, it is certainly not the first time. In fact, it is the latest episode in a pattern of U.S. reporting on Haiti that has given many of the most important stories only a cursory glance. To get an idea of how and why this happens, I interviewed several U.S. journalists who have reported from Haiti, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.
This is how one reporter describes some editors’ views on Haiti: “Everyone knows the place is a mess, so what are you going to tell me that’s new? What goes on there does not affect people in the U.S.” Such lack of editorial interest has led to a near total absence of coverage of some of the most shocking incidents of violence, including the killing of unarmed civilians by United Nations forces, the Haitian National Police (HNP), and death squads.
The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah), which began its mission in June 2004, has been marred by scandals of killings, rape, and other violence by its troops almost since it began. As has been documented by human rights investigators and declassified U.S. government documents, Minustah conducted a number of raids into Haiti’s slums—ostensibly to target armed gangs—that have repeatedly left scores of unarmed civilians dead.
In a now infamous case, Minustah mounted an assault into Cité Soleil, Haiti’s largest slum, on July 6, 2005. According to declassified cables sent that day from the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince to the State Department, UN troops fired 22,000 shots in seven hours in a neighborhood where most people live in structures made of flimsy sheet metal. Perhaps as many as 30 people were killed by the time it was over, including a number of children. Freelance journalist Kevin Pina and his colleagues documented the immediate aftermath of the shootings and the statements of victims’ family members and other witnesses on video.
Even though Pina’s documentation became available two days later, just over a few dozen U.S. newspapers even mentioned the incident during the month of July, according to a Nexis search, most of them running short newswire briefs. These items typically described the incursion as an example of the UN mission’s success in its stated goal of eliminating gang members, ignoring reports of civilian deaths.
Similar Minustah assaults in late 2006 and early 2007 received little attention. On December 22, 2006, for example, Minustah troops staged another raid on Cité Soleil in which, according to the Associated Press, at least five people were killed (Reuters estimated 20). A Nexis search reveals that only four U.S. papers reported the incident; three of these ran an AP brief.
The U.S. press has given atrocities committed by the HNP similar scant treatment. Since Jean-Bertrand Aristide disbanded the Haitian Army in 1995, the HNP has been the country’s principal domestic armed force. Following Aristide’s ouster in 2004, the HNP took on a more sinister character, assimilating members of anti-Aristide death squads. In one particularly disturbing and well-documented incident, on August 20, 2005, dozens of machete-wielding men, accompanied by HNP officers in uniform, entered a soccer stadium in Martissant, where a USAID-sponsored game was under way, and hacked and shot at least six people to death while other spectators rushed to escape.
This massacre—perhaps one of the most brazen in Haiti to occur since the bloody reign of terror following the 1991 coup d’etat—marked the debut of what The Miami Herald described as a new “death squad,” the lame ti machete (“little machete army”). Like much of the violence directed against Aristide supporters and other activists in the 2004–06 period, the massacre was hardly noticed by the U.S. media. The AP, Reuters, Knight Ridder, and United Press International all filed stories, but only six U.S. papers bothered to print anything on the incident in the following month, according to a Nexis search. The Miami Herald was notable for its editorial condemning the incident—it was the only U.S. newspaper that did so. Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post reported the incident.
In contrast to the scarcity of coverage of the thousands killed, tens of thousands raped, and other atrocities committed since the 2004 coup, during the three years of Aristide’s second term (2001–early 2004), there were numerous articles, editorials, and op-eds in U.S. papers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, describing and condemning “despotism” under Aristide, whose “corrupt government . . . regularly used violence against its opponents” (as one New York Times editorial put it).
Some of the supposed state-sanctioned violence described in U.S. news later turned out to be fabricated, such as the “La Scierie massacre” in the town of St. Marc, in which opposition groups at first claimed that more than 50 people were killed by Aristide supporters in a February 11, 2004, incident. Investigators and reporters were able to confirm that only three to five people had been killed in a clash between pro- and anti-Aristide groups.
In 2007, scholar Peter Hallward made an exhaustive inquiry into whether the allegations, by the U.S. media and others, of state-sanctioned human rights abuses during Aristide’s second term are actually supported by the facts, arguing convincingly that in almost every instance the answer is no. As Hallward and other investigators have noted, the source for most of these claims were groups that at the time were funded by the U.S. government, including Washington-based organizations like the International Republican Institute and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, which sought to discredit and undermine Aristide’s government. Reasonable estimates put the number of political killings—by the police or groups supporting his government—during Aristide’s two terms in office at between 10 and 30. This contrasts with the more than 3,000 political killings that took place under the 2004–06 interim government (and the estimated 50,000 under the Duvalier dictatorships).
Many incidents of political violence and atrocities during the interim-government period were well documented, yet unlike in the years while Aristide was in office, editorials expressing outrage in papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post were conspicuously absent. As death squads and the police murdered Lavalas supporters and others, the Times did not run one editorial mentioning—much less condemning—the sort of rampant political repression and violence it had decried (even when evidence was lacking) under Aristide. The Post did mention and condemn the killings of “over 700” (while making sure to place some of the blame on “gangs that support Mr. Aristide”). Both papers also have yet to run a single editorial condemning any of Minustah’s killings or rapes of civilians; in fact, the Post has more than once urged Minustah to use greater force in putting down gangs—including in an editorial on June 5, 2005, just hours before Minustah would kill civilians in Cité Soleil.
So why so little attention to Haiti after Aristide, when there has been far more political turmoil and violence to document? One reporter told me: “If the United States has spent millions of dollars funding the training of police officers, who then terrorize people or become drug traffickers, the U.S. would not be eager to have this information broadcast to American taxpayers.”
Another reporter says his editor turned down an investigative piece on Rudolph Boulos, one of the wealthiest men in Haiti and a board member of the Haiti Democracy Project, a Washington-based lobby group. “Boulos is a very well-known figure in Washington,” the reporter remembers his editor telling him by way of explanation.
Each of the journalists I interviewed recognized that U.S. media coverage of Haiti is inadequate in both quantity and in presenting a balanced description of events. It “has absolutely been skewed and misrepresentative of the reality,” in recent years, Pina said.
Jennifer Bauduy, a former Reuters correspondent who reported from Haiti for two years, explained in an e-mail: “Haiti is not rich in resources, is not a significant trading partner, is not a major tourist destination, and so is not significant to the U.S. media. Added to this is a combination of racism and the language barrier.”
New York Times investigative reporter Walt Bogdanich characterized part of the challenge to presenting a balanced picture of developments in Haiti as such: “Any story that veers from the conventional wisdom is going to encounter resistance.”
Veteran freelance reporter Reed Lindsay described U.S. reporting on Haiti as suffering from a kind of parachute approach, in which correspondents unfamiliar with the country swoop in for a week or two. “Their coverage,” he said, “tends to be very superficial at best, and often very distorted, because they don’t have time to get to know the country.” He said biased reporting often results from correspondents’ reliance on elite sources.
“Of course they have to go to the poor neighborhoods,” Lindsay added, “and they do, but their time there is usually very limited. The perspectives that they are exposed to are usually limited and, I think, often skewed, and I think this is often reflected in their reporting.”
What’s more, the violence in Haiti has not spared journalists. In March 2004, only days after Aristide was flown out of the country on a U.S. plane, Spanish reporter Ricardo Ortega was shot and killed while covering an anti-Aristide demonstration. In a recent press conference, his family presented evidence that foreign troops—possibly U.S. Marines, who had arrived to ensure Aristide’s removal—were responsible. Ortega’s death would mark the first of many attacks on the press, especially Haitian reporters, during the interim government headed by Gerard Latortue. In 2005 alone, several other journalists were killed, including Abdias Jean, Robenson Laraque, and Jacques Roche.
No wonder, then, that according to Bogdanich, one of the biggest obstacles to improving coverage of Haiti is “finding reporters who care enough to go there, who have the courage to stand up to editors who say that there are sexier stories to cover.”
The attention paid to the Aristide administration, and many allegations of human rights abuses during that period that have not stood up to scrutiny, underscores how little attention Haiti has received even while some of the worst abuses in Haiti’s modern history have been committed. In the case of Haiti, like other conflict zones, the rewards may seem slim indeed for risking one’s life in order to uncover atrocities and inconvenient truths that might anger many local authorities—and some here in the United States.
Dan Beeton is International Communications Coordinator at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. Research assistance from Mark Smit.
1. For an analysis of media coverage of the “food riots,” see Mark Schuller, “Haitian Food Riots Unnerving but Not Surprising,” Americas Policy Program Special Report (Center for International Policy, April 25, 2008), available at americas.irc-online.org.
2. Thomas Griffin, “Haiti: Human Rights Investigation, November 11–21, 2004” (Center for the Study of Human Rights, University of Miami School of Law, 2005), available at www.law.miami.edu/cshr; Harvard Law School, “Keeping the Peace in Haiti?” available at www.law.harvard.edu.
3. United States Embassy cable to the secretary of state and the U.S. Southern Command, Port-au-Prince, July 19, 2005. The cables were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Haiti Information Project. See www.haitiaction.net for more.
4. Haiti Information Project, “Haiti’s UN Occupation Forces Carry Out Massacre of Poor in Port-au-Prince,” July 8, 2005, and “Evidence Mounts of a UN Massacre in Haiti,” July 12, 2005, available at www.haitiaction.net. Some of this footage is included in Pina’s documentary Haiti: We Must Kill the Bandits (Haiti Information Project, 2007).
7. Hallward, Damming the Flood; Athena Kolbe and Royce Hutson, “Human Rights Abuse and Other Criminal Violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: A Random Survey of Households,” The Lancet 368 (September 2006): 864–73; “Haiti’s Descent,” The New York Times, February 5, 2004; “Haiti’s ‘New Chapter,’ ” The New York Times, March 1, 2004.
14. Rosario Gómez, “Militares extranjeros mataron a Ricardo Ortega,” El País, May 10, 2008; Reporters Sans Frontieres, “Finger Pointed at US Interposition Force in the 2004 Death of Journalist Ricardo Ortega,” May 13, 2008, available at www.rsf.org.