Haiti and the Media – The Gangs of the Fourth Estate

By: Dominique Esser – HaitiAnalysis
     No, this is not about defamatory media allegations about child sacrifice in the style of the writer Michael Deibert, or even the blatant underreporting of crowds to diminish events in the fashion of a North American paper of record. Neither is this about the parroting of spoon fed US governmental statements in ways that make it impossible to discern where the “reporting” ends and the propaganda starts. Finally, this also does not concern revisionist attempts to turn progressive movements into horrendous dictatorships. Or does it?

     No, I am simply going to show with the help of one small and perhaps not terribly significant account, that much of the media’s reporting on Haiti has to be consumed at ones own peril. 
    A few days ago, The Guardian, a British newspaper with a worldwide readership, posted an online article headlined “Haitian radio journalist shot dead,” concerning the founder of Radio Boukman being gunned down execution style in his car alongside a passenger. Of course my initial reaction was one of empathy and reflection over the dangers of being a journalist or traveling in the vicinity of reporters. I even felt appreciation for having such a newspaper at my online disposal, which could keep me informed about media matters in far-flung places such as Cité Soleil, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. I came quickly to the end of this rather short piece, and there it was: “He [Jean Liphète Nelson] is the first media worker to be killed in Haiti since 2005.

     Remarkably the spelling was right, something that cannot be taken for granted from any newspaper article on Haiti, especially should accents be involved. But, immediately my feeling of gratitude for the information began to vanish. Faint memories of others in the media loosing their lives came back and I realized that Mr. Nelson, very unfortunately, wasn’t the first journalist to die in post-coup Haiti, or after 2005 as The Guardian would have us believe.
     Not trusting my recollections entirely, I quickly searched the internet and within seconds, came up with two Haitian journalists that were murdered in the span of a few months in 2007. In April of that year, Johnson Edouard was shot to death in his bed in the town of Gonaïves. A homicide that was seen by many as politically motivated, as Edouard had close ties to Fanmi Lavalas, the party of former Haitian President Aristide. Freelance photographer Jean-Rémy Badio had been slain just two months prior in Martissant, closer to the capital. Even more journalists did perish. Though I did stop my search there, knowing enough and feeling sorry for believing, even if ever so briefly, in yet another mainstream media article about Haiti.
     By now all positive feelings about reading The Guardian online had turned into anger. Anger over not even being able to believe the simplest of spot news. I checked in which section the article was posted, hoping it was put online by someone not affiliated with the paper. Alas, to add insult to injury, the piece ran in the media section and was posted by Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism and a journalist himself, who runs a media blog on The Guardian’s website. 
     I realized that neither Mr. Greenslade had checked his facts, nor had anyone at The Guardian bothered to do the same. He certainly does have access to archives far superior to the quick internet search that I had conducted. It appears that the press-release of a NGO was simply taken at face value and reprinted. The NGO in question is the International Press Institute, based in Vienna, which had made up the fact that luckily no journalists had died in Haiti over the past six years.
     As one can easily discern, this little but disturbing journalistic faux pas does not rise to the level of seriousness of much other media coverage in Haiti and elsewhere. Nonetheless, it is emblematic of what ails much of Haiti reporting and of course, journalism elsewhere. 
     Journalists sit far removed from the subjects of their articles, be it on the rum drenched verandahs of local hotels, or in other countries as was the case in this instance. Haitians are disregarded. If there would be any respect for them, facts would be checked. If journalists are not outright embedded with governmental and non-governmental organizations, they often cultivate a mindset of embedded-ness that does not leave much room for accuracy or the questioning of commonly repeated falsehoods. Locals are often reduced to mere objects and to give a rich coloring, especially (oh the horror) should they be poor and of lesser education. If poor people become activists and start to demand their rightful place at the table, journalists on the verandahs start to huddle and begin to repeat the propaganda, that is fed to them, in earnest. 
     I am sure many readers will disagree, but just take a moment and look at the rich evidence in countless articles on the subject. If you don’t, just be aware that the Haitian grassroots organizer you just read about, being described as a blood soaked monstrous criminal, very likely wasn’t one. The press might just have gotten the better of you, once again.

2. Some articles concerning Haiti and the media:

• Hustling for the Junta: PR Fights Democracy in Haiti by PR Watch (1994)

• Enemy Ally – The Demonization of Jean-Bertrand Aristide  By Jim Naureckas, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (Nov. 1994)

• Haitian Women Are Out of Frame – And Their Abusers Are Out of Sight by Laura Flanders, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (Jan. 1995)

• US Corporate Media Distort Haitian Events by Kevin Pina, The Black Commentator (Nov. 2003)

• Media vs. Reality in Haiti by Anthony Fenton, ZNet (Feb. 2004)

Option Zero In Haiti by Peter Hallward, New Left review (May 2004)

• Kofi Annan’s Haiti by Justin Podur, New Left Review (Feb. 2006)

• A Few Notes About “Notes From the Last Testament” by Patrick Elie, Haïti Progrès (Mar. 2006)

• Invisible Violence Ignoring murder in post-coup Haiti by Jeb Sprague, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (Jul. 2006)

• The Freedom of the Press Barons – The media and the 2004 Haiti coup by Isabel McDonald, The Dominion (Feb. 2007)

• U.S. Reporting on the Coup Haiti – How to Turn a Priest into a Cannibal by Diana Barahona, Counter Punch (Feb. 2007)

Haiti and the Jean Dominique Investigation: An Interview with  Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon by Jeb Sprague, The Journal Of Haitian Studies [.pdf] (2007)

The G184’s Powerbrokers – Apaid and Boulos: Owners of the Fourth Estate; Leaders of the Fifth Column by Richard Sanders, Press For Conversion! (Sept. 2007)

• Michael Deibert and Elizabeth Eames Roebling Attack IPS Journalists Writing on Haiti by Kim Ives, The Dominion (Aug. 2009)

• Haiti and Media Censorship by William Blum, Dissident Voice (Feb. 2010)

• Covering Haiti: When the Media Is the Disaster by Rebecca Solnit, The Nation (Feb. 2010)