Where Propaganda from the Associated Press and US Embassy in Haiti Converge

“The question is whether privileged elites should dominate mass communication and should use this power as they tell us they must, namely to impose NECESSARY ILLUSIONS to manipulate and deceive [whom THEY believe are] the stupid majority and remove them from the public arena.” -Noam Chomsky

I once argued with an Associated Press reporter about whether his bureau does more to aid and comfort foreign power-brokers in Haiti, like those who work out of the massive US Embassy in Port-au-Prince, than to investigate and hold them accountable.  (I did not contend that every single AP report is slavish propaganda. They do some very good reporting at times.)

I said that the AP makes political choices to pay attention to certain stories and people, but not others (at the time, it was the remarks of Ricardo Seitenfus). On a few important issues, especially those surrounding former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his political party Fanmi Lavalas, its reporting often toes the line of the US government.

Distortions of the truth, regardless of their political slant, don’t serve the public well. Here’s an unfortunate example of exact convergence between propaganda from the AP and the US Embassy itself.

On Friday, at least a thousand people took to the streets in Cite Soleil to commemorate the bloody 1991 coup d’etat against Aristide. I’m being conservative when I say at least a thousand.

2011 Fanmi Lavalas demonstration. Far more than 200 people.
A Haitian friend (not a Lavalas supporter) viewed the video and said it looked like 3000.  To me, having been on the ground, it looked like 2000.  The Haitian journalist who shot the video on my camera said it was 1500.  Other Haitian journalists walking down the street in the afternoon said they were coming from another march in Bel-Air, apart from Cite Soleil, that disbanded before I could get there.

Trenton Daniel, the AP correspondent, appeared to arrive way late to the Cite Soleil march, after most of the marchers had gone home.  He reported: “Thousands of supporters greeted Aristide upon his return earlier this year, but a crowd of only about 200 people showed up for the rally.”

This is simply factually inaccurate.  The AP needs to make a correction. I’ve tweeted and emailed since Friday – no response.

But it also betrays poor editorial judgment.  As a friend pointed out:

What on earth compelled Trenton Daniel to compare the turnout at Aristide’s arrival after YEARS of exile in another continent with the possibility of seeing Aristide in person to a neighborhood-organized rally based around the commemoration of the 1991 coup?! That’s the real point here–even if there WERE only 200, how can that give anyone a meaningful indicator as to the dynamics of the movement, whether support is waning, etc.?! That’s an editorial decision to link those two events to each other, and is specious.

This is to say nothing of how the AP regularly describes Aristide as being ousted by a “rebellion,” rather than using language that at least acknowledges the welldocumented allegations that the US forced him from power in a second coup d’etat.

Almost two years ago, in December 2009, I covered a demonstration by Aristide supporters calling for his return to Haiti and decrying exclusionary elections.  The video I shot of the protest is on a hard drive in the States at the moment, but photos can be viewed hereReuters reported, “Several thousand protesters joined in the protest march, which marked Aristide’s rise to power as Haiti’s first democratically elected president in December 1990.”

2009 Fanmi Lavalas demonstration. Far more than 150 people.

The next day, Kenneth Merten, the current US Ambassador to Haiti, described how a “small” “crowd of approximately 150 persons marched around downtown before heading to the electoral authority’s offices” in a cable to State Department headquarters entitled “Fanmi Lavalas Fails to Mobilize Its Base.”

Maybe it’s willful self-delusion.  Maybe he just showed up late.  But like Trenton Daniel of the AP, Merten seized on the artificial crowd estimate to make to make political claims about Fanmi Lavalas’ lack of popularity.

“This demonstration was markedly different from the late 1990s when Lavalas could easily fill the streets with thousands of protestors, and indicates the extent to which the party has lost its power. Even two years ago, party organizers could count on two thousand supporters to take to the streets.”

At least triple of “two thousand supporters” took to the streets that day.

Videoblog sidebar: UN Troops Go After An Alleged Thief (And Their Own Interpreter)

I penned a new WikiLeaks article, did some interviews, and got tear-gassed.

Anti-MINUSTAH protesters peacefully marching.

Here’s a round-up of some of odds and ends that I haven’t gotten around to posting until now.

First, there’s this piece for Haiti Liberte: WikiLeaks Reveal: Expecting Civilian Deaths, US Embassy Approved of Deadly Attack on Crowded Haitian Slum. The article describes how a top Embassy official agreed with private sector leaders like Reginald Boulos, who now holds influence over Haiti’s reconstruction, that MINUSTAH should attack Cite Soleil knowing full well that innocent Haitians would be killed by the “peacekeepers” during the operation.

For more on the Port Salut abuses, there are these interviews I did with Democracy Now!, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and if you speak Spanish, this Uruguayan media outlet. The five soldiers accused of abusing Johnny Jean in the video are reported to have been jailed in Uruguay pending sentencing. 17-year-old Rose Mina Joseph, who was pregnant with a Uruguayan soldier’s child when this was published, gave birth to a healthy boy a few days ago. She told me yesterday she hasn’t been able to reach the father in Uruguay to tell him yet, but that when they last talked he said he’d seen an article about her.

Amnesty International issued an action alert that you can participate in about the eviction threat to Camp Mosaic, which I reported on a few weeks ago. And this interview with Dr. Renaud Piarroux about cholera and its origins in Haiti is well worth reading.

Finally, I’d like to shout out this heartfelt and insightful reflection from Sebastian Walker, Al Jazeera’s post-quake Haiti correspondent (check out his new film, produced in part by Haitian journalist Yvon Vilius), especially this part: “I would have liked to stay in Haiti forever. If you spend any significant time there, you will believe, as I did, that Haiti deserves to be on the front page of every newspaper, every single day. It is a permanent, urgent and unjustified humanitarian tragedy.”

I feel the same way.  To me, it’s not just the humanitarian tragedy that makes Haiti worthy of front page coverage every day, but the extraordinary way that tragedy is politically and internationally maintained.  There are stark political choices (some examples) that keep Haiti mired in this state which implicate a wide range of powerful groups in Haiti and across the globe.  Sebastian’s team did a great job of exposing many of them while listening to and projecting the voices of ordinary Haitians.

This contrasts with some recently sloppy reporting by the Associated Press.  An anti-MINUSTAH protest march last Wednesday was completely peaceful from the start, when it was confronted by MINUSTAH soldiers in a jeep, very nearly until it reached its destination in Chanmas. When the march arrived near the palace, Haitian police immediately began launching tear gas canisters, to which the protesters responded by throwing rocks.  This can be observed in a video I produced.

The Associated Press team was not present at that time, to my knowledge.  I saw them walking down towards the protests hours later, after many of the demonstrators had left and only a small band of rock-throwers remained.  But the AP wrote that protesters had “fled into” the camps in Chanmas (they may have since improved the language from the original article), which I did not observe (one resident of the tent camp told me he did not blame the protesters for the tear gas).  The AP did not even mention the peaceful march.  And today, another AP article reduces all recent anti-UN protests in Haiti to “rock-throwing.”  I already pointed out some serious flaws in their initial reporting on the Port Salut abuses.

They should do better. Update: One of the AP’s photographers may have been present as the march itself reached Chanmas.

On Journalistic Malpractice, Mac McClelland, and Haiti

Update 7/9: Before I wrote the post below, I contacted McClelland asking whether Sybille/K* had given consent for her story to be used the way it was in her GOOD magazine piece. She responded with an explanation (she asked that it stay off-record) that does not seem to have been the full story, based on what Edwidge Danticat has written here. It’s disappointing. And it means she did commit journalistic malpractice (in a different way than the letter-writers had alleged).

Also, the last time I spoke to K*’s mom, she didn’t appear to hold any ill will towards McClelland. She asked me to say hi to her for me. But maybe that was just on the surface and she was being polite. She did mention to me that she and her daughter were bothered by how McClelland didn’t talk to them much and was constantly typing into her phone (presumably, live-tweeting). That, on top of the revelation that McClelland ignored K*’s handwritten letter, makes me retract my statement that I believe McClelland treated K* with respect during their time together in Haiti. I don’t know.

I still don’t think it’s productive to make McClelland into “something of a scapegoat,” as Gina Athena Ulysse puts it in this thoughtful post for Ms. Magazine, without calling attention to the larger problems around foreign media coverage of Haiti and potential ways to address them.

I hesitate to write this post. There are more important things going on. Haiti is in crisis yet again, with resurgent cholera claiming more victims every day. Read Dr. John Carroll’s blog to get a sense of the terrible situation on the ground. A new study adds yet more evidence that UN peacekeepers are the source of the outbreak. “STUDY SAYS UN GAVE HAITI CHOLERA” should be a banner headline all over the place, but it isn’t.

Instead, there’s been a lot of discussion, a furor even, about Mac McClelland’s essay in GOOD magazine, called “How Violent Sex Eased My PTSD.” It prompted multiple days of furious tweeting by American journalists who have worked in Haiti. Some of them, all women, even got together with other Haiti activists and writers to pen an open letter condemning the piece. Several wrote passionate comments arguing with an Atlantic Wire post that defended McClelland.

They charge that McClelland callously and recklessly used Haiti as scene-setter for her own story. She referred to Haiti’s “ugly chaos,” its “gang-raping monsters,” and described the country as if there are guns everywhere. McClelland was only in Haiti for a few weeks, parachuting in and out, and doesn’t know or care enough to represent the full humanity of the Haitian people. It’s sensationalist, inaccurate, irresponsible, and perpetuating of stereotypes or racist tropes, they say. This is about harmful journalistic malpractice.

I disagree. The essay was about her own experience of trauma and recovery. It was published on National PTSD Day. That’s what the headline, the vast bulk of the text, and I suspect most readers were all focused on. She related those elements of Haiti that contributed to her trauma. It’s also hard to dispute that 1) the perpetrators of gang rapes in camps, of which there have been many, are monstrous individuals, 2) there was chaos, whether it was in aid distributions or extrajudicial killings, after the quake, and 3) there are a lot more guns visible on Port-au-Prince’s streets than on your average street in the US. Obviously, that’s only one side of Haiti. I would have been careful to write it differently. But in her actual reporting on Haiti, including a long feature article and several blog posts for Mother Jones, there is a more balanced and in-depth portrayal of the country.

I’m self-aware enough to admit that my point of view on this may be influenced by the fact that I did freelance work with/for McClelland while she was in Haiti. I also met “Sybille,” the Haitian rape survivor mentioned in the piece, and I believe McClelland treated her with respect.

I also believe much of the criticism towards McClelland comes from a genuine, heartfelt place.

What I find contemptible, however, is a pack of buddy-buddies who whip themselves into a fervor of highly selective outrage. Who then go about slamming an individual who isn’t part of their club, which itself behaves irresponsibly and harms Haiti with regularity. Journalistic malpractice is a feature of foreign reporting on Haiti. It has been doing tremendous harm to the country for some time. But for some peculiar reason, this is the first instance in which the current crop of Haiti journalists have seen fit to collectively draw any attention to that damning reality, and they act as if McClelland’s piece is an especially egregious example. Let me assure you, it isn’t. Continue reading “On Journalistic Malpractice, Mac McClelland, and Haiti”

What Progress? Flash Timeline of Haiti’s Disastrous 2010

There are a fair number of narrative reflections by journalists on Haiti’s past year, probably the most moving by the Associated Press’ Jonathan Katz. Of course none of them can be totally comprehensive in covering the past year’s events, tracking promises and pledges, and showing what has changed. Neither is the Flash timeline below, to which I’m still adding posts. But I do think it’s useful as a visual overview of the past year’s ups and downs (mostly downs) and a way to zoom in and out (click on the plus icons along the bottom) on specific months to recall what claims and progress were made at various moments.

For me, something that stands out is the number of times the UN indicates an understanding of humanitarian failures but seemingly ignores suggestions from others on how to do better – for example, that it do a better job of including Haitians and civil society in decision-making.

Let me know in the comments if there are any big events or statistics you think are missing.

Film review: Battle for Haiti and We Must Kill the Bandits

UN peacekeepers guarding Haiti's Electoral Council from rioting protesters in December
On Monday night at a Port-au-Prince hotel, a foreign media worker overseeing a bustling workspace for international journalists was called into the hallway by a Haitian hotelier.

He reemerged in the room and demanded everyone’s attention. The Haitian staff of the hotel were going straight home. Their families had called fearing violence would erupt in the streets, after a controversial speech by President Rene Preval in which he suggested he would stay on as head of state past for a few more months.

“If you don’t have private security with you, you should go back to where you’re spending the night right now,” he said gravely.

The foreign journalists exchanged nervous glances and some took their leave.

When I was ready, I left by bike to go home. The streets looked quiet, calm, normal. It seemed no such violence had broken out, not that night and not in the days after.

This is just to point out that fear of out-of-control violent Haitians is ever-present and often wholly disconnected from reality among the establishment foreign media and the privileged class of Haitians with which it mostly interacts.

The latest manifestation of that fear, in highly concentrated and sensationalized form, is Dan Reed’s new PBS Frontline documentary “The Battle for Haiti,” which lauds the United Nations peacekeeping mission and Haitian police chief Mario Andersol for waging a heroic but doomed battle against violent gangs. The film received an supportive, shallow review in the New York Times.

We Must Kill the Bandits”, another new documentary, seemingly destined for obscurity but far more illuminating, examines the same so-called battle from a radically different angle. It’s the work of Kevin Pina, a Creole-speaking American journalist who has identified closely with Haiti’s political Lavalas movement for nearly twenty years. His is a tale of a grassroots struggle, with gang elements within it, straining to survive against an intense campaign of repression and assassination by the Haitian police and UN troops after the 2004 coup d’etat against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Both documentaries have weaknesses, but only one acknowledges them. Early on, Pina says of Lavalas, “This is their story, seen through my eyes and the lens of my camera,” admitting his bias and limited view. Continue reading “Film review: Battle for Haiti and We Must Kill the Bandits”

Inexcusable. Newsweek leads the pack with shallow, ill-informed Haiti journalism. Another media is possible.

Update 11/15: Thanks to everyone spreading the word. The author of the articles in question, Steve Tuttle, can be reached at steve.tuttle@newsweek.com. Also don’t miss this petition directed at the editors that you can sign here. Tuttle emailed me defending the piece a “first-person column,” thanking me for the “thoughtful criticism,” but saying next to nothing of substance. He has not responded to my last message.

Newsweek’s article yesterday, “Haiti in a Time of Cholera,” is not worth reading. Unless you happen to be curious, more than anything, about how alien and depressing Haiti is to Steven Tuttle, the magazine’s staff reporter. He was sent here on a short trip to cover the cholera outbreak.

He followed my satirical guide for journalists parachuting in to Haiti absurdly well.

For him, Haiti’s street traffic “defies all rules of logic and physics.”

For him, UN peacekeepers who appeared to have run over an unnamed Haitian woman, killing her and attempting to hide what happened, don’t merit further investigation or explanation.

More interesting is the young boy who walks by the scene of the accident – an example of “the defining characteristic of Haitians.” They are the “most resilient people on the planet.”

His previous article concludes comparing the Haitian people to a gnarled tree. “That’s what Haitians are like. . .Beautiful and tough.”

But for Newsweek, Haitians are also scary.

Tuttle bravely ventures beyond his hotel, where he broke down in tears one night, to an area called Truitier. He’s frightened by a man he describes as “screaming.”

“I was really glad I didn’t understand Creole because I don’t think I want to know what he said.” He didn’t think to ask his translator, who was driving the vehicle. “I decided I would not get out of the car. This was because I was scared to death.”

I went to Truitier last week by tap-tap and found myself chatting with a group of young men and women. They explained how they postponed their demonstration against waste-dumping because of Hurricane Tomas. We laughed about how unusual it is for blan (foreigners) to be walking on foot. In an earlier trip to Truitier, I followed and talked with people scouring the dump pile itself, looking for things they could sell (see Al Jazeera English’s report yesterday for video of their protest).

I won’t rehash the rest of Tuttle’s sadly predictable yet highly sensational piece. Needless to say, between his two Haiti reports, not a single on-the-street Haitian is quoted.

Take action and write to Newsweek’s editors. Twittering your outrage or complaining to friends is not enough.

I happen to have email addresses for Newsweek’s editors. Andrew Bast is the articles editor: Andrew.Bast@newsweek.com, while Samuel Lennox is the web editor: lennox.samuels@newsweek.com. Continue reading “Inexcusable. Newsweek leads the pack with shallow, ill-informed Haiti journalism. Another media is possible.”

UN Peacekeeper to Photographer (me): Shoot Me and I’ll Shoot You

From Mac McClelland’s latest Haiti dispatch (photo from Gaetantguevera’s photostream):

When I showed this amazing picture to my friend, after she registered what she was looking at, her eyes went huge while she exclaimed, “Oh my god!” with her hand over her mouth. The scene is a protest last week in Port-au-Prince. The guy on the left is a clearly unarmed and videotaping journalist from Texas named Ansel Herz, whom I happened to work with when I was in Haiti last month. The uniformed fellow pointing a gun directly at his face is a United Nations peacekeeper.

I didn’t meet many (okay, any) Haitian fans of MINUSTAH, the UN stabilization force that’s been in the country since 2004. I have, for the record, met some MINUSTAH who are definitely good guys and have, for example, helped a woman in labor get to the hospital, and helped stop a man who was trying to kill his wife for refusing to have sex with him. But the force has also shot civilians. It’s had to have meetings about how not to sexually abuse the Haitian population. In fact, last week’s protest erupted after the UN officially renewed MINUSTAH’s mandate. Some of the protesters’ complaints, which echo those I heard while in-country, are that MINUSTAH doesn’t actually do anything to protect civilians living in filthy, violent, rape-infested displacement camps, and that the money could be better spent dealing with those issues.

I asked Ansel how he ended up on the business end of a UN gun, just in case there was any kind of conflict or missing context surrounding this photo. Not so much, he says: “Maybe they felt threatened by my camera.”

How to Write about Haiti


Actor Sean Penn, who is helping manage a camp of displaced earthquake victims in Haiti, is making pointed criticisms of journalists for dropping the ball on coverage of Haiti. He’s wrong. I’ve been on the ground in Port-au-Prince working as an independent journalist for the past ten months. I’m an earthquake survivor who’s seen the big-time reporters come and go. They’re doing such a stellar job and I want to help out, so I’ve written this handy guide for when they come back on the one-year anniversary of the January quake! (Cross-published on the Huffington Post, inspired by this piece in Granta.)

For starters, always use the phrase ‘the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.’ Your audience must be reminded again of Haiti’s exceptional poverty. It’s doubtful that other articles have mentioned this fact.

You are struck by the ‘resilience’ of the Haitian people. They will survive no matter how poor they are. They are stoic, they rarely complain, and so they are admirable. The best poor person is one who suffers quietly. A two-sentence quote about their misery fitting neatly into your story is all that’s needed.

On your last visit you became enchanted with Haiti. You are in love with its colorful culture and feel compelled to return. You care so much about these hard-working people. You are here to help them. You are their voice. They cannot speak for themselves. Continue reading “How to Write about Haiti”

5 Thoughts On Being An Independent Journalist in Haiti + Open-Sourcing This Work

I’ve been living here for nearly seven months now. This blog is called Mediahacker. Time to reflect on my media work in Haiti, the context in which it’s taking place, and try something new. Continue reading “5 Thoughts On Being An Independent Journalist in Haiti + Open-Sourcing This Work”

Re: Narco News and the ICNC

This is my reply to an open letter and response concerning the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico, which I attended as a student. It’s written in the same spirit as my open letter to Democracy Now!: we must continually evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of independent media in order to be effective. Continue reading “Re: Narco News and the ICNC”