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COHA: Who’s Afraid of the Haitian Media?

Who’s Afraid of the Haitian Media?

One long day in Pointe Noire, on my vacation from volunteer work in the forest, the Congolese painter Trigo Piula and I sat arguing in his jumbled studio about whether there is a spiritual element to canvasses. There was little common ground to be found between us, and after debating at length he gave up on me. He declared that I simply must not be “tuned in,” and to prove his point about “active invisible forces,” he switched on a smooth Congolese radio station before conjuring up yet another image.

If only “tuning in” were always so benign. In 1994, the low droning rant from Hutu extremists on Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines provoked mass slaughter in Rwanda with its lethal mixture of target locations and accompanying calls to arms. “Exterminate the cockroaches,” said the voice, and a people shaped by a colonial culture of submission dutifully hacked their friends and neighbors to pieces. Now, and in our own hemisphere, Haitian print and electronic media have done comparable diabolic work as they relentlessly polarize their country and help to draw a new roadmap for political persecution. The most recent example is the July 21st mobbing and arrest of Father Gérard Jean-Juste, one of the country’s true heroes, for the still unsolved murder of Haitian journalist Jacques Roche, while he was presiding over the latter’s funeral.

A few days before the arrest, as part of the interim Haitian government’s lawless campaign of violence aimed at eliminating supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas party, its potential presidential candidate, Father Jean-Juste, was publicly accused of plotting against the state, instigating kidnappings and importing weapons for distribution to Lavalas, all baseless claims that were repetitions of the ones Karyne Sylvestre broadcasted from Miami on July 14, the same day that Roche’s body was found in one of Port-au-Prince’s most abysmal slums. In a scenario similar to the strategy frequently invoked by the renegade Haitian National Police of placing a gun next to the corpse of the victim, the murder was officially blamed on Lavalas simply because the poor overwhelmingly support Aristide. The silver bullet that led to Father Gérard’s manhandling and arrest was a rightist newspaper’s front-page announcement that he would be present at Roche’s funeral.

“Arrest and kill the rat,” shouted well-rehearsed militants attending the service, when the prelate stepped out in his formal white robe. Menacing young men, obviously not dressed for the mournful occasion, burst into the church, and the resulting uproar soon escalated into spitting, slapping and punching. Along with a U.S. eyewitness, Jean-Juste was led out of the church and hurried to a police truck that transported him to the Petitionville police headquarters. He was told at the station that public clamor had sufficiently identified him as Roche’s assassin. Bizarrely enough, Jean-Juste is now being held in jail for participating in Roche’s murder, even though he was in Florida at the time of the killing.

Reporters Sans Frontières, the U.S.-funded hard-right covert operator, which is not to be confused with its prestigious medical namesake, has placed Aristide on its list of “predators of press freedom.” In a burst of pure propaganda, it claims that the media climate has dramatically improved since Aristide was ousted, but CARLI, one of the more prominent human rights organizations presently operating in Haiti, stated in late 2004 that the overwhelmingly anti-Lavalas Haitian media is the greatest obstacle to ending human rights abuses. The organization estimated that roughly 20 of the 25 radio and print outlets now operating in Haiti are owned or controlled by members of the notorious Group of 184, and dutifully spread the elite’s anti-Lavalas propaganda.

The net result of the homegrown media’s malignant influence on Haiti’s political atmosphere, whose efforts are largely supported by Washington and funded by the European Union, is the creation of murderous conditions and the annihilation of pluralistic institutions. U.S. coverage of Haitian political and media developments remains embarrassingly equivocal and exiguous if not downright false. Our recent interest in journalistic responsibility at home should extend to an environment that Washington insists on manipulating abroad. The ongoing saga of the world’s first black republic merits better telling. Every additional minute that Jean-Juste remains detained, his life becomes more jeopardized. More puddles of blood in Haiti are a further indictment of Washington’s shameful Haiti policy and leadership choices, and also reflect its media’s slip into deeper responsibility for beatings, murders and wholly unjustifiable arrests.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Kathryn Tarker.

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