Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Inter Press Service led astray in Haiti?

The Inter Press Service (IPS), an organization to which I have been a proud contributor on three continents since mid-2006, has a long tradition of insightful and challenging reporting from Haiti, as typified by the stories filed by journalists like Jane Regan and Amy Bracken. Describing itself as “civil society's leading news agency,” IPS has always struck me as an outlet with a singularly worthy mission in an era or ever-more scaled back and dumbed-down foreign coverage.

All of which may explains why some who have contacted me in recent months have viewed the recent Haiti coverage by IPS with some disappointment and dismay. In place of the articles such as Bracken’s thoroughgoing coverage of the 2006 elections there, or Regan’s perceptive examination of the nation’s history of political violence, IPS readers are now treated to passages such as the following:

"The inhabitants do not forgive former de facto Prime Minister Gerard Latortue for not even helping his birthplace. The officials elected in 2006 sit in Port-au-Prince speaking French and awaiting the patronage festivals to give some gourds to the priests of the parishes to show how close they are to the people," he said bitterly.

The passage, taken from an October 17th article titled “After the Deluge, Residents Turn to Each Other” by Wadner Pierre and ostensibly quoting a man named “Rogest” speaking in a stilted, press-release style in which I have never heard a Haitian speak before, is indicative of the stridently partisan tone IPS’ coverage of Haiti has taken in recent months, replete with the conflicts of interests of some of the correspondents currently reporting for the agency as well as the erratic, unstable, and often plainly dishonest background of others.

Following an amusingly frothing attempt at vilification of some of IPS’ long-standing correspondents earlier this year by a handful of affluent white North American “activists” whose slavish adherence to former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his now-marginal Fanmi Lavalas political party is matched only by their ignorance of the country (most notably with the idea that Haitian history began in February 2004) and its culture (not a Kreyol speaker among them), this particular current of thought began doing what one would of supposed would have been a logical first step: Writing and filing articles on the situation in Haiti. No problem thus far, of course, as a plurality of challenging, dissenting views should be heard on any given subject (though that is not a point of view this current, given to intolerance and defaming of those who think differently, would endorse). However, the problem arises when advocacy, often paid advocacy, for Haiti’s political actors masquerades as journalism.

I have never met Wadner Pierre, who is Haitian and may very well be a personable sort of fellow, but the tenor of his reporting for IPS thus far, characterized by a marked hostility to the elected government of Haitian President René Préval, and an inability or uniwllingess to criticize anything in the 2001-2004 Aristide II regime, might be explained by a closer look at his resume.

In several instances (here and here and here), Wadner Pierre is identified as an employee of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI). The BAI is the Haiti-affiliate organization of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), headed attorney Brian Concannon, who was employed by the Aristide government as an attorney from 2001 until 2004. In the IJDH's annual report, the organization directs donations to be sent to P.O. Box 806, Key Biscayne, Florida, 33149, where Mr. Aristide's personal attorney, Ira Kurzban, resides. The IJDH's annual report also lists Kurzban as one of its main donors, as well as "one of the founders" and "a member of the Board of Directors" in a March 2005 letter to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights head Santiago A. Canton.

On the IJDH’s own website the organization has the following to say about its links with the BAI:

The Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Port-au-Prince, has helped victims prosecute human rights cases, trained Haitian lawyers and spoken out on justice issues since 1995. The BAI used to receive most of its support from Haiti's constitutional governments, but since February 2004, it has received most of its support from the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), and no support from any government or political organization.

If the IJDH or the BAI have ever criticized Mr. Aristide or the Fanmi Lavalas party for any violence they have been responsible for, or called for justice on behalf of the many victims among the regime's opponents in any statement, I have never read it.

The IJDH, like the BAI, is a political pressure group whose sole mission, I believe, is to undermine the Préval government and the UN presence in Haiti in order to facilitate the return of Mr. Aristide to political power in Haiti. One can and should report critically on moves by both the UN and Préval, but one should not simply repeat as facts the tired lies of political actors discredited in Haiti a long time ago, pocketing simultaneously with both hands money from a legitimate journalistic outlet and an organization working to bring about the aims described above. And it would be the height of condescension not to hold Haitian journalists to the same standards when it comes to declaring conflicts of interest that one would hold foreign journalists to reporting from the country.

The quoting of Mr. Concannon in a July 2007 piece co-authored with Jeb Sprague (in effect, quoting his employer without acknowledging it as such) is further proof of this highly unusual muddying of the waters of a journalist’s mission, with Concannon's quote being followed with the statement that international lenders "reacted further by cutting off nearly all support to the aid-dependent but privatization-weary state" because Aristide "refused untrammeled privatization,” which is simply false. International aid to Haiti was suspended after the fraudulent 1997 and 2000 legislative elections, as even a cursory review of Haiti's recent history shows.

Jeb Sprague, for his part, an evidently deranged eternal “graduate student” from Long Beach, California who first announced his existence to me by emailing me (unsolicited) photos of bullet-riddled corpses, is known chiefly for his obsessive slandering of progressive elements in the Haiti debate deemed insufficiently loyal to Haiti’s disgraced former government. His libelous allegations against Charles Arthur, director of the U.K.-based Haiti Support Group, in connection with a now-discredited “study” of violence in Port-au-Prince conducted by an Aristide acolyte being a particularly notable example.

IPS is a fine organization with many talented writers and journalists working hard to bring out stories that much of the news media would just as soon not bother covering. They do, however, owe the people of Haiti, more objective and less partisan and compromised coverage than they are providing for them at present. I am confident, though, with the superior journalists, both Haitian and foreign, that I have seen reporting in Haiti over the years, that the editors responsible for IPS’ Caribbean coverage will come to their senses eventually and treat the country and the issues confronting it with the respect that they deserve.

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