Friday, August 21, 2009

A note on Jeb Sprague and Wadner Pierre's reporting of the Ronald Dauphin case in Haiti

In an era during which, in my own country, right-wing groups such as FreedomWorks are advising opponents of healthcare reform on how best to disrupt public discussion of America’s appalling healthcare system, it is useful to cast a skeptical eye towards conflicts of interest among those reporting the news. Talking points created by political operatives are then parroted by a compliant media, reiterated by politically-sponsored, ostensibly “grassroots,” groups are then re-reported by sympathetic media outlets as news. It is an old and often surprisingly transparent trick.

Aside from the cable network rantings of Fox News and CNN’s immigrant-hating Lou Dobbs, it is hard for me to think of a more obvious example of the phenomenon of echo chamber news than a recent article on Haiti titled “Calls Mount to Free Lavalas Activist” written for the Inter Press Service by Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague.

The article concerns Ronald Dauphin, a former customs worker in the central Haitian city of St. Marc and partisan of the Fanmi Lavalas political party of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide,

Though Pierre and Sprague’s article describes Dauphin as “a Haitian political prisoner,” according to a St. Marc-based group, the Association des Victimes du Génocide de la Scierie (AVIGES), and a Haitian human rights group, the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), Dauphin was also an enthusiastic participant in a massacre of Aristide opponents and civilians that took place in the town in February 2004.

During that time, Dauphin, who was known in St. Marc as Black Ronald, was affiliated with a pro-Aristide paramilitary group, Bale Wouze ("Clean Sweep"). According to local residents, Bale Wouze, working in tandem with the Police Nationale de Haiti (PNH) and the Unité de Sécurité de la Garde du Palais National (USGPN), a unit directly responsible for the president's personal security, swept through the neighborhood of La Scierie, killing political activists affiliated with an armed anti-government group, the Rassemblement des militants conséquents de Saint-Marc (Ramicos), as well as civilians, committing instances of gang rape, and looting and burning property.

When I visited St. Marc in February 2004, shortly after Bale Wouze's raid into La Scierie, I interviewed USGPN personnel and Bale Wouze members who were patrolling the city as a single armed unit in tandem the PNH. A local priest told me matter-of-factly at the time of Bale Wouze that, "These people don't make arrests, they kill." According to a member of a Human Rights Watch delegation that visited St. Marc a month after the killings, at least 27 people were murdered in St. Marc between Feb. 11 and Aristide's flight into exile on February 29.

On a return visit to St. Marc in June of this year, researching for my article "We Have Never Had Justice," I spoke with individuals such as 49-year old Amazil Jean-Baptiste, whose son, Kenol St. Gilles, was murdered, and 44 year-old Marc Ariel Narcisse, whose cousin, Bob Narcisse, was killed. It is difficult to spend a morning chatting with the people of La Scierie without concluding that something very awful happened to them in 2004, a trauma from which they have yet to recover and for which they still seek justice.

Following the massacre in St. Marc, Dauphin was arrested in 2004. He subsequently escaped from jail, was re-arrested during the course of an anti-kidnapping raid in July 2006, and, like 81 percent those in Haiti’s prisons, been held without trial ever since.

In their recent article, Pierre and Sprague take particular aim at Haiti’s RNDDH human rights group, deferring instead to the U.S-based Institute for Justice and Democracy (IJDH), a group that has been particularly vociferous in its denunciations of possible governmental culpability for the St. Marc killings, and which described Ronald Dauphin in a June 2009 press release as “a Haitian grassroots activist, customs worker and political prisoner,” language curiously mimicked in the Sprague/Pierre article, and which makes no mention of the testimonies of the people of St. Marc.

Though they are never mentioned in the article, the deep and ongoing links between Mr. Aristide, Fanmi Lavalas, IJDH, Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague - links of which the Inter Press Service is aware but has chosen to ignore - have effectively blurred the line between political advocacy, human rights work and journalism.

One needs only to look at the chairman of IJDH’s Board of Directors, Miami attorney Ira Kurzban - also one of the group’s founders - to realize the deeply compromised nature of the organization's work. According to U.S. Department of Justice filings, between 2001 and 2004 Mr. Kurzban’s law firm received $4,648,964 from the Aristide government on behalf of its lobbying efforts, gobbling up from Haiti’s near-bankrupt state more than 2,000 times the average yearly income of the more than 7 million people there who survive on less that $2 per day. Since Mr. Aristide’s subsequent exile, Mr. Kurzban has frequently identified himself as the former president’s personal attorney in the United States. In vintage FreedomWorks fashion, Mr. Kuzban also had to be calmed by security personnel when he hysterically and repeatedly interrupted a reading that I was giving at the 2005 Miami Book Fair.

In IJDH’s 2005 annual report, Mr. Kurzban’s firm is listed in the category reserved for those having contributed more than $5000 to the organization, while in the group’s 2006 report, the firm is listed under “Donations of Time and Talent.”. The American Immigration Lawyers Association, South Florida Chapter, for which Mr. Kurzban served as past national president and former general council, is listed in a section reserved for those having donated $10,000 or more

Though Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague’s elevation of IJDH to an undeserved legitimacy and slander of RNDDH (a group which, despite its advocacy on behalf of the St. Marc victims, has also defended the rights and advocated on behalf of members of the Fanmi Lavalas party) are distasteful, they don’t quite rise to the level of intentional duplicity that another bit of information suggests.

In a stark conflict of interest, Wadner Pierre was once employed by a Haitian legal organization, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, which, according to the IJDH’s own website, received “most of its support from the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.” Pierre has also previously contributed text and photographs to the IJDH website lauding the April 2007 release of Amanus Mayette, another suspect of the St. Marc massacre.

Put simply, when writing about the IJDH, Wadner Pierre is quoting his former employer without acknowledging it as such, a sleight of hand that opponents of health reform in my own country, for example, would recognize immediately.

For his part, Jeb Sprague, the article’s other author, first made himself known to me in November 2005, when he emailed me, unsolicited, a graphic picture of the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked bodies of a Haitian mother and her children along with a smiley-face emoticon and a semi-coherent tirade against the the World Bank and the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, DC think tank.

Intimations of violence against my person aside, such a display struck me as less than a class act in giving those sacrificed on the altar of Haiti's fratricidal political violence the respect they deserve. Since then, Sprague has graduated to obsessively slandering progressive elements deemed insufficiently loyal to Haiti’s disgraced former president, such as the U.K.-based Haiti Support Group, and now works as a teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Sociology Department, focusing on crime and delinquency, subjects with which his past behavior no doubt gives him a close familiarity.

Taken in total, it is unfortunate that the Inter Press Service, an organization that promotes itself as “civil society's leading news agency,” would allow itself to be used as a front for such propaganda, and throw its weight behind the paid political hacks and human rights abusers who have for too long dominated politics in Haiti. As a fairly legitimate news source, as opposed to, say, the red-faced shouting of Fox News, the Inter Press Service owes its readers, and the people of Haiti, better.


ansel said...

You raise some valid concerns over apparent conflicts of interest that should probably be made transparent to IPS readers.

But on what basis do you call Dauphin an "enthusiastic participant" in the La Scierie "massacre"? Isn't AVIGES is closely connected to NCHR, an advocacy group for the opposition to Aristide? You neglect to mention in your post that both the U.N. and Amnesty International characterize what took place in La Scierie as a "clash" between two armed groups. Amnesty says the events of that day require further investigation - in the meantime, they've issued an appeal to that Haitian government to release Dauphin pending trial.

These seem like relevant facts and it's odd that you omit them.

Michael Deibert said...

Thank you for your comment, Ansel.

To answer your question, “on what basis do you call Dauphin an "enthusiastic participant" in the La Scierie "massacre,” (quotes around massacre in your original), I again cite the following passage in my original post:

“According to a St. Marc-based group, the Association des Victimes du Génocide de la Scierie (AVIGES), and a Haitian human rights group, the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), Dauphin was also an enthusiastic participant in a massacre.”

Unlike the United Nations special expert and Amnesty International (whose previous releases on Haiti have often contained gross factual errors), I have actually spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time in St. Marc, interviewing the resident of La Scierie, including the period during which it was largely under the control of Bale Wouze. I am not unique in this, as corespondents for National Public Radio, the Miami Herald and several local Haitian radio stations who were in St. Marc during February 2004 saw Bale Wouze members parading fully armed in tandem with members of Haiti’s security forces. RNDDH has spent many hours in St, Marc, interviewing residents and gathering evidence from AVIGES, which, like RNDDH and unlike the IJDH, is a local, indigenous Haitian organization, not one imposed upon residents from the outside.

It is perplexing to me that you would call NCHR (as RNDDH was perviously known) “an advocacy group for the opposition to Aristide.” If you had studied Haiti’s recent history, you would know that, unlike the IJDH, the RNDDH does not advocate for human rights on a basis of political affiliation.

For example, RNDDH strenuously protested against the arbitrary and illegal arrest in May 2004 of the former Fanmi Lavalas Mayor of Delmas, Dr. Jean Maxon Guerrier (, the August 2004 not-guilty verdict in the case of anti-Aristide leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain ( and the warrantless October 2004 arrests of Lavalas leaders Yvon Feuille, Gerald Gilles, and Rudy Hériveaux ( I believe that it is precisely because of this neutral and objective approach that Haiti’s political elite view RNDDH as such a threat.

Comment is free, as the Guardian newspaper is fond of saying, but facts are sacred

ansel said...

Thanks for your reply, Michael.

I can't speak from on-the-ground experience like you. I've only read some things that make me question NCHR's neutrality. This seemingly well-researched piece is one of them. You call it an indigenous Haitian group, unlike IJDH, but according to the linked article NCHR was funded in large part by the Canadian government.

I'm not inclined to trust that group more than Amnesty Intl. You may personally distrust Amnesty's work on Haiti, but it's a generally reputable organization and I don't think your reporting is well served by ignoring their stance on Dauphin's case.

Michael Deibert said...

Part 1

Hi again, Ansel, and thanks again for your message, as well as the link to the piece by Kevin Skerrett. Like the researchers of Amnesty International, Kevin Skerrett was not in Haiti in February 2004, and it would be interesting to look at some of the reporting of those who were in St. Marc at the time.

In the article “Town taken from rebels feels heat of reprisal," filed by Marika Lynch for the Miami Herald on 24 February 2004, Lynch writes the following:

“St. Marc has been under a terrifying lockdown by the police and a gang of armed pro-Aristide civilians called Clean Sweep...Residents say many more than 15 have died here in the retaliation attacks, but apparently nobody has tried to make a full accounting of the bodies. There haven't been many funerals, either -- people are too afraid, or haven't been able to recover the dead.”

Thus, when Skerrett claims that no media outlets reported the violence in St. Marc, this is simply false. This says nothing of the reporting of Haitian radio outlets at the time, as well, but this is perhaps a whole other story.

In my viw, Skerrett quickly reveals his own agenda by referring to the revolt against Aristide as a “death squad rebellion,” never admitting to his readers the fact that the revolt began not in February 2004, with the appearance of Guy Philippe and Louis Jodel-Chamblain, but rather with the September 2003 murder of Amiot Metayer, a gang leader in the northern city of Gonaives whom for many years led a pro-Aristide street gang named the Cannibal Army. For a description of the circumstances surrounding Metayer’s murder and why the gang then turned against the Aristide government, I would recommend reading Chapter 10 of my book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Syruggle for Haiti, which covers the 1994-2004 period in Haiti. Skerrett’s statement that the revolt against Aristide was “an armed ‘rebellion’ that began in nearby Gonaives on February” is thus false. I also noticed that Skerrett quotes from the famous 2004 University of Miami law school report, but never bothers to mention that University of Miami Law School Center for the Study of Human Rights director Irwin Stotzky, who was instrumental in preparing the report, received almost $9,000 from Aristide attorney Ira Kurzban’s law firm in 3 separate payments between 2001 and 2002.

I likewise find Skerrett’s argument in favour of Neptune’s innocence as unconvincing as I find the arguments that Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez, et al do not somehow bear moral responsibility for the CIA’s torture program simply because they never tortured anyone themselves.

When Neptune flew to St. Marc just before the massacre commenced, Bale Wouze and Haitian security forces were operating in obvious collusion, and Neptune told a press conference that "the national police force alone cannot re-establish order". This can all be read in my recent article for the Inter Press Service on the killings. Likewise, at the time, Neptune was serving as the head of the Conseil Superieur de la Police Nationale d'Haiti. If he didn’t know that the police force he ostensibly headed was collaborating with a paramilitary group to commit widespread human rights violations, not just in St. Marc but all across Haiti, he should have known,

Like Ms. Lynch of the Miami Herald, I did in fact interview Bale Wouze members in St. Marc in February 2004, an experience that nearly cost me my life and which can be read about in my book.

(End Part I)

Michael Deibert said...

Part II

Now onto the question of the relative credibility of Amnesty International and RNDDH and whom should a well-intentioned person, seeking to support genuine human rights advocates in Haiti, trust?

In my experience reporting from conflict areas around the globe, local groups such as RNDDH are almost always more reliable in their estimations and characterizations of violence than Amnesty International, which, unlike Human Rights Watch, does precious little on-the-ground research from conflict zones these days and instead is essentially run by bureaucrats filtering through press accounts and the emails they are flooded with by various advocacy groups.

Amnesty International has done almost no original research in Haiti since 2004. RNDDH, on the other hand, with its extensive research network in Haiti and defense of those regardless of political affiliation, seems to me to fit well into the proud tradition of such groups as the Centro para Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos in Guatemala, the Mouvement Ivoirien des Droits Humains in Cote d’Ivoire and the Ligue des Droits de la personne dans la région des Grands Lacs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In terms of the credibility of the UN’s own assessment of what happened in St. Marc, if you read French, the open letter that AVIGES wrote to Louis Joinet is worth reading:

As I have written before, though RNDDH did receive C$100,000 (US$85,382) from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in 2004 (even though most of its funding comes from organizations such as Christian Aid, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Lutheran World Federation), the group’s objectivity in advocating for all victim’s of injustice could hardly be said to have been compromised, as their public defense of the rights of such Lavalas leaders as Jean Maxon Guerrier, Yvon Feuille, Gerald Gilles, and Rudy Hériveaux attests. This is a commitment to a non-political defense of human rights that IJDH/BAI have never shown.

I guess the question to ask oneself is this: Who are the people trying to re-write the history of what happened in St. Marc in February 2004, and why are they doing it?

All best,