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The Freedom of the Press Barons

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Issue: 42 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Latin America Haiti Topics: democracy, media

February 1, 2007

The Freedom of the Press Barons

The media and the 2004 Haiti coup

by Isabel Macdonald

Anne-Marie Issa, Director of Radio Signal FM, Vice President of the Association Nationale des Medias Haitiens, and Steering Committee Member of the Group of 184

In February 2004, the US, Canadian and French governments supported an illegal coup d’etat that overthrew Haiti’s democratically elected government of the Lavalas party, led by Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In late 2003, “civil society” groups--financed and supported through US and Canadian government-funded “democracy enhancement” programs--began calling for Aristide’s ouster. They were joined in early February 2004 by armed terror squads. In the pre-dawn hours of February 29, 2004, President Jean Bertrand Aristide, who had been elected with 92 per cent of the popular vote, was forcibly removed from Haiti on a US government airplane, while Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 secured the airport.

Critics of the 2004 coup d’etat in Haiti have argued that biased international media coverage played a role in justifying the coup and Canada’s involvement. However, in interviews that I conducted as part of a research trip to Haiti in late 2005 and early 2006, many of the leaders of the US, Canadian and French government-backed movement that toppled Haiti’s elected government went much further in their assessment of the media’s role of the media in the coup.

In the eyes of Guy Philippe, the US Special Forces-trained commander who led the armed movement against Aristide, the “international media, the media leaders helped us a lot. And thanks to them we were able to overthrow the dictator. And without them I don’t think that we could have.” Leaders of the aforementioned “civil society” groups also emphasized that the media were very important in their movement. The Association National des Medias Haitiens (ANMH), an association of the owners of the largest Haitian commercial media stations in Port-au-Prince, was formally a member of the anti-Aristide “civil society” coalition. In the lead-up to the coup, the ANMH, which meets weekly, acted as a space of “co-ordination, decision making, enabling the different commercial media outlets to forge agreements” and enabling a “very strong impact on public opinion,” according to one of its members. As the association’s vice president explained, “It was our own way as the media to combat the dictatorship”. She added that the ANMH media owners "made it our job to cover all the demonstrations" against Aristide.

Many anti-Aristide demonstration organizers report that they were able to advertise their events for free on these stations, and many of the 184-affiliated media organizations had a policy of refraining from identifying the anti-Aristide demonstrators’ numbers (particularly if they were not impressive). As one ANMH media owner explained, “we always support the pro-democracy demonstrations,” and “sometimes we advance fantastical numbers because we don’t want the public to draw the wrong conclusion.” He added that if a group has 10 people but they want you to say 2000 or 300,000, if you say 10…you can make enemies, you can damage the group and their credibility. It can create animosity, so it’s better not to talk about…if the media are interested in the greatest number of people coming out…they will talk about how [the demonstration] is just starting.

In this context, one anti-Aristide demonstration organizer reports that at one demonstration in January 2003, “we were 20,” but when they called in to the radio, “we said we were thousands.”

In contrast, many Haitian commercial media organizations did not cover the pro-Lavalas demonstrations that were taking place around the same time and which were, according to independent journalist Kevin Pina, often much larger in size. In fact, in the lead-up to the coup, they instituted an ANMH-wide ban barring Aristide, the president of Haiti, from speaking on the airwaves. When the ANMH stations did provide coverage of pro-Lavalas events, meaningful media access for Lavalas-affiliated organizers was completely precluded. The ANMH’s Radio Signal FM continued to report on Lavalas events; however, the goal of this coverage was, in the words of one of its journalists, “to be there at the chimere’s[an epithet commonly used to refer to Lavalas supporters as gangsters] demonstrations because [we] had to inform the population that there was a risk…Aristide’s partisans are known to be violent and we described their violence—that’s all.” ANMH journalists whom I interviewed reported heavy editorial pressures from their bosses.

Several Canadian and international newswire journalists told me they relied on the ANMH radio stations, particularly the association’s Radio Metropole station, around the time of the coup. One deputy bureau chief at a major international newswire agency stated that the agency’s staff reporter in Haiti “relied heavily on Radio… Metropole, [sweatshop owner and coup leader André] Apaid’s radio stations;” it made him “wonder if we could trust any of what we’d been reporting.” However, many international journalists, including Canadian journalists, were relying on this wire service in the lead-up to the coup.

Canadian journalists’ reliance on ANMH sources has a broader institutional dimension. The Haitian media owners’ association has a longstanding relationship with Reseau Liberté, an NGO whose staff includes CBC and Radio Canada journalists, and which is financed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). According to CIDA, this Canadian tax-payer funded alliance between Canadian journalists and the anti-Aristide media owners cartel is sowing the seeds for the development of “professional journalism,” which is a cornerstone of the Canadian government’s promotion of “democracy” in Haiti. US and Canadian government-sponsored “democracy promotion” is generally acknowledged by critical researchers to promote a model of rule by elites, in which popular participation is curbed. In other words, these programs seek to export the very same undemocratic systems that are a hallmark of political life in the US and Canada. It could be said that Canada promotes the “professional journalism” needed for “democracy” by supporting the Haitian equivalents of Conrad Black.

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The press and the coup in Haiti

Thank you for a remarkable and well-researched article. I would like to post it to Haitianalysis.com, with the Dominion's permission.

Please check out this article I wrote on the same subject for Counterpunch: http://counterpunch.org/barahona02032007.html

Diana Barahona

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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