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Counterbalance to Reality

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Issue: 23 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Latin America Haiti Topics: media

November 6, 2004

Counterbalance to Reality

Canadian Media on Haiti

by Dru Oja Jay

US-appointed interim Prime Minister Latortue. The Canadian press has largely ignored substantive criticism of his regime. photo: White House
Editors place a great deal of importance on maintaining the appearance of objectivity and impartiality. Sometimes this leads to "forced balance", a term first used by media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). FAIR was referring to coverage of the US elections, where it found that journalists were assuming "that both sides must be found equally guilty," and attempted to dig up the same amount of dirt on both candidates, even when doing so misrepresented the events being covered.

There are no Canadian journalists filing regularly from Haiti. As a result, media coverage of the situation has come almost entirely from the US-based Associated Press (AP). The CBC, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and National Post have all relied heavily, in some cases exclusively, on AP stories.

In the case of the situation in Haiti, the AP has taken the practice of forced balance to extreme lengths, using facts that are nominally accurate to construct a depiction that is directly at odds with reality.

There are two basic narratives that have appeared in Canadian newspapers: Aristide supporters attacking police, and thousands starving in the aftermath of hurricane-related natural disasters.

For example, the Globe and Mail's online edition offered the following headlines over the month of October: "Haiti struggles to stem unrest"; "S. Africa denies allowing Aristide to plan uprising"; "UN peacekeepers wounded in Haiti"; "UN soldier wounded in gun battle in Haiti"; "UN, police move into Haiti slum to curb gangs"; "Wave of unrest sweeps Haiti after devastation of floods"; "Haitian gangs causing havoc"; "Massive effort strives to stave off famine in Haiti"; and "Peacekeepers, police storm Haiti's Bel Air".

The cycle of violence that has been the focus of these reports began on September 30th, when a massive protest demanding Aristide's return had been planned. According to reports from independent observers and the Haiti Information Project (a group of independent journalists in Haiti), the march began at approximately10 a.m., with an estimated 10,000 participating, and many thousands more expected later in the day. Although the organizers had received permits approved by the government, the Haitian National Police (PNH) began shooting into the crowd at 10:30 a.m.

Initial AP reports ignored this incident almost completely, focussing instead on three police officers that were killed in a counterattack by armed Haitians, presumably Aristide supporters. AP reports gave prominent placement to assertions by government officials that three policemen had been decapitated in an action that was reportedly named "Operation Baghdad" by the resistance. However, human rights officials were never allowed access to the bodies to determine what had happened. The AP only acknowledged the PNH's attack on the crowd in later reports, which described the attack as mere "allegations" by protesters, despite interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue's admission that at least two people were killed.

According to independent journalist Kevin Pina, many other atrocities are being ignored by the international press. Pina points to the 600 corpses that appeared in a Port-au-Prince morgue in the month of October. Widespread reports of repression, arrests, and murder of Aristide supporters have scarcely been covered by the AP, which only reports that "at least 50" people have been killed.

"When I read the international press, I'm not sure that I'm living in the country they are describing," Pina told a reporter.

Amnesty International recently reported that "the interim government has swiftly moved to arrest members of former President Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas Party," which it accuses of corruption, "but has not acted with the same commitment against accused or convicted perpetrators of grave human rights violations". Most recently, Amnesty has condemned the arrest of Jean Juste, a Haitian priest and popular advocate of poor people.

Some have described Amnesty's criticism as soft, given that the government acknowledges that Haitian prisons were emptied of common criminals, murders and thieves, and have since been filled with thousands of dissidents.

On October 27, 30 members of the United States Congress called for the release of political prisoners in Haiti. Signatories included former candidate for leadership of the Democratic party Dennis Kucinich, Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and James McGovern. Earlier this summer, 32 members of the US Congressional Black Caucus refused to meet with Latortue, referring to him as a "puppet".

AP stories have not mentioned any of these, or any of the many other human rights reports and experts that make similar claims.

Despite extensive coverage, the AP (and thus, Canadian media), media reports have almost universally neglected strong criticisms of the US-appointed government's handling of the humanitarian situation in Haiti. In a news release, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington DC-based research institute, explained that

Latortue and his confederates were not even competent enough to take the basic step of establishing an emergency national radio grid over which they could have broadcast calls to the population to go to high ground in order to escape from the flooding. This abdication of responsibility alone should have been enough to justify calling for his and his colleagues' resignations.

In a September 23 interview with Flashpoints, Kevin Pina explained that the Civil Protection Bureau, a network of community-based disaster relief organizations organized under the Aristide administration, had been dismantled since Aristide's ouster on February 29. "People who were associated with [the Civil Protection Bureau] were also driven from their offices, [their] offices were burned, and they were driven into hiding," said Pina.

No mention of these criticisms, or the facts behind them, was made in any of the Canadian coverage of the situation in Haiti. With these criticisms in mind, one might imagine that a lively debate might ensue about the manner in which Paul Martin's liberal government handled the situation in Haiti. The government chose to ignore President Aristide's pleas for help with security for a full month, sending in troops only after Aristide had been removed from office by US Marines.

As it stands, such a debate is not possible, as the most basic and essential facts about Haiti's ongoing crisis are not available in the media sources that most Canadians rely on.

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