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On The Globe and Mail's High Standards

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Issue: 39 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Canada Topics: haiti, Globe and Mail

September 8, 2006

On The Globe and Mail's High Standards

The Lancet, Haiti and the manufacture of controversy

by Dru Oja Jay

Prisoners in a Port-au-Prince jail demonstrate on the roof after UN troops were accused of killing prisoners. photo: Randall White/HaitiAction.net
On occasion, a study or report will appear that significantly embarrasses--or even shames--people in positions of power. In such cases, one can expect those who see themselves as being slighted to mobilize their resources to attack those whose findings caused them to suffer. The result is an open battle over who has the ability to state facts without becoming the centre of "controversy."

This is the case with UK-based medical journal The Lancet's recent study that suggests that after the US- and Canada-backed overthrow of Haiti's government, an estimated 8 000 people were killed, and 35 000 women were sexually assaulted in Port-au-Prince. The study, which was peer-reviewed by four advisors, interviewed a random sample of residents of Haiti's capital.

[A similar case involving Human Rights Watch and Lebanon was recently explored in an article by Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook.]

Because Canadian officials have repeatedly claimed that Canada's intervention was conducted in order to improve the human rights situation, and because Canada is responsible for training and vetting the police officers who are named as a significant source of political violence (along with UN soldiers), the report qualifies as embarrassing.

At least two similarly high-profile human rights reports--from teams from the University of Miami and Harvard University--long ago reached very similar conclusions about the coup and the attendant increase in political violence. Despite their thorough documentation, the Canadian media almost entirely ignored both reports.

The Lancet report, perhaps in part due to the publication's high profile, proved harder to ignore. In its last weekend edition, the Montreal Gazette published a front-page story on the findings. The next day, a follow-up story reported that Canadian soldiers had made death threats during house raids and sexually threatened women while off-duty. The report attracted interest from CBC's The Current and As It Happens.

The response to the report, which emerged a few days later, has been characterized by its attempts to discredit the author by raising the standards by which such reports are judged to comical levels of purity.

The Globe and Mail broke from its long-standing de facto policy of not covering human rights reports that allege Canadian malpractice in Haiti with a report by Marina Jimenez under the headline "Author of Lancet article on Haiti investigated: Writer critical of Canadian peacekeepers worked at orphanage founded by Aristide."

The report raises two concerns. First, that nine years ago, Athena Kolbe, one of the report's authors, worked for an orphanage started by Jean Bertrand Aristide. Second, that she once wrote articles under the pseudonym Lyn Duff. There, the substance ends.

Jimenez quotes a letter by Charles Arthur which claims that the study could have been, "skewed or biased in order to exonerate Fanmi Lavalas/Aristide supporters from accusation of involvement in human-rights violations." Jimenez and others do not mention that Arthur and his Haiti Support Group are affiliated with numerous organizations that receive funding directly from the Canadian government as well as Rights and Democracy, an organization created by Canada's Parliament in 1988.

The Guardian, a newspaper with a more progressive reputation than the Globe, also opted to avoid covering the story until the "investigation" became news. The sub-headline reads: "Report appeared to clear Aristide camp of blame," and the story opens with "The Lancet medical journal is investigating complaints that it published a misleading account of violence in Haiti that appears to exonerate the supporters of [Aristide]."

Attentive readers, however, may be confused when they read the actual Lancet report and find the statements like the following: "Political groups on both sides of the spectrum were named as responsible for violent and criminal acts... Lavalas members and partisans of the Lavalas movement were also named as having committed such acts."

But the reason for a story's importance, such as it is, is always in the headlines: the author is being "investigated." It is only through close reading that one determines that the only source cited for the fact of the "investigation" is Kolbe herself and her editors at The Lancet. The patient reader of the Guardian will reach the fourteenth paragraph and discover Lancet publisher Richard Horton stating that, "The Lancet is checking that all the correct procedures for the research were followed."

He adds: "It is not suggested that the Lancet report had misreported its findings or that Ms Kolbe had any other agenda than the welfare of ordinary Haitians at heart."

Investigation, indeed. "Checking" doesn't have quite the same ring to it. (Jimenez, in the end, only cites Kolbe herself to establish the fact of an "investigation"; Kolbe has said she is in fact not being "investigated" and said that Jimenez falsely attributed her statement to that effect.)

In its enthusiasm for objectivity, however, the Globe, the Guardian and the Associated Press, which ran a similar story, may have lost some perspective. The Globe's Jimenez cites Rights and Democracy's Nicholas Galletti, who complains of the "author's background," calling into question a "study 'based on flawed methodology' whereby responsibility for crimes is attributed to groups without a proper criminal investigation or trial."

The question is, to whom does the standard that "responsibility" should not be delegated "without a proper investigation or trial" apply? Rights and Democracy receives millions in annual funding from the Federal Government (the "majority" of its funding, by its own account) and its president is appointed by the prime minister's office. One has only to visit the falsely-named "Non-Governmental Organization's" web site to find numerous reports on human rights that do not adhere to this standard. If it did operate by the same standard, it's not clear how it would be possible to keep track of human rights abuses in countries (Haiti, for example) where such crimes go unprosecuted.

Rights and Democracy's reports do differ in one significant respect, they almost uniformly do not inspire front-page articles that embarrass those in positions of power in Canada.

* * *

Postscript: This is not the first time that the Lancet has been attacked for a study examining the impact of a military invasion on human rights. An analyst at the UK's MediaLens pointed out some of the inconsistencies in the media's coverage of various Lancet reports.

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