Originally: Media Assault

Media Assault
By Raymond A. Joseph


 When a popular radio station shuts down operations for an indefinite time to forestall fatal attacks by bandits and journalists flee their country for their lives, something must be terribly wrong.

The news was disturbing enough for The New York Times to print it in last Saturday?s issue. Radio Haiti Inter, formerly a powerful voice for the Lavalas movement, suspended broadcasting on February 22, nearly three years after the assassination of its owner, Jean Leopold Dominique, Haiti?s most influential journalist at the time.

 Announcing her decision in a broadcast February 21, Michele Montas, Mr. Dominique?s widow, cited ?constant threats and evident dangers. ? We have lost three lives and we refuse to lose another one.? She was referring to her husband who was shot dead in the yard of the station in Port-au-Prince with the station?s caretaker, on April 3, 2000, and one bodyguard killed last Christmas Day in front of her home. ?We don?t know exactly when we will go back on the air,? she said, ?but we will not take exile for a third time, because we have only freedom of expression as a weapon.?

Ms. Montas left Haiti the next day to attend the screening last Sunday of ?The Agronomist,? by award winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme at the Miami International Film Festival. Jacqueline Charles of The Miami Herald reported Saturday that Mr. Demme?s work and ?Something in the Air,? a Brazilian film shown at the festival, ?explicitly address freedom of the press.? Apparently the trials of Ms. Montas have shaken the editorial board of The Miami Herald, as an editorial Wednesday attests. ?Attacks on the media,? the editorial states, ?and the failure of the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to stop the attacks or to punish the perpetrators are clear evidence of Haiti?s simmering political anarchy.? The violence against journalists has been so glaring that the Inter American Press Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists recently released detailed reports on the deteriorating situation.

 Following death threats against one of its reporters whose car was firebombed in his garage February 14, the prestigious Radio Metropole in Port-au-Prince suspended broadcasting news on February 18 as a symbolic gesture. Management issued a statement on the situation. ?We have always avoided protesting publicly against the intimidating intrigues, the physical and verbal threats against our news people by intolerant individuals claiming to be from the government,? Metropole wrote. ?However, after the attack of Februaryl 14 against Goudou Jean Numa, ? we have decided to make public the various threats and acts of aggression visited upon our journalists.? Metropole listed the names of 12 other journalists who were threatened, harassed, beaten and forced into exile by the thugs allied with the ruling party.

The case of Rotchild Francois, the director of information, is chilling. After an interview with a government official regarding the intention of Justice about fugitive Amiot ?Cuban? Metayer, the leader of the ?Cannibal Army? called Mr. Francois to tell him: ?You better mind your own business!? (By the way, the reporter whose car was recently firebombed has gone into hiding.)

Early last week, six journalists who were air-lifted to Port-au-Prince three months earlier to escape death at the hands of the Cannibal chief left Haiti to seek asylum in the Dominican Republic, France and the United States. They join about 30 others who have been streaming out of Haiti since December 2001 following the hacking to death of popular radio personality Brignol Lindor in Petit Goave, an anti-Aristide bastion. The Lavalas militants of the pro-Aristide ?Sleep in the Woods? organization claimed responsibility for the gruesome act at noontime, after the assistant mayor of the city had called three days earlier for ?zero tolerance? for Brignol Lindor. The victim had the effrontery of interviewing opposition people on his popular broadcast. Although the government arrested some of the individuals involved in the murder of the journalist, it has refused to arrest others, including the assistant mayor.  

The tradition of wanton violence continued in Petit Goave during the funeral of Micky Fleurilus on February 18. While the minister of the Interior in charge of national security and that of Public Works were in town together with the chief of the National Police, the Lavalas thugs burned down the house of Montigene Sincere, a correspondent for the New York-based Radio Haiti Focus, and ransacked the home of Deus Jean-Francois, an opposition political leader. The government blamed the opposition for the murder of Mr. Fleurilus. But the human rights organization National Coalition for Haitian Rights, or NCHR, said its preliminary investigation reveals that Mr. Fleurilus was the victim of an intra-Lavalas fight. Now NCHR is targeted as an enemy, and the militants have asked the government to revoke its license to operate as a bona fide organization in the country.

Meanwhile, NCHR, which formerly was close to Lavalas, has joined Human Rights Watch, the International Human Rights Law Group, the Washington Office on Latin America and the Haiti Democracy Project, in a letter to President Aristide in which they urge him to investigate death threats against various individuals, including some personnel of NCHR. The organization said it is ?concerned that this new wave of threats comes at a time of increasing instability. ?At present, the freedoms of expression and association are at a high risk [affecting] members of the press,  ? of the judiciary, students from the State University and the medical staff of the general hospital.? 
As The Miami Herald editorial said, ?The pattern of the attacks show that the incidents aren?t isolated and that the Aristide government, whether deliberately or through ineptness, is unable to stop them.? It concludes by calling on the Bush administration to ?change current U.S. policy to reflect this new reality.?
Hopefully, the recently nominated American ambassador to Haiti, James D. Foley will have new instructions to deal with an emerging violent dictatorship so close to the U.S. Perhaps he will reinforce whatever message the pope?s special envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, delivered to Mr. Aristide during his five-day stay in Port-au-Prince last week. Interestingly, the cardinal?s other mission the previous week took him to Baghdad where he met with Saddam Hussein.
Certainly the problem of tiny Haiti, in America?s ?backyard? shouldn?t be that intractable for a freedom loving United States that is on a worldwide campaign against terrorists who threaten the rule of law and the establishment of democracy.