Monday, October 30, 2006

A chill wind through foreign coverage?

When I heard this summer that Newsday, a newspaper I often write for, was closing its bureaus in Beirut and Islamabad after the scheduled terms of correspondents Mohamad Bazzi and Jim Rupert expire over the next two years, I felt again another sensations of the fingers of the bottom line tightening around the throat of responsible, authoritative, on-the-ground coverage as it appears in America's newspapers. Newsday's move is by no means unique. The Tribune Co., Newsday's corporate owner, is also closing down the Moscow and Johannesburg bureaus of The Baltimore Sun over the next two years, following the shelving of the paper's Beijing and London bureaus last year. The Miami Herald, which likes to regard itself at the last word on Latin America and is owned by McClatchy (which consumed Knight Ridder's foreign bureaus earlier this year), now attempts to cover all of South America with only one staff correspondent, the able Steve Dudley, based in Bogota, and two freelancers, in Caracas and Lima.

In fact, a recent article by Sherry Ricchiardi in the American Journalism Review noted that, when war erupted between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon this past summer, The Washington Post was forced to fly in correspondent Edward Cody from his Beijing headquarters to help cover the violence, McClatchy ordered in reporters from Cairo, Nairobi, and Fort Worth, Texas and the New York Times sped Hassan Fatah in from Dubai. Forced with Tribune Company demands that he make deep cuts in the paper's reportorial and editorial staff, Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet publicly opposed the cuts, saying they would betray the public-service aspect of journalism in keeping readers informed, and promptly found himself out of a job.

It seems to me that, beyond any reasonable doubt, the bottom line is decimating print journalism at a moment when, as much as any in our history, Americans need to be informed about what is going on in the world. Locally-based reporters in regions such as the Middle East and Latin America are increasingly disappearing except for outposts manned by Reuters and The Associated Press and, as such, American readers are being deprived of valuable insight that can only come from reporters on-the-ground, speaking the local language with an intimate knowledge of the key players and flavour for the flow of events that one simply cannot get by jetting in somewhere a few times a year. Expecting someone to cover all of Latin America from a base in Mexico City, the entire Middle East from a base in Jerusalem or all of Europe from a base in London is by any measure an unfair proposition, no matter how gifted a journalist is. The idea that seems to have gained currency with large chains such as Tribune and McClatchy is that one or perhaps two correspondents in each region will be enough to supply all of the newspaper's in that chain distribution with coverage. With the world in great upheaval and incipient crises bubbling up in countries as diverse as Egypt, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand and Uzbekistan (by no means an exhaustive list) in addition to the front page stories of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, who is going to pick up the slack when conflict occurs in these regions? The thinly-stretched and overworked wire services, who (and I speak from personal experience, having worked for Reuters in Haiti from 2001 until 2003), at the most generous, are allotted perhaps 700 words for their stories? Freelancers (again I speak from experience) who get paid a pittance for risking their lives and are often left scrambling just to afford the basics - phone cards, transportation, internet - that their profession demands? The newish crowd of activist/journalists for whom the truth and hard-nosed, skeptical, objective reporting seems to take a back seat to trying to further whatever political bandwagon the correspondents in any given country have momentarily hitched themselves to? Not likely, folks.

It is only by reconsidering their massive downsizing of their competent, able staffs that chains like Tribune and McClatchy can do justice to the proud traditions of international reporting that papers like Newsday and The Miami Herald have. The reason newspapers have for existing in the first place is to inform the public about the world around them, and they should be willing to pay for a variety of voices to be in the field in order to do so. As much as I have seen violent political currents succeed in stilling independent media voices in places in Brasil, Guatemala and Haiti, I fear that particularly ruthless and short-sighted business dealers will succeed in doing the same to foreign coverage in the United States, that is, narrowing the voices providing foreign coverage to American readers to an ever-decreasing few, a formula which would seem to spell trouble for the very bottom line those same individuals claim to protect.

One independent journalist who has managed to make a difference, my friend Nomi Prins, will be reading from her book Jacked: How "Conservatives" are Picking your Pocket (Whether you voted for them or not), published by PoliPointPress, at the Housing Works Bookstore Café at 126 Crosby Street on Thursday here in New York. I myself will be attending the lecture/book signing for my friend and colleague Jonas Bendiksen's new book, Satellites - Photographs from the Fringes of the Former Soviet Union at the Aperture Foundation that night, but both events are highly worth checking out.

Oh, and Lula is back for another four years.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Some help for Haiti's farmers, Toto told to pay up and Republicans drag their feet on Aristide probe

Finally appearing to bow to the reality that Haiti is a peasant-majority country and that the deforestation, erosion and concurrent economic devastation of Haiti's countryside is at the root of many of the nation's political problems, the Inter-American Development Bank approved on Wednesday a $17.8 million loan earmarked to help the nation's farmer's, marking a new chapter in the long struggle for those who have often found themselves at the bottom of most economic and social indicators there. The program, set to reinforce Haiti's Ministère de l’agriculture des ressources naturelles et du développement rural (MARNDR) is set to rehabilitate four "extension" centers in Dondon, Lévy, Baptiste and Savanne Zombi and, among other measures, the IADB release says the plan will

"Improve planting stock; production of high-value fruits such as avocados, mangoes and citrus; horticultural marketing and processing, coffee pest and disease control, propagation of disease-resistant banana varieties that also serve as shade trees for coffee; garden and root crops; corn and beans, essential oils and livestock."

A second aspect will focus on disease and pest control.

Having observed the work of the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP) and the twenty-thousand member Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay (MPNKP) (both named for the village of Papay where they are based) peasant unions over the years, and the dedication of their leader, 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, as well as similar movements in the Artibonite Valley, I can only hope that much more help for Haiti's beleaguered farmers will be on the way. The IADB loan represents a step in the right direction but, with massive deforestation having claimed 90% of Haiti’s tree cover for charcoal and to make room for farming in the past 50 years, so much more needs to be done.

In other Haiti news, one strike against impunity, one apparent step back in the face of it.

A New York district judge this week declared that Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, former head of the Front Pour L'Avancement et Le Progres Haitian (FRAPH), a paramilitary death squad that terrorized Haitians in the early 1990s, was "liable for torture, attempted extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity," and ordered him to pay $19 million to three women who say there were raped by Constant's forces. Constant is currently in jail on Long Island after being charged in connection with a $1 million mortgage fraud scheme this past July. It remains an open question as to whether Constant's victims will see any money, but it is at least a decent move towards stripping away the veil of international invulnerability that some, including some in the United States as we speak, exist within despite crimes of the most grotesque sort which they committed abroad.

In less encouraging news, apparently due in at least part to close connections a multimillion dollar telecom firm has with some prominent Republics, an article by investigative journalist Lucy Komisar reports that "the U.S. Justice Department is withholding agreement to share assets seized from Haitian drug traffickers to finance a lawsuit by the Haitian government charging former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide with taking bribes."

The bribery charges center around Aristide's second term in office from 2001 until 2004, and focus on the IDT telcom company, alleging that Aristide took hundreds of thousands of kickbacks in money that should have been deposited in Haiti's meager treasury in exchange for giving IDT a favorable rate on international calls. A former IDT executive, Michael Jewett, claims the he refused to go along with the scheme and was fired for his trouble. Jewett charges that the deal enabled several North American companies (including IDT) to operate in Haiti for a cut-rate fee of nine cents per minute, three cents of which promptly disappeared into an Aristide shell company called Mont Salem set up in Turks and Caicos, as opposed to going to TELECO, the Haitian state telephone company, where the money belonged.

"These companies then allegedly resold the minutes to U.S. customers for 16 or 18 cents," Komisar writes. Jewett sued IDT in October 2005 for wrongful dismissal.

If true, Komisar notes, in addition to being an appalling betrayal of the Haitian people by their president in contravention of Haitian law, the actions would also be a violation of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

However and alas, IDT's board of directors includes Ronald Reagan's former ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III and former Minnesota senator Rudy Boschwitz. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney bought 1,000 initial shares of IDT-run internet phone company in 1999. Even more suggestively, the current head of the Justice Department Criminal Division, Alice Fisher, had previously served as a lawyer for IDT. So, does anyone want to take any wagers on how this will proceed?

One remembers Eric Pierre. Pierre, a 27-year-old medical student from the southern Haitian town of Jacmel, was shot and killed while leaving the the Faculté de Medicine in Port-au-Prince on 7 January 2003. That was a day that saw a series of strikes in the Haitian capital against Mr. Aristide's government following a steep rise in gas prices. The students of Haiti's State University, of which the Faculté de Medicine was a part, from the summer of 2002 onwards had played a lead role in the demonstrations against the violent excesses and corruption of Mr. Aristide's government, and continued to do so until his ouster in February 2004. That morning, according to witnesses, Eric Pierre's attackers fled the scene in a car with official TELECO plates. In a notebook of his thoughts Pierre was carrying at the time, there was written the following words:

Justice, quand?

The U.S. Department of Justice needs to ask itself that same question, on behalf of all the Eric Pierres who fell in Haiti or saw their dreams dashed because of the actions of a few ravenous politicians and there unscrupulous foreign partners. Justice, when? Well, U.S. Department of Justice? Haiti is waiting.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A writer reading a writer

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: "I've known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you're more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged."

These are the opening words to the 1984 novella The Lover (L'Amant in the original French) by the French author Marguerite Duras, one of the best works of short (or in this case, a bit longer) fiction that I, as a writer, have ever read and certainly equal in to others I hold in high esteem, such as Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger, Carlos Fuentes' Aura and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, to name just three.

I have recently been re-reading Duras' four "novels" collection (and, indeed, I have been re-reading a bit in general as I have been too poor to buy new books), and I find that the stories contained therein - The Square, Moderato Cantabile, 10:30 on a Summer Night and The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas - resonate perhaps even more with me as I enter my mid-thirties than they did when I first perused them in my early twenties. The situations that Duras presents - of characters trying to extract themselves from or surrendering to situations that often seem strangling and constricting, which nevertheless at times threaten to boil over with emotion, is revealing in its depth of understanding human motivation in a current literary landscape that seems less and less interested in exploring such terrain and more and more interested with the newest flavor of whatever the bright, young, wealthy, shallow urbanites (called it the Sex and the City syndrome) are doing this year, and how this can best be exploited for marketable purposes. I have also been reminded again of what a great gift for dialogue Duras as a writer had, and how she builds the tensions in her stories, particular in The Square and 10:30 on a Summer Night, with minimal attention to descriptive prose stylings and a rather heavy reliance on conversational flows that grow more pregnant with meaning as the reader turns every page. This is perhaps not surprising as Duras was the screenwriter for Alain Resnais' acclaimed 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Having penned some 70 (!) novels over a 50 year period, Duras, born in the Gia Dinh suburbs of Saigon, in 1914, the daughter of a mathematics teacher (who died quite young) and his wife, remains, a decade after her passing, a great teacher for those writers who want to dive deeply into human experience and bring back something really raw and vital to the page. Hmmm, maybe there's a story in there somewhere...

Friday, October 20, 2006

On The Battle of Algiers and the Military Commissions Act of 2006

I have a confession to make: Though I had often heard of its greatness, until this week I had never seen Gillo Pontecorvo's highly influential film Battle of Algiers, which chronicles some of the key moments in the bloody revolution that eventually saw Algeria win its independence from France in 1962 after an eight year war. That being the case, I was stunned by how relevant the film is to present-day debates in the United States about the methods which the U.S. government should employ to fight its terrorist foes and proceed amidst the current relentless march of carnage in Iraq. The parallels are even more suggestive given the August 2003 screening of the film by the US Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagon, a flyer for which stated that the film illustrated "how to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas."

On this day when militiamen linked to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr overtook the southeastern Iraqi city of Amara, and when the United States seems to have sacrificed many of its fundamental liberties in the name of security, the power of The Battle of Algiers remains in its refusal to sanitize the violence that came from any side in the Algerian conflict, showing civilians as victims equally of the pro-independence Front de Libération Nationale as well as French miliatry and colonial forces.

When one witnesses the great French actor Jean Martin, in perhaps his most memorable role as the imperious Colonel Mathieu, telling assembled reporters that “the word ‘torture’ isn’t used in our orders, we use interrogation as the only valid police method against clandestine activity,” the words of U.S. president George W. Bush from a September 6th press conference this year echo strongly.

At that press conference this year, Bush declared that, when the U.S. government captured the Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah “the CIA used an alternative set of procedures” to question him.

“These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations.” Bush went on. “The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used -- I think you understand why -- if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.”

One month later (this month), President Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, a piece of legislation which, though it specifically bars acts such as murder and rape and "cruel and inhuman" treatment, gives the green light for, among other things, withholding evidence from defendants, denying defendants the right to file habeas corpus petitions, establishes military tribunals for terror suspects, retains the right to send detainees to secret prisons abroad and gives immunity to U.S. government agents for acts regarding their interrogation practices. The Act also broadens the definition of “enemy combatant” to include anyone who offered “material support” to a person or persons engaged in hostilities against the U.S., enabling them to be held indefinitely in military detention regardless of whether or not they took any active role in any hostilities.

Following the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, such a policy would seem short-sighted at best and an active undermining of the rule of law, both national and international, well, by any rational context.

Hopefully the next administration will try and stitch the shreds of the Constitution back into something that resembles America, as that image seems to be getting more and more distant everyday.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A few thoughts on my profession

Re-reading Anna Politkovskaya's A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya following the courageous journalist's murder in Moscow earlier this month, I am reminded again of the words of my friend George Murer, who, commenting on Politkovskaya's passing, observed that she "did remarkable work because she was dropped, unknown and defenseless, in the middle of a horrible situation that had no exterior witnesses." Or at least very few of them.

Journalists like Politkovskaya, Anthony Shadid (whose book Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War remains probably the greatest portrait yet drawn of the hubristic and disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq as told from the point of view of the Iraqi people) and Alonso Salazar (whose Born to Die in Medellin provides a stunning glimpse into the violence in one of Colombia's largest cities) are invaluable in an age when so many timorous, self-involved political analysts of the left and the right are content to analyze world events from the safety of a desk and a computer. A simple concern with the fate and voices of people in areas of conflict, while exposing those who make them suffer and, hoping against hope, to spur the world at large to some kind of action, seems like the best and most noble pursuit one can have in a profession whose ultimate driving force the the photographer James Nachtwey once summed up thusly:

It has occurred to me that if everyone could be there just once to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet or how a jagged piece of shrapnel can rip someone's leg off - if everyone could be there to see for themselves the fear and the grief, just one time, then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands.

Adieu, Anna Politkovskaya. There aren't many like you and you will be missed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Brief Encounters with independents

I attended a very interesting reading and editor discussion featuring my friend author Ben Fountain and his editor Lee Boudreaux at the most excellent McNally Robinson independent bookstore on Prince Street in Soho last evening. Founatin, who I first met in Port-au-Prince, Haiti back in the misty days of 2002, has just published a fantastic collection of short stories titled Brief Encounters with Che Guevara that takes his (not always so) innocents abroad characters to locales as diverse as Burma, Colombia, Sierra Leone as well as Haiti. To an audience that included the authors Laura Moser and Lauren Mechling, Founatin and Boudreaux discussed the difficulty in getting publishers to take a chance on serious fiction these days, particularly short stories, as well as the essential role independent bookstores still play in getting important books such as Fountain's off the ground.

I was reminded of how some of the pivotal cultural events of recent decades have been the result of a few dedicated people persevering with their vision against great odds. The Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976, organized by Howard Devoto, who later went on to form The Buzzcoks, for instance, was attended by perhaps 40 people, but of those people in the audience were members of bands such as Joy Division and The Fall, who went on to play pivotal roles in the development of Britain's post-punk music. The Velvet Underground sold an infinitesimal amount of their-now classic first album in 1967 but, as the saying goes, it seemed as if every one of the people who bought that album went out and formed a band. The author Henry Miller could not even get his writing published until the Parisian imprint Obelisk Press took a chance in 1934 on Tropic of Cancer, though Miller had to wait nearly 30 years to see it published in his native United States.

One of the fringe benefits of the book tour I did around the United States last fall was the opporuntinuty to see a few independent bookstores operating around the U.S., stores that support work of writers such as Ben and myself operating outside the obviously commercial realm. Bookstores such as Paperbacks Plus in Dallas, Books and Books in Miami and Robin's Bookstore in Philadelphia all still have an important role to play in the growth and publishing of challenging literature in the United States and, as such, deserve our support. Buy independent!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A brief pause

In the span of a few days, we have seen the killing of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the successful explosion of a small nuclear device in the mountains above the town of Kilju by the "starving, friendless, authoritarian nation" of North Korea , and now news that forces in southern Somalia pledging loyalty to a rather radical Islamist doctrine have declared a holy war against neighboring Ethiopia on Sunday, due to the latter country's cross-border meddling. This gives the overall impression of an altogether crappy week in the making, and its still only Tuesday. To keep readers' spirits up, here is something at least pleasant to look at, the float of the G.R.E.S. Acadêmicos do Salgueiro samba school at this past year's Carnaval in Rio.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Free speech and its perils

Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist with Novaya Gazeta who had probably done more than any other single person to expose the horror of the war in Chechnya and the involvement of Russian officials in some of its most ghastly aspects, was murdered on Saturday at her Moscow apartment. Her book, A Small Corner of Hell, was one of the definitive portraits of the agony inflicted on the Chechens, and how actors on both sides of the conflict cynically profited from it. When she died, she had been working on an article regarding the use of torture in the regime of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow premier Ramzan A. Kadyrov, which, she told The New York Times in April, would likely include evidence of torture by Kadyrov’s police and paramilitaries, and perhaps even testimony from at least one witness who had been tortured by Mr. Kadyrov himself.

Whoever ordered the contract killing, for which at this point no suspects have been apprehended, the intent seems fairly clear: To silence one of Russia’s most powerful voices for human rights, democracy and government accountability. Someone was so threatened by what Politkovskaya would say or write that they decided, in the cold calculations of the brutal, that killing her was an appropriate price to pay to ensure her silence.

It is sadly ironic that this silencing of a dissenting voice should come just days after, for the second time in recent weeks, Columbia University, one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the United States and a fixture on the educational landscape here in my own city of New York, appeared to bow to the voices of intolerance in allowing a scheduled speaker to be silenced by those who differed from their views.

This time the speaker, invited by a campus Republican group, was Jim Gilchrist, the head of the Minuteman Project, which assembled hundreds of volunteers last year, some armed, to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border for illegal immigrants. As Mr. Gilchrist spoke, several dozen protestors stormed the stage, unfurled banners and began shouting him down and, by some accounts, attempted to push him off the stage. You can watch film of the disruption here. As the fracas erupted mere weeks after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited, then disinvited, to the campus in the midst of popular outcry, one can fairly ask whether the level of debate at one of our nation‘s most prestigious (and expensive) universities has sunk to the level of sloganeering and fear of allowing the other side be heard. Though I personally have no respect at all for the virulently anti-immigrant and xenophobic position of Mr. Gilchrist and his group, much as I have no respect for the frothingly anti-Semitic rantings of Mr. Ahmadinejad, either our campuses here in the United States are places of free inquiry, where the airing of the views of the minority are given equal protection as the views of the majority, or they are not. On his weekly radio program, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took the right approach, by stating that “I think it’s an outrage that somebody that was invited to speak didn’t get a chance to speak…There are too many incidents at the same school where people get censored.”

It seems that this current of intolerance is more and more a facet of public discourse in North America. I have experienced it first-hand. At about this time one year ago, I published my first book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press), my chronicle of my experiences in that Caribbean country since 1997. Despite some historical sidetracks, the book is chiefly a chronicle of the years between the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government to Haiti by a U.S.-lead multinational force in 1994 to his overthrow and exile amidst massive street protests against his rule and an armed rebellion a decade later.

Having been involved with Haiti for many years and having seen what Mr. Aristide, his government and his Fanmi Lavalas political party had brutalized and cynically exploited the poor majority of Haitians, I was conscious writing the book that, in order to portray accurately the roles of some in Haiti’s fractured and often violent political landscape, some holy cows would have to be slaughtered. I would have to speak honestly about the massive payouts made by the Aristide government to lobbyists and political actors in the United States, several of whom, including former U.S. Representative Ron Dellums, still wield considerable power with my country’s elected representatives. I would have to speak of the break I had with the analysis of some of those who, in progressive circles in North America, had been allowed to speak virtually unchallenged as authorities on Haiti for many years. The statements of individuals such as the American doctor Paul Farmer, whose public health work among Haiti’s poor I had always admired but whose continued vocal support of the Aristide government - a government that was victimizing that very same strata of Haitian society - I couldn’t condone, and Noam Chomsky, whose critiques of Haiti’s political travails were delivered via his tenured professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, needed to be addressed by someone who had lived and moved among the Haitian people, spoke their language, and saw their struggles if there was ever to be an honest discourse of how to best help the country among progressives in the United States. As I regarded Mr. Chomsky’s work on Haiti in particular as fairly marginal to the larger discussion of the fate of Haiti’s poor, though, I restricted my commentary on him to only two (rather unflattering) paragraphs in the book’s 454 pages.

As the book was published, however, admitting that they themselves had not even read it in its entirety, Mr. Chomsky and his literary agent, the author Anthony Arnove, who, like Mr. Chomsky, has made a comfortable living for himself adopting a “radical” position while making sure to steer well clear of the line of fire, launched a campaign against the book by berating my publisher Seven Stories (which also publish several Chomsky titles) on its contents and attempting, so it seemed, to scuttle its publication, or at least the press' support of it. Phone calls were made, emails were sent. Seven Stories, to its credit, stuck to its guns and published the book as written. Why, one might ask, would two such established authors be so threatened by a book penned on a poor Caribbean country by a working-class journalist and writer whom they had never met and whose work they admitted they had barely read? I must say that I was surprised, with all that is going on in the world, that my little book would warrant such attention from two individuals who like to portray themselves as champions of free speech.

These attempts to squelch the book ran roughly concurrently with the campaign against the talented young British journalist Emma Brockes, whose October 2005 interview with Mr. Chomsky in The Guardian caused a great deal of controversy, asking, as it did, tough questions about Chomsky’s relationship with what The Times (UK) columnist Oliver Kamm quite accurately described as “some rather unsavoury elements who wrote about the Balkan wars in the 1990s.”

The furor at the time centered around Ms. Brockes confronting Chomky with the fact that he had lent his name to a letter praising the “outstanding” (Chomsky’s own words) work of a journalist called Diana Johnstone. Johnstone’s 2002 book Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto Press), argues that the July 1995 killing of at least 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica was, in essence (directly quoting from her book), not a “part of a plan of genocide” and that “there is no evidence whatsoever” for such a charge. This despite the November 1995 indictment of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for “genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war” stemming from that very episode and the later conviction by the same tribunal of a Bosnian Serb general of aiding and abetting genocide in Srebrenica. Johnstone also states that no evidence exists that much more than 199 men and boys were killed there and that Srebrenica and other unfortunately misnamed 'safe areas' had in fact “served as Muslim military bases under UN protection.” In 2003, the Swedish magazine Ordfront published an interview with Johnstone where she reiterated these views. Chomsky was also among those who supported a campaign defending the right of a fringe magazine called Living Marxism to publish claims that footage the British television station ITN took in August 1992 at the Serb-run Trnopolje concentration camp in Bosnia was faked. ITN sued the magazine for libel and won, putting the magazine out of business, as Living Marxism could not produce a single witness who had seen the camps at first hand, whereas others who had - such as the journalist Ed Vulliamy - testified as to their horror.

In fact, as recently as April 25, 2006, in an interview with Radio Television of Serbia (a station formerly aligned with the murderous and now-deceased Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic), Chomsky stated, of the iconic, emaciated image of a Bosnian Muslim man named Fikret Alic, the following:

Chomsky: [I]f you look at the coverage [i.e. media coverage of earlier phases of the Balkan wars], for example there was one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion and that was the photograph of the thin man behind the barb-wire.

Interviewer: A fraudulent photograph, as it turned out.

Chomsky: You remember. The thin men behind the barb-wire so that was Auschwitz and 'we can't have Auschwitz again.'

In taking this position, Chomsky seemingly attempts to discredit the on-the-ground reporting of not only Mr. Vulliamy - whose reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994 - but of other journalists such as Penny Marshall, Ian Williams and Roy Gutman. In fact, Vulliamy , who filed the first reports on the horrors of the Trnopolje camp and was there that day the ITN footage was filmed, wrote as follows in The Guardian in March 2000:

Living Marxism's attempts to re-write the history of the camps was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps and sympathized with their cause and wished to see it triumph. That was the central and - in the final hour, the only - issue. Shame, then, on those fools, supporters of the pogrom, cynics and dilettantes who supported them, gave them credence and endorsed their vile enterprise.

In his interview with Brockes, Chomsky stated that "Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true."

In a November 2005 column , Marko Attila Hoare, a Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Kingston (London), wrote thusly:

An open letter to Ordfront, signed by Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and others, stated: 'We regard Johnstone's Fools' Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.' In his personal letter to Ordfront in defence of Johnstone, Chomsky wrote: 'I have known her for many years, have read the book, and feel that it is quite serious and important.' Chomsky makes no criticism here of Johnstone's massacre denial, or indeed anywhere else - except in the Brockes interview, which he has repudiated. Indeed, he endorses her revisionism: in response to Mikael van Reis's claim that 'She [Johnstone] insists that Serb atrocities - ethnic cleansing, torture camps, mass executions - are western propaganda', Chomsky replies that 'Johnstone argues - and, in fact, clearly demonstrates - that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.'

Pretty astounding stuff, huh? But, faced with a relentless campaign by Mr. Chomsky and his supporters The Guardian, to its eternal shame, pulled Brockes’ interview from its website and issued what can only be described as a groveling apology that did a great disservice not only to Ms Brockes herself, but also to former Guardian correspondent Vulliamy and all those journalists who actually risked their lives covering the Bosnian conflict, to say nothing of the victims of the conflict themselves.

The caving-in focused on three points, the chief of which appeared to be the headline used on the interview, which read: “Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.”

Though this was a paraphrase rather than a literal quotation, the fact of the matter was that it did seem to accurately sum up the state of affairs: Chomsky had actively supported Johnstone, who in turn had claimed that the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated and not part of a campaign of genocide. The Guardian brouhaha prompted, Kemal Pervanic, author of The Killing Days: My Journey Through the Bosnia War, and a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp, to write that “If Srebrenica has been a lie, then all the other Bosnian-Serb nationalists' crimes in the three years before Srebrenica must be false too. Mr Chomsky has the audacity to claim that Living Marxism was "probably right" to claim the pictures ITN took on that fateful August afternoon in 1992 - a visit which has made it possible for me to be writing this letter 13 years later - were false. This is an insult not only to those who saved my life, but to survivors like myself.”

Chomsky complained about that, too, forcing The Guardian to write in its apology that, ignoring the fact that it was Chomsky’s characterization of the Serb-run camps that seemed to outrage Pervanic the most, “Prof Chomsky believes that publication (of Pervanic’s letter) was designed to undermine his position, and addressed a part of the interview which was false…With hindsight it is acknowledged that the juxtaposition has exacerbated Prof Chomsky's complaint and that is regretted.”

So Emma Brockes (whom I have never met), in this instance, at least, was silenced. There but for the grace of God (and a few gutsy editors) go I and many other journalists who have challenged the powerful.

Retracting our steps slightly, the actions of Chomsky and Arnove were by no means the only efforts to silence the voices of chronicled in my book or that of its author. The others - vituperative and false attacks by a violent and erratic Aristide crony named Patrick Elie, the eruption of Mr. Aristide’s attorney Ira Kurzban and a red-face, apparently unstable man named Jack Lieberman into a shouting, semi-hysterical tirade during a reading of mine in Miami resulting in the summoning (by whom I don’t know) of security personnel, photos of corpses emailed to me last November by a seemingly unbalanced graduate student from California named Jen Sprague, a December 2005 email from Miami celebrating the July 2005 murder of Haitian journalist (and friend) Jacques Roche - continued after the book’s publication and could make an entertaining if disturbing article in themselves. However, at the moment they would serve as a distraction from the issue at hand. Having lost so many friends to Haiti’s political violence over the last decade, I felt that the threats, whether they be professional or personal, that would be visited upon me because of the book were a small price to pay to get the truth of what happened to Haiti out.

This triumvirate of episodes as I have been mulling over them - the murder of Politkovskaya, the shutting down of free discouse at Columbia University and the campaign of a small privileged, insular and delusional elite to prevent the publication of views they deem objectionable by various methods - reminds me of nothing so much as the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” as relevant today as when it was penned in 1939:

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

As long as those in positions of power, wherever they may be, are unchallenged authority figures assured of uncritical press coverage and an adoring public, no real dialogue will ever take place. From our prevaricating, duplicitous president here in the United States on down, they must be challenged. The fact is, some people can only react to criticism and dissent by trying to silence those individuals who are dissenting, quite often journalists. Free and open discourse? As human beings, perhaps, I think we still have a long way to go. But we as journalists cannot back down, cannot be intimidated into silence by those who would want to keep us from reporting unpopular and uncomfortable truths. There is too much at stake for us to take even a step back in defending our rights to report honestly on the struggles of the poor, the disenfranchised and the powerless. Journalists like Anna Politkovskaya paid the ultimate price so that struggle could go on, and we owe their memories at least that much.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Death Penalty: Jamaicans Debate Re-introduction

My new article for the Inter-Press Service on the debate currently raging in Jamaica about the possible resumption of the death penalty there, and of the frightening ordeal of Carl McHargh, was published today and can be found here.

London Calling

This has nothing (and everything) to do with politics, but procrastinating over a new story, I just stumbled across one of the best things I have ever found on the internet: Former Clash frontman Joe Strummer and his band the Mescaleros playing a version of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wilde Side” in Saint Anne’s in Brooklyn in April 2002. Strummer would pass on from a heart attack eight months later. Moving and beautiful stuff. The guy remains a great hero of mine, I must say. Those interested in a full appreciation of Strummer’s importance in bringing music of conscience to punk and beyond should read Billy Bragg’s essay “The Joe I Knew” as it appeared on the BBC here.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Jamaicans hope to separate crime, politics

My article on Jamaica's upcoming electoral season, drawn from my visit to the island last month, was published in today's Washington Times and can be read here.

Monday, October 02, 2006

On September 30th

Two years ago yesterday, as I sat in my apartment in Rio de Janeiro working on my first book, a young man that I knew from the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cite Soleil, Winston Jean-Bart, better known as Tupac, was shot at a demonstration calling for the return of Haiti’s ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As Tupac passed by the Boston section of that sprawling shantytown with hundreds of others, the group was fired upon by a gang lead by Robinson “Labanye” Thomas, working in tandem with elements of the the Police Nationale d’Haiti (PNH). Tupac’s brother, a dear friend of mine of many years named James Petit-Frere, known on the streets as Billy and, like Tupac, the leader of a pro-Aristide gang in Cite Soleil, went back to avenge his brother’s death, only to be grievously wounded by a bullet to the stomach, pulled out of a hospital bed by Haitian police and thrown into jail. After a strenuous effort on the part of many of James’ friends, we succeeded in locating him and, displaying great courage as the Haitian capital was in the midst of the pro-Aristide uprising that became know as Operation Baghdad, among those who got in to see him was friend of mine, a Haitian physician, who made his way into James’ cell in order to examine and treat his wounds. James survived, but his time on this earth was proved to be short lived, as he escaped from prison in a massive February 2005 jailbreak in Port-au-Prince and, as I have heard now from multiple accounts, was shot and killed by police as he attempted to make his way back to Cite Soleil a short time later. I had last seen him in Cite Soleil in early 2004, just as it was becoming apparent that Aristide was hanging on to power by the faintest tether. Mr. Aristide fled Haiti on February 29th, 2004, and left the brothers, and all of his other supporters, to their fates. Now, along with his moneyed defenders in the United States and elsewhere, Mr. Aristide sits in safety, but I, to say nothing of the family they left behind, will never be able to see James or Tupac again. It is a great loss, for those of us who considered ourselves their friends and for Haiti because, given the opportunity, I think there was much that those boys and others like them could have done for their country.

In the intervening two years, there have been many people that I have known in Haiti who have passed on from this life to whatever lies beyond: Labanye himself, betrayed and killed by his own deputy, Evans Jeune, in collusion with his fierce opponent, Emmanuel “Dread” Wilmé; the historian and author Gerard Pierre-Charles, who I watched struggle to uphold his country‘s fragile democratic gains; the art dealer Issa el Saieh who first introduced me to wonders that the artists of Haiti were producing even among the country’s worst civil strife; Butteur Metayer, one of the leaders of the armed rebellion that finally helped drive Mr. Aristide and his tyrannical, unjust regime from power (in revenge for the killing of his own brother and to be succeeded by only more bloodshed); the journalist Jacques Roche, who sometimes shared a table with me at the Tropical Bar in Port-au-Prince; the jovial “mayor” of Nazon, Jean Alonce Durosel, known to all who were his friends as Verdieu; and, most recently, the community leader Esterne Bruner. Though not all died violently and not all were admirable figures, I can’t help but think that, in their last moments, all of them may have looked around and wondered about what Haiti had become. A country, as a friend of mine once wrote, where almost all of the choices available to the population are bad choices. Do you stay in the countryside and starve, or do you go into the gang-infested neighborhoods on the capital to try and scramble for whatever scraps are left over once the politicians (with a few exceptions) and their foreign helpers are done fighting over them? Do you pick up a gun and defend whoever is in power at the time, or do you reject violence and put yourself at the mercy of those who do have weapons? Or, if you are of a slightly higher social strata, do you continue struggling to make your country a better place and to make a living there, against very long odds and against the very real ever-present threat of violence, or do you go abroad, take your family with you and forever turn your back on the only place you will ever likely really feel at home, along with all the guilt and regret that comes with it? These are the choices those in Haiti are forced to make everyday.

There have been too many bodies in Haiti. I feel I have too many to remember this Guede, almost more than I can count. Over two years into the United Nations mission in Haiti and over 100 days into Rene Preval’s presidency, the suffering and the killing in Port-au-Prince continues. Amidst these struggles, the United States Congress, to its never-ending shame (if such a thing still exists in Washington), spurred on by House Republican leaders, decided to postpone consideration of H.R. 6142, the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) Act. Florida Democratic representative Kendrick B. Meek (whom I saw briefly during his 2003 visit to Haiti), evidently one of the few members of this august body whose conscience has not totally been eviscerated, issued a statement saying of the Congress that “If Haiti were important to them, they would have included Haiti in the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Act. The President and Congressional Republicans not only pushed CAFTA-DR through Congress, but once it passed, the President held a signing ceremony in the White House. Haiti requires such attention..”

Indeed. So among these melancholy anniversaries, where does one look for hope?

To Haiti, of course, and to the words of Jacques Roche who, before his murder in July 2005, recorded three CDs of him reading his own work entitled Le Vent de Liberte. Among the contents of the CDs, was a poem, poignantly titled Survive:

You can destroy my house
Steal my money
My clothesAnd my shoes
Leave me naked in the middle of winter
But you cannot kill my dream
You cannot kill hope
You can shut my mouth
Throw me in prison
Keep my friends far from me
And sully my reputation
Leave me naked in the middle of the desert
But you cannot kill my dream
You cannot kill hope
You can put out my eyes
And burst my eardrums
Cut off my arms and legs
Leave me naked in the middle of the road
But you cannot kill my dream
You cannot kill hope
You can cover me with open sores
Poke an iron into the wounds
Take pleasure in torturing me
Make me piss blood
You can shut me away without pen or paper
Treat me like a madman
Drive me mad
Humiliate me
Crush me
Give me no food or water
Make me sign my surrender
But you cannot kill my dream
You cannot kill hope
You can kill my children
Kill my wife
Kill all those I hold dear
Kill me
But you cannot kill my dream
You cannot kill hope
-Jacques Roche