Aside from the cable network rantings of Fox News and CNN’s immigrant-hating Lou Dobbs, it is hard for me to think of a more obvious example of the phenomenon of echo chamber news than a recent article on Haiti titled “Calls Mount to Free Lavalas Activist” written for the Inter Press Service by Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague.
The article concerns Ronald Dauphin, a former customs worker in the central Haitian city of St. Marc and partisan of the Fanmi Lavalas political party of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide,
Though Pierre and Sprague’s article describes Dauphin as “a Haitian political prisoner,” according to a St. Marc-based group, the Association des Victimes du Génocide de la Scierie (AVIGES), and a Haitian human rights group, the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), Dauphin was also an enthusiastic participant in a massacre of Aristide opponents and civilians that took place in the town in February 2004.
During that time, Dauphin, who was known in St. Marc as Black Ronald, was affiliated with a pro-Aristide paramilitary group, Bale Wouze ("Clean Sweep"). According to local residents, Bale Wouze, working in tandem with the Police Nationale de Haiti (PNH) and the Unité de Sécurité de la Garde du Palais National (USGPN), a unit directly responsible for the president's personal security, swept through the neighborhood of La Scierie, killing political activists affiliated with an armed anti-government group, the Rassemblement des militants conséquents de Saint-Marc (Ramicos), as well as civilians, committing instances of gang rape, and looting and burning property.
When I visited St. Marc in February 2004, shortly after Bale Wouze's raid into La Scierie, I interviewed USGPN personnel and Bale Wouze members who were patrolling the city as a single armed unit in tandem the PNH. A local priest told me matter-of-factly at the time of Bale Wouze that, "These people don't make arrests, they kill." According to a member of a Human Rights Watch delegation that visited St. Marc a month after the killings, at least 27 people were murdered in St. Marc between Feb. 11 and Aristide's flight into exile on February 29.
On a return visit to St. Marc in June of this year, researching for my article "We Have Never Had Justice," I spoke with individuals such as 49-year old Amazil Jean-Baptiste, whose son, Kenol St. Gilles, was murdered, and 44 year-old Marc Ariel Narcisse, whose cousin, Bob Narcisse, was killed. It is difficult to spend a morning chatting with the people of La Scierie without concluding that something very awful happened to them in 2004, a trauma from which they have yet to recover and for which they still seek justice.
Following the massacre in St. Marc, Dauphin was arrested in 2004. He subsequently escaped from jail, was re-arrested during the course of an anti-kidnapping raid in July 2006, and, like 81 percent those in Haiti’s prisons, been held without trial ever since.
In their recent article, Pierre and Sprague take particular aim at Haiti’s RNDDH human rights group, deferring instead to the U.S-based Institute for Justice and Democracy (IJDH), a group that has been particularly vociferous in its denunciations of possible governmental culpability for the St. Marc killings, and which described Ronald Dauphin in a June 2009 press release as “a Haitian grassroots activist, customs worker and political prisoner,” language curiously mimicked in the Sprague/Pierre article, and which makes no mention of the testimonies of the people of St. Marc.
Though they are never mentioned in the article, the deep and ongoing links between Mr. Aristide, Fanmi Lavalas, IJDH, Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague - links of which the Inter Press Service is aware but has chosen to ignore - have effectively blurred the line between political advocacy, human rights work and journalism.
One needs only to look at the chairman of IJDH’s Board of Directors, Miami attorney Ira Kurzban - also one of the group’s founders - to realize the deeply compromised nature of the organization's work. According to U.S. Department of Justice filings, between 2001 and 2004 Mr. Kurzban’s law firm received $4,648,964 from the Aristide government on behalf of its lobbying efforts, gobbling up from Haiti’s near-bankrupt state more than 2,000 times the average yearly income of the more than 7 million people there who survive on less that $2 per day. Since Mr. Aristide’s subsequent exile, Mr. Kurzban has frequently identified himself as the former president’s personal attorney in the United States. In vintage FreedomWorks fashion, Mr. Kuzban also had to be calmed by security personnel when he hysterically and repeatedly interrupted a reading that I was giving at the 2005 Miami Book Fair.
In IJDH’s 2005 annual report, Mr. Kurzban’s firm is listed in the category reserved for those having contributed more than $5000 to the organization, while in the group’s 2006 report, the firm is listed under “Donations of Time and Talent.”. The American Immigration Lawyers Association, South Florida Chapter, for which Mr. Kurzban served as past national president and former general council, is listed in a section reserved for those having donated $10,000 or more
Though Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague’s elevation of IJDH to an undeserved legitimacy and slander of RNDDH (a group which, despite its advocacy on behalf of the St. Marc victims, has also defended the rights and advocated on behalf of members of the Fanmi Lavalas party) are distasteful, they don’t quite rise to the level of intentional duplicity that another bit of information suggests.
In a stark conflict of interest, Wadner Pierre was once employed by a Haitian legal organization, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, which, according to the IJDH’s own website received “most of its support from the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.” Pierre has also previously contributed text and photographs to the IJDH website lauding the April 2007 release of Amanus Mayette, another suspect of the St. Marc massacre.
Put simply, when writing about the IJDH, Wadner Pierre is quoting his former employer without acknowledging it as such, a sleight of hand that opponents of health reform in my own country, for example, would recognize immediately.
For his part, Jeb Sprague, the article’s other author, first made himself known to me in November 2005, when he emailed me, unsolicited, a graphic picture of the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked bodies of a Haitian mother and her children along with a smiley-face emoticon and a semi-coherent tirade against myself, the World Bank and the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, DC think tank.
Intimations of violence against my person aside, such a display struck me as less than a class act in giving those sacrificed on the altar of Haiti's fratricidal political violence the respect they deserve. Since then, Sprague has graduated to obsessively slandering progressive elements deemed insufficiently loyal to Haiti’s disgraced former president, such as the U.K.-based Haiti Support Group, and now works as a teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Sociology Department, focusing on crime and delinquency, subjects with which his past behavior no doubt gives him a close familiarity.
Taken in total, it is unfortunate that the Inter Press Service, an organization that promotes itself as “civil society's leading news agency,” would allow itself to be used as a front for such propaganda, and throw its weight behind the paid political hacks and human rights abusers who have for too long dominated politics in Haiti. As a fairly legitimate news source, as opposed to, say, the red-faced shouting of Fox News, the Inter Press Service owes its readers, and the people of Haiti, better.