Friday, January 19, 2007

A shabby little affair

As a progressive journalist who seeks to hold governments of all ideological stripes accountable for their actions towards their citizens, I pretty much assumed at some point MediaLens and NarcoNews (a bit like MediaLens' more unwashed, ayahuasca-dabbling cousin) would get around to elevating me to the level of Guardian writer Peter Beaumont, New York Times Bogota correspondent Juan Forero and the Miami Herald Caracas scribe Phil Gunson, by adding my colleague and friend Jane Regan and I to their ever-expanding list of enemies. I can only hope that salary considerations will soon follow suit. The choice of a "graduate student" named Jeb Sprague and some of his fellow travelers to recently print the texts of their email exchanges with Inter-Press Editor Katharine Stapp on the MediaLens website without first obtaining her permission or informing her of their intent to do so, a rather large violation of etiquette, is not surprising. My personal criteria for publishing private emails has always been to get the author's explicit permission (see my response to Dominican diplomat Roberto Alvarez), except in the case of abusive emails, in which case I will publish - if the moment seems appropriate - the author, the email and the author's contact information. The present moment is such a case.

In November 2005, shortly after the publication of my book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press), to the general public, I received the following email (unsolicited) from Sprague (whom I had never met or corresponded with) along with a graphic picture of the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked bodies of a Haitian mother and her children (bad punctuation in the original):

From Jeb Sprague
Date Nov 22, 2005 4:26 AM
Subject Haiti - read your book

Wow. Just finished reading your book. I got it at a library so I would not have to pay for
it. =-)
I thought it was horribly written with numerous factual errors. A very biased and elite look at the situation in Haiti. It looks like the World Bank funded Inter-American dialogue will provide a good place for you to promote this smear campaign of the elected government of Haiti.
Maybe USAID or the NED could take some of its yearly $3 million "democracy enhancement" program in Haiti away from the GROUP 184 grantees to promote your book tour??
But well I guess since the embargo has been lifted, since we have a pro-u.s. dictatorship now in Haiti things are great for you.
HEre is a photo of the suffering you cover up in this slanted propaganda. Thousands of dead in Haiti while Michael Diebert profits off the misery.
The Photos can't be covered up. You can't stop the truth...
-Jeb Sprague
Graduate Student, Long Beach CA

I was left shrugging that perhaps Sprague suffered from some sort of mental illness, as he viewed the dead mother and her toddlers appropriate material for the smiley--face emoticon he placed in his message, easy game for the cheap joke. Writing for various fringe publications, Sprague later went on to attack, in chronological order:

-Batay Ouvriye, one of Haiti's most militant and effective labor unions, for receiving funds from the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center after the departure of the government of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004. In truth, my attitude has always been, with things as dire as they are in Haiti, any Haitian governments should accept help from anywhere they can get it, whether it be Brussels, Caracas, Havana or Washington. Batay Ouvriye has consistently sided with the Haitian working class, whereas siding with the nouveaux riche class politique that Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party came to typify would have paid them much better (it certainly paid well for the government's lobbyists in the United States, who made millions over the years from a desperately poor country).

-The press solidarity group Reporters sans frontières (RSF), for supposedly receiving money from the International Republican Institute (IRI). When Sprague was unable to produce proof of this claim, RSF News Editor Jean-François Julliard, responded succinctly "We do not receive any funding from the International Republican Institute. This is a pure figment of the authors' imagination. Your readers can check our certified accounts on our website, "

-The Haiti Support Group, a London-based solidarity organization that has been working at a grassroots level in Haiti since 1992. In an article co-authored with one Joe Emersberger and which appeared in the magazine Counterpunch, Sprague by all accounts falsely and libelously claimed that Haiti Support Group head Charles Arthur (who I have often been at odds with) encouraged people to harass an apparently bogus "researcher," who published a highly questionable human rights study in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Arthur later wrote that "The statements about me in the Counterpunch piece are pure fiction. "

Of course, Sprague like his cohorts like Emersberger and Diana Barahona, residing comfortably in North America, would seem rather ill-suited to lecture groups of impoverished peasants and factory workers on where they are and are not allowed to accept aid from. At the same time, in the face of such campaigns, grassroots organizations like Batay Ouvirye, the Plateforme haïtienne de plaidoyer pour un développement alternatif (PAPDA) and Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen (SOFA), with little money on hand and few tools to defend themselves (not to mention, often, a shaky grasp of English), are left to deflect time from their work on behalf of Haiti's poor majority in to respond against a small, bitter, delusional, virulent elite, one that has shown repeatedly that it has precious little original thought to occupy its time, so it must instead rely on attacking the work of others. There is, sad to say, an amount of professional jealousy here which should inspire only pity, no doubt, when they look with envy at the work of someone like Jane Regan who, in addition to proving her mettle as a correspondent over many years and in many harrowing situations in Haiti, wrote In Bondage to History? an article which I and many others think is probably the single best piece written on the inferno of violence that consumed Haiti following September 30, 2004, for the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) .

In conclusion, to say that this small group are liars would mean that one was convinced that they indeed still had the ability to discern between reality and the ever more-multilayered fantasy world they have constructed for themselves and I, for my part, am not at all convinced that is the case. But what has always been a characteristic of weak and feeble minds, whose arguments are so fragile that they can barely support their own weight let alone that of an informed dissenting voice, is the desire to not only to make sure that their own voices are heard (fine with me), but to silence the voices they disagree with. Unfortunately with this current of thought from mostly well-off, white progressives, Haitians are interesting only insofar as they can either be lauded as heroes or damned as villains, with no acknowledgement for any of the grey areas in between, and with no appreciation that, particularly in a society as impoverished, and wracked by violence as Haiti, human beings are creatures of complex motivation, not easily summed up by the empty sloganeering this current is reduced to for lack of any real understanding of the country.

The Haiti I know and love is full of people who, in their everyday struggles, display twenty times the heroism that any politician I have seen in the country ever has: A man working late hours at his media support group despite the danger of being kidnapped if he is late returning home; a father, out of work for three years, who dutifully gets up to pound the pavement every day in order to search for a job to support his family and restore his sense of dignity, and his wife, who braves strikes, demonstrations and the daily threat of violence to go teach school at a facility often lacking the basic instruments for education such as books, pens and paper; the woman fleeing a gang war sheltering in the parking lot of a Baptist mission who has nothing in mind more than keeping her children safe from the struggle for miserable power. These are the real heroes of Haiti, not the politicians.

Of course, there are people engaging in those everyday struggles all around the world, and I, for one, have to go out and report on them today.

L'Union fait la force.


Sutton said...

Michael, glad to see you taking a stand against these obstructionist shouters. Too bad you have to spend any of your time on them, but so it goes...

Babette said...

Michael - Thanks for speaking out on this issue. It is disheartening that those who wish to form a clear picture of current events in Haiti are instead being fed propaganda. It is also distressing when news services allow themselves to be used by partisans. IPS should be grateful to you. I know that I am. Elizabeth Eames Roebling