When Haiti’s wealthy elites removed President Jean Bertrand Aristide from office in a February 2004 coup, they had the help of the Bush administration, as well as that of the French and Canadian governments. But they also had help from the U.S. press, which helped publicize a carefully planned narrative to justify the overthrow.
I have always been interested in how a supposedly independent press so often manages to report on foreign affairs from the point of view of the State Department. What are the mechanisms by which the government’s narrative ends up being the frame for stories about U.S. military interventions and CIA-backed coups in the Americas? Who are the foreign correspondents and how do they learn the “correct” way to report on a given crisis? Journalist Michael Deibert reported as a special correspondent in Haiti during the crisis, contributing to or authoring 16 stories, which were first published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and then in Newsday. I chose to look at the stories of just one foreign correspondent because together they provide a perfect example of framing techniques used by the press to create acquiescence towards the coup, or at least to confuse the public.
Every overthrow of a government begins with a narrative. Its purpose is to justify the military removal of a president by telling the world that he is bad and unpopular among the majority of the people. Another way of presenting it is that the leader is the cause of a problem-a crisis-and that the only solution is a change of government. Formulated by Stanley Lucas, a Haitian-American employee of the International Republican Institute, and Otto Reich, at the time a special envoy to the Western Hemisphere for the NSA, the narrative was repeated by spokesmen for the official foreign-financed political opposition as well as by NGOs funded by the United States, France and Canada. All that was needed was for the press to adopt the narrative as its own frame. Here is one version of the narrative (March 4, Newsday): “Haiti’s poor majority initially saw Aristide as something of a savior, first electing him president in 1990. In recent years, his popularity fell amid allegations that he tolerated corruption and used armed gangs to suppress dissent.”
Another variation on the theme of lost support was given while reporting on Aristide’s forced exile (March 1, Newsday): “Haiti’s first democratically elected president, who in recent years had been accused of corruption, human rights abuses and ineptitude, apparently flew out of the capital undetected about 6:45 a.m. in a U.S.-provided jet after losing the support not only of many Haitians, but of his chief international backers.”
And finally, “Aristide, who was elected for a second time as Haiti’s president in December 2000, fled into exile Feb. 29 after months of large street protests against what critics charged was his increasingly violent and corrupt rule” (Mar. 8, Newsday).
The authors’ repeated assertion that Aristide had lost popularity and support is patently false. He won the 2000 election with 90 percent of votes cast, and a 2002 USAID-commissioned Gallup poll showed that over 60% of the populace still supported the president. Even going by the action in the streets, witnesses to the demonstrations say that for every anti-Aristide protest there was a much larger pro-Aristide demonstration.
Part of the process of undermining Aristide was to question the legitimacy of his tenure as president. Implicit in the narratives cited above is the idea that Aristide only wanted power; the idea that he felt obligated to defend the country’s fledgling constitutional democracy is never mentioned. To the contrary, the authors of the articles use the word “constitutional” to describe the manner in which Aristide was replaced:
McClellan said Washington remains “committed to working with our international partners toward a peaceful, constitutional and democratic solution.” That was an apparent reference to news reports that the administration wants Aristide to resign in favor of his constitutionally designated successor, Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre (Ken Fireman, Newsday, Feb. 28).
After McClellan’s quote, the authors go on to use the word constitutional in every subsequent reference to Alexandre. In this way, Aristide is made to be illegitimate, and his refusal to cede to the unconstitutional demand that he resign is portrayed as the stubbornness of a dictator. The authors reinforce this idea of illegitimate rule by twice referring to Aristide’s government as a “regime” (Jan. 1, Mar. 1), and by repeatedly calling him “dictatorial.” They use the expression, “corrupt and dictatorial” four times and “despotic” once. Even people who fought against the coup are delegitimized by calling them “Aristide’s die-hard supporters” (Feb. 28), as if their resistance were irrational. According to Deibert, after the coup, supporters hoped he would “return to power,” not “complete his term as president,” as Haiti’s 1987 constitution required.
The slur that the press used most often against Aristide was that he used “armed street gangs” to attack opponents in order to hold onto power, implying that he had created the gangs and gave them orders. The authors use variations on the expression, “pro-Aristide gangs” 14 times and “pro-Aristide thugs” twice. Here is one way Deibert describes them: “Behind the National Palace, pro-Aristide gang members known as chimeres lounged with assault rifles and beer bottles.”
Aristide supporters don’t call themselves “chimeres;” the term is used by lighter skinned and wealthy Haitians to dehumanize poor, dark and insubordinate Haitians. Contrast the above description with this description of the Group of 184, organized with help from the International Republican Institute to force Aristide out of office: “a coalition of private sector, civic, peasant and labor organizations and university students.” And here is the description of the Democratic Platform: “a coalition representing a broad base of political, civic, education and peasant organizations.”
The many references to armed gangs leaves the impression that they are Aristide’s only supporters, especially when similar language is used to describe pro-government demonstrators. For example, both gangs and demonstrators are described as young males: “On Monday, several thousand young, mostly male Aristide partisans staged a raucous protest in support of the president throughout the capital” (Dec. 31, 2003, Sun-Sentinel). The articles do not try to correct this confusion of supporters and gangsters; for that matter, how does Deibert define a gang? The coup may have been a surprise to the outside world, but the Haitian people knew from bitter experience what the end game was, and had every legal and moral right to defend their government and themselves from the bloodbath they knew was coming. A quote from the Jan. 1 Sun-Sentinel article makes this plain: “Groups of young men from shantytowns formed a noisy barrier in front of the nation’s National Palace to prevent what they said was an imminent coup d’etat.”
Here is a paragraph that reinforces the claim that Aristide “used armed gangs” against his opponents, showing them as menacing:
On Sunday, pickup trucks were seen leaving the capital’s Canape Vert police station with their plates removed and full of armed men, and other pickups with identification removed circled on the outskirts of the march route carrying young male Aristide supporters (Jan. 12, Sun-Sentinel).
Deibert’s vivid descriptions of Aristide supporters-“roam[ing] through Haiti’s capital,” “bands of Aristide loyalists armed with clubs,” “stopp[ing] motorists at blockades of flaming tires, robbing some, hijacking cars and shooting suspected opponents”-seem calculated to play on white fear, especially in the absence of reports on the attacks against Lavalas that were occurring during that period. In fact, when rebels took the city of Cap-Haitien, it was described not as a blow against Haiti’s democracy but a “rapid victory” (Feb. 24, Newsday). No casualties are reported, implying that Haiti’s second-largest city fell without violence.
Deibert had nothing to do with the following black propaganda story, but it fits into the theme of Aristide and his supporters as savages. On May 10, 2004, singer and political activist Annette Auguste “So Anne” was violently arrested by U.S. marines, and in the following month was publicly accused by a woman of having invited her to President Aristide’s house in 2000, where the woman said she witnessed the sacrifice of a baby. According to the woman’s story, this sacrifice was to ensure that Aristide stayed in office for his full five year term (Aristide wasn’t even president at the time). This unusual charge brought out into the open what until then had only been implied: that government supporters were naked savages dancing around a boiling kettle, preparing to eat the white men-with Aristide as their chief.
Use of sources
The easiest way for any journalist to express his own bias is through the use of sources. By using some sources and not others, selecting quotes that support a bias and presenting those quotes first, the journalist speaks through his sources. In the articles examined, Aristide’s opponents are always quoted first, allowing them to make outrageous charges such as this one: “He burns children in their homes; he destroys human rights; he must go!” Through the uncritical repetition of charges, the authors accuse Aristide of corruption no less than 14 times, and political assassination twice. They quote unnamed “critics” accusing Aristide of drug trafficking a total of four times: “Human rights groups accused him of ordering killings of political opponents and of involvement in drug trafficking, charges that Aristide denied” (Mar. 1, Newsday). Deibert’s preferred source is millionaire sweatshop owner Andy Apaid, followed by sweatshop owner Charles Baker, never identified as such in the press. Deibert uncritically quotes U.S.-trained paramilitary leader Guy Philippe, who claimed that “Aristide supporters were conducting alleged massacres in towns they hold.” (Notice Philippe’s use of transference-Aristide supporters and the Haitian police “hold” towns, as if they are the invaders and not Philippe’s men.)
Most of these allegations are libelous, and they would never have been published if they had been about a U.S. citizen. A journalist who quotes a person making an unsubstantiated charge is just as responsible for the libel as the person quoted, and you don’t get out of it by saying that the object of the allegation denies it, or by using the word, “alleged.” Only in foreign reporting do reporters get away with these journalistic crimes.
In the same way a journalist can present a source sympathetically, thus making him more credible, he can also discredit a source by presenting the person as uneducated or belonging to a radical group. In two instances the stories follow up on anti-Aristide statements by quoting supporters from radical organizations, providing a contrast to the respectable-sounding names of the opposition groups:
At a gate of the palace, hundreds of people noisily demonstrated their support for Aristide. “We chose Aristide for five years!” shouted Freline Zephirin, an activist with a group called Radical Women in Action. “We will defend him to the death!” (Feb. 25, Newsday)
“All were not pleased, [about the coup] however. Watching from a street corner as marchers filtered downtown, David Oxygene, an electrician and spokesman for the Young Revolutionaries of Haiti, a left-wing pro-Aristide group, said he was disturbed to see foreign troops in his country” (Mar. 8, Newsday).
On Jan. 1, in an article about Haiti’s bicentennial celebrations, Deibert employs the technique of transference to impute the opposition’s methods and motives to the president. Even though it was the opposition that was engaged in a campaign to the finish to take power, by naming him first in the following sentence, Deibert implies that Aristide was the aggressor: “Jean Bertrand Aristide is locked in a take-no-prisoners struggle with his domestic political opposition.” The opposition wasn’t above launching an armed assault to seize power, but the articles convey the impression that the only attacks are carried out by “pro-Aristide gangs.” As mentioned above, paramilitaries who were taking towns and who had committed atrocities in the past accused Aristide supporters of the same.
The government attempted to mark the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence in the midst of protests and rebel attacks. In the article about the celebrations (Jan. 1, Sun-Sentinel), Deibert expands on the theme of Aristide’s alleged loss of support. He makes the patently false claim that Aristide has lost support of his poor base as well as introducing outrageous allegations to explain why the poor have turned against him:
Combined with a deepening poverty among the poor majority, as well as a political class increasingly bloated on drug money, segments that had formed Aristide’s base during his first tenure in office, peasants, women’s organizations, the urban poor and students, have found themselves increasingly at odds with what they see is the government’s corruption and thuggery.
In the listing of groups that have turned against Aristide, we see a classic formula, perfected from decades of CIA-backed interventions going back to post-WWII Italy: the civic opposition. Composed of business groups, the clergy, student groups, labor unions and “human rights” groups, the civic opposition is a theater show put on for the international audience through the medium of the foreign press. Look at these diverse organizations, says the press: everybody wants the president to step down. But look behind all of the civic-sounding names and you have organizations, such as the labor group Batay Ouvriye, which received generous funding from the U.S. government, and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, generously funded by the Canadians.
The numbers game
Deibert makes use of the quantifier, “thousands,” as well as metaphors and adjectives to convey the idea that the Aristide opposition is large. Opposition protests are “huge.” The opposition is a “swelling tide of protests around the country” and a “groundswell of popular discontent.” The invasion of a few hundred mercenaries is transformed into an “uprising” and a “popular rebellion,” as if the population itself had joined in the campaign. Supporters of the president, although they make up the vast majority of the population, are reduced through minimizing language to isolated groups or individuals: “Despite those accusations, Aristide still had the support of many.” This last statement is backed up by quoting a barber. After the coup the only supporters visible to the press were “die-hard supporters,” “gunmen” and “chimeres.”
Blame the victim
The authors report the economic crisis caused by a U.S.-led aid embargo in the passive voice, as if it were an unfortunate weather event: “Following the disputed May 2000 elections, $500 million in international aid was suspended.” The suffering of Haiti’s people, intentionally brought on by the aid embargo, must therefore be Aristide’s fault because of his “ineptitude,” or because he squandered what little money the government did receive: “Aristide’s critics counter that any resources he did receive – and they accuse him of getting some money from drug trafficking – were squandered and used to pay high-priced lobbyists to sell his image as a man of the people” (Feb. 29, Newsday). The president is also held responsible for political killings, as well as the general climate of violence that was in fact created by the opposition.
Omission: Reporting one side of the story
While the authors dutifully report every accusation the opposition makes against Aristide, the government is seldom given the opportunity to respond to them. Except for this quote from a Lavalas spokesman at the end of an article, there is no other direct quote from a government source:
‘Where do these rebels come from? Who is the principal architect of this situation? That is the principal question everyone in Haiti is asking,’ said Jonas Petit, spokesman for Aristide’s Lavalas party. ‘We are observing hundreds of people coming from the Dominican Republic with arms. This question is an international question.’
For balance, Deibert quotes human rights lawyer Brian Concannon (Jan. 1, Sun-Sentinel), but this is in the context of the cutoff of international aid, not the crisis at hand. Concannon is talking about Haiti’s long-term needs when it would have been more relevant for Deibert to ask him whether demands for Arisitide’s resignation were legal or justified by any crimes committed by the president. Nowhere in the 16 articles does Deibert quote a government official regarding the serious charges against Aristide that the authors repeat in the articles-that he is “corrupt and dictatorial,” attacks political opponents and deals in drugs.
Another omission is the scant coverage of the paramilitary invasion force that drove Aristide out of the country. Led by Guy Philippe, Louis Jodel Chamblain, and Jean Tatoune, the well-armed group included former members of the disbanded Haitian army. To their credit, the authors twice mention Chamblain’s participation in a 1994 massacre, but we don’t read a lot about Philippe, an admirer of Augusto Pinochet who had carried out multiple deadly attacks over the past two years. Deibert doesn’t mention the fact that the mercenaries have U.S.-made weapons even though he was present at a press conference by Philippe, nor does he seem to be asking the obvious question: Who is behind the invasion?
An interesting side story was a January 1, 2004 report about a “formerly pro-Aristide” gang based in Gonaives called the Cannibal Army, which joined up with Philippe’s forces and changed its name to the Artibonite Resistance Front. This information is true, but the way it is presented may have given the impression that Aristide was connected to the Cannibal Army, of which there is no more evidence than there is for the other allegations made about him.
In spite of relatively mild treatment of the rebels in the press (reporter Jane Regan eulogized them) it was impossible to completely sanitize these groups led by gross human rights violators, and the civic opposition denied any links to them. Andy Apaid disingenuously claimed, “We feel trapped between two [groups], an armed movement coming from the north, and an armed movement coming from the terrorizing and criminal government in the National Palace.” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Walt Bogdanich actually investigated how the invasion had been planned and executed, and to nobody’s surprise, both the U.S. government and the Democratic Convergence/Group of 184 were behind it.
The rebels quickly disappeared from the news, but they didn’t disappear from Haiti. Their murder of thousands of Lavalas supporters (estimated in a study at 4,000) was the most thoroughly censored story of 2004.
Regarding support for the civic opposition and the rebels, who reportedly were welcomed with “euphoria” by thousands of Haitians filling the streets, here are the results of the February 2006 elections, according to AP: “The businessman Charles Henri Baker was third with 7.8 percent. Guy Philippe, who helped lead the armed uprising against Aristide, won only 1.7 percent.” Did anybody call for a recount?
It is impossible to say whether any establishment reporter intentionally promotes the State Department line, or whether he has internalized the world view of the ruling class. But it doesn’t matter in the end because a reporter is not independent of his publication. According to filmmaker Kevin Pina, working in Haiti for seven years, a prominent journalist who was reporting in Haiti at the time said about his editors, “Hey, I am sorry but they are not interested in positive stories about Lavalas. I wrote it, submitted it and they told me they were not interested.” So it appears that the editors, who answer to their publishers, know in advance what kind of story the publisher wants. Even if they don’t have a Michael Deibert to file that story, they will find someone else to do it.
DIANA BARAHONA is a freelance journalist with an interest in Latin America. She can be contacted through www.freehaiti.net or www.haitianalysis.com
Unnamed experts on Haiti provided invaluable help with this article.
Michael Deibert Special Correspondent. Demonstrations Against Aristide Gaining Momentum in Haiti. South Florida Sun – Sentinel, December 31, 2003.
Michael Deibert Special Correspondent. Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this report. Haitians Mark 2 Centuries as Nation Bicentennial Finds World’s First Black Republic Mired in Poverty, Torn by Political Violence. South Florida Sun – Sentinel, January 1, 2004.
Michael Deibert Special Correspondent . Violence Disrupts Revelry in Haiti
Anit-Aristide Marches Overwhelm Parties on Nations’s Bicentennial President Calls for Patience, Unity as Dignitaries Visit. South Florida Sun – Sentinel, January 2, 2004.
Michael Deibert. Two Killed, 23 Injured as Haitian Protesters Press Aristide to Quit. South Florida Sun – Sentinel, January 8, 2004.
Michael Deibert Special Correspondent. Information from EFE News was used to
supplement this report. Masses March Against Aristide Tens of Thousands Demand Resignation of Haitian President Leader Scheduled to Attend Special Summit in Mexico. South Florida Sun – Sentinel, January 12, 2004.
Michael Deibert, Aristide Loyalists Flee. Newsday, February 23, 2004.
Michael Deibert. Insurgency in Haiti / Girding for siege / Aristide loyalists prepare to defend the capital as rebels close in and diplomats seek a peaceful solution. Newsday, February 24, 2004.
Michael Deibert. No Peace in Haiti / Aristide braces for rebel assault. Newsday, February 25, 2004.
Tina Susman. Staff Correspondent, Special correspondent Michael Deibert contributed to this story. Haiti peace deal rejected: As foreigners flee, the capital braces for rebel attacks amid fears of anarchy and vows Aristide will stay. Newsday, February 26, 2004.
Ken Fireman. Washington Bureau, Special correspondent Michael Deibert in Port-au-Prince contributed to this story. Pushing Aristide to go / Bush administration goes public in urging him to step down, and prepares plans to send peacekeepers. Newsday, February 28, 2004.
Tina Susman. Staff Correspondent, Special correspondent Michael Deibert contributed to this story from Port-au-Prince. Behind Aristide’s long slide / As chaos continues to reign in impoverished island nation, Haitians debate how much blame their president must shoulder for the mess. Newsday, February 29, 2004.
Tina Susman and Michael Deibert, Aristide departs, Marines move in / UN approves U.S. – led mission to restore peace as fragmented opposition groups in Haiti battle for political influence. Newsday, March 1, 2004.
Tina Susman. Staff Correspondent, Special correspondent Michael Deibert contributed to this story. Thousands gleefully greet rebel army. Newsday, March 2, 2004.
Michael Deibert and Tina Susman. Rebel vows to disarm: Leader meets with U.S. ambassador and then announces his forces will lay down their weapons. Newsday, March 4, 2004.
Michael Deibert. Gunmen fire upon rally / As thousands of people gather to cheer Aristide’s exile, shots, allegedly from his backers, leave 5 dead. Newsday, March 8, 2004.
Michael Deibert Special Correspondent. This story was supplemented with wire service reports. Aristide’s Jamaica visit prompts Haiti protest. Newsday, March 16, 2004.