Human Rights, Media Silence And The Lancet

Kidnapping Aristide

In a series of alerts in 2004 we examined media coverage of events surrounding the military coup that forced Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile on February 29, 2004.

Aristide was flown out of the country in a US plane and taken to the Central African Republic – an event that he described as a “kidnapping” in the service of a coup d’etat. (Democracy Now, “President Aristide Says ‘I Was Kidnapped – Tell The World It Is A Coup'”, March 1, 2004, www.democracynow.org/ article.pl?sid=04/03/01/1521216)

The following day, Andrea Mitchell, NBC’s Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, reported on Nightly News:

“With Aristide gone, Haiti can now qualify for millions of dollars in aid, frozen since 1997 because of Haiti’s political chaos.” (NBC Nightly News, ‘Haitian rebels celebrate departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide who claims he was forced out by US,’ March 1, 2004)

Commenting on this observation, Dan Beeton of the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote last month:

“Mitchell may have stated something bluntly that U.S. Government, World Bank, and IDB [Inter-American Development Bank] officials preferred to imply in more subtle terms: the problem always was Aristide and Lavalas – their policies, and the lenders’ refusal to work with them anymore.” (Beeton, ‘What the World Bank and IDB Owe Haiti,’ Global Policy Forum, August 2, 2006; www.zmag.org/content/print_article .cfm?itemID=10698&sectionID=55)

The economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, explained the nature of “the problem” with Aristide in the Financial Times in March 2004:

“The crisis in Haiti is another case of brazen US manipulation of a small, impoverished country with the truth unexplored by journalists… President George Bush’s foreign policy team came into office intent on toppling Mr Aristide, long reviled by powerful US conservatives such as former senator Jesse Helms who obsessively saw him as another Fidel Castro in the Caribbean.” (Sachs, ‘Don’t fall for Washington’s spin on Haiti,’ Financial Times, March 1, 2004)

The Double Game

Aristide had previously been forced into exile by a military coup in September 1991, before being returned in 1994 with the assistance of 20,000 US troops. We noted in our alerts in 2004 that the US had been playing a “double game”. Despite returning Aristide under armed guard, the 1991 coup was in fact armed and financed by the United States, and led by US-trained personnel who slaughtered much of the grassroots Lavalas movement supporting Aristide. We cited Noam Chomsky‘s summary of events:

“The Haitian generals in effect were being told [by Washington]: ‘Look, murder the leaders of the popular organisations, intimidate the whole population, destroy anyone who looks like they might get in the way after you’re gone.’… And that’s exactly what [coup leader] Cedras and those guys did, that’s precisely what happened – and of course they were given total amnesty when they finally did agree to step down.” (Chomsky, Understanding Power, The New Press, 2002, p.157)

Aristide was allowed to return in 1994 only after he had agreed to accept the US military occupation and Washington’s harsh “structural adjustment” package. But Aristide failed to jump all of the hurdles set up by US power. Peter Hallward, professor of philosophy at Middlesex University, explained in a rare, honest article on the subject in the Guardian:

“One of the reasons why Aristide has been consistently vilified in the press… is that Aristide never learned to pander unreservedly to foreign commercial interests. He reluctantly accepted a series of severe IMF structural adjustment plans, to the dismay of the working poor, but he refused to acquiesce in the indiscriminate privatisation of state resources, and stuck to his guns over wages, education and health.

“What happened in Haiti is not that a leader who was once reasonable went mad with power; the truth is that a broadly consistent Aristide was never quite prepared to abandon all his principles.” (Hallward, ‘Why they had to crush Aristide: Haiti’s elected leader was regarded as a threat by France and the US,’ The Guardian, March 2, 2004)

This honest framing of the issue, was almost never seen in media reporting. Instead, the US was consistently portrayed as a disinterested bystander intervening reluctantly in Haiti’s affairs, partly out of moral concern but also to prevent a flood of refugees arriving on its shores. The reality of American self-interest was rarely discussed.

An astonishingly naïve leader in the Independent even railed at American ‘indifference‘:

“The poorest country in the western hemisphere is collapsing, its people living in fear once again… Colin Powell’s only comment? There is ‘frankly no enthusiasm‘ for sending in troops.” (Leader, ‘America’s position on Haiti is, frankly, indefensible,’ The Independent, February 19, 2004)

The Independent was outraged by this refusal to intervene and harked back to what it perceived to be more enlightened times:

“To rule out intervention so swiftly is ill judged, to say nothing of being morally indefensible. Ten years ago Bill Clinton sent US troops to restore President Aristide, ousted in a coup three years previously. With a mandate from the UN, the US reinstated the exiled former Marxist priest. The world expected Haiti to become a de facto US protectorate… The callous reality is that economically and strategically, Haiti does not matter to the US.”

It was beyond the Independent to understand that the United States already +was+ intervening, through terror proxies. It was also unthinkable that Haiti mattered very much to US business interests that profit from a country in which 65% of the population lives in abject poverty. The US Network For Economic Justice reported:

“Whereas corporations receive vast incentives to set up plants in Haiti… returns to the Haitian economy are minimal, and working and living standards of Haitian people, whose wages are generally below the minimum of thirty cents an hour, steadily decline… Decades of public investments and policy manipulation by the World Bank, the IMF, and the US government have deliberately created an environment where the exploitation of workers is hailed as an incentive to invest in Haiti.” (’50 years is enough: Corporate Welfare in Haiti,’ www.50years.org)

The Guardian also sought to sell the lie of US indifference to Haiti:

“The unpalatable truth is that Haiti just does not matter very much, strategically, economically or politically, in the world as presently organised.” (Leader, ‘Haiti: From bad to worse,’ The Guardian, February 14, 2004)

Human Rights Abuses

In 2004, the media focused intensely on Aristide’s alleged human rights abuses. The Independent’s David Usborne published an article titled, ‘Haiti’s despot Aristide stirs up people’s revolution.’ (The Independent, January 13, 2004). Usborne wrote:

“Last week, the United States, which helped reinstall President Aristide in 1994 after he was ousted from power in a military coup, censured his administration for allowing ‘government-sponsored gangs‘ to rampage through the country intimidating his opponents.”

Usborne added:

“In its scolding of President Aristide, the US alleged that his police force is to blame for some of the recent violence.”

As the title of Usborne’s piece made clear, we were to understand that the United States government was an honest and objective source of opinion on Haiti.

In similar vein, the Independent’s Andrew Gumbel wrote an article titled, ‘Aristide’s thugs crush hopes of people’s revolution with beatings and intimidation.’ (The Independent, February 13, 2004) A week later, Gumbel’s February 21 contribution was titled, ‘The little priest who became a bloody dictator like the one he once despised.’

A Daily Telegraph leader noted that the Americans were “critical of M Aristide’s rule, in particular his use of thugs to intimidate political opponents”. (Leader, ‘The Caribbean nightmare,’ Daily Telegraph, February 14, 2004)

Again, the US view was to be taken at face value as a credible source – there was no mention of the US use of thugs to kill Aristide’s supporters.

The Times was also deeply concerned at Aristide’s alleged abuses:

“The resentment left by his flawed victory, his increasingly despotic and erratic rule and the wholesale collapse of the local economy inspired the rebellion against him.” (Leader, ‘Au revoir Aristide,‘ The Times, March 1, 2004)

Peter Hallward put Aristide’s responsibility for violence in perspective:

“… people with – generally tenuous – connections to Aristide’s Lavalas party were probably responsible for around thirty killings in all the years he was in office. Five thousand Lavalas supporters were killed while Aristide was in exile between 1991 and 1994, and fifty thousand deaths have been attributed to the Duvalier dictatorships.” (Hallward, letter, London Review of Books, May 6, 2004)

Post-Aristide – The Press And The Traditional Predators

With Aristide forced out of the country in February 2004, Haiti fell back into the hands of “the traditional predators”, as Chomsky has described them. Nine months later, a December 2004 report by the University of Miami found that “many Haitians, especially those living in poor neighbourhoods, now struggle against inhuman horror. Nightmarish fear now accompanies Haiti’s poorest in their struggle to survive in destitution [in] a cycle of violence [fuelled by] Haiti’s security and justice institutions“. (Quoted, Chomsky, op. cit, p.154)

So how did the British media, outraged by Aristide’s “despotic“ rule, respond to this evidence of a “struggle to survive“?

A LexisNexis media database search shows that the University of Miami report received literally no coverage in the mainstream press. Not one of the journalists in the Independent, the Guardian, the Times and the Telegraph who had focused on Aristide’s record drew attention to the findings of the report.

More recently, an August 2006 study published by the Lancet found that during the 22-month post-Aristide period of the US-backed Interim Government, 8,000 people were murdered in the greater Port-au Prince area of Haiti alone, giving Haiti’s government one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere. 22 per cent of the killings were committed by the Haitian National Police (HNP), 26 per cent by the demobilised army or armed anti-Aristide groups and 48 per cent by criminals. Both the HNP and members of the demobilised army acted against supporters of Aristide and his Lavalas party.

In addition, 35,000 women and girls were raped or sexually assaulted, more than half of the victims were children. Kidnappings, extra judicial detentions, physical assaults, death threats, and threats of sexual violence were also common. Professor Royce Hutson, assistant professor of social work at Wayne State University, who co-authored the study, said that while around half of rape perpetrators were identified as “general criminals”, about 14 per cent were members of the Haitian National Police, a further 12 per cent as members of anti-Aristide groups, with about 25 per cent unidentified. He said the involvement of people with political links and the police suggested something “systematic” may have been taking place. (Andrew Buncombe, ‘Police and political groups linked to Haiti sex attacks,’ The Independent, September 4, 2006)

Anne Sosin, of the group Vizyon Dwa Ayisyen (Haiti Rights Vision), said: “Cases of rape have increased dramatically during the past two years… These rapes are happening in the context of the current political crisis and are being perpetrated by groups that often have links to political actors.” (Ibid)

But the political links are deeply embarrassing to the West and its media – the study found no evidence of murders or sexual assaults committed by members of Aristide’s Lavalas movement. Professor Hutson told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman:

“We didn’t find any – we didn’t detect any Lavalas atrocities with regards to murder or sexual assault. We did detect some physical assaults by Lavalas members and some threatening behavior by Lavalas members. So they’re not completely exonerated from any human rights abuses. However… a vast majority of the atrocities that weren’t committed by criminals, but by others, were from groups affiliated in some fashion with anti-Lavalas movements.” (‘Shocking Lancet Study: 8,000 Murders, 35,000 Rapes and Sexual Assaults in Haiti During U.S.-Backed Coup Regime After Aristide Ouster,’ August 31, 2006; www.democracynow.org/ article.pl?sid=06/08/31/144231)

The media reaction to the Lancet report could hardly be more revealing. The report was initially covered in a single article by Andrew Buncombe in the Independent on September 4 – there were no other mentions in either the American or the UK national press. The story was completely ignored by the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent on Sunday, the BBC and other media.

On September 8, the Guardian finally focused on the report, or rather on claims that cast doubt on its credibility. The Guardian‘s Duncan Campbell wrote:

“The Lancet medical journal is investigating complaints that it published a misleading account of violence in Haiti that appears to exonerate the supporters of the exiled leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide of murder, sexual assaults and kidnapping.” (Campbell, ‘Lancet caught up in row over Haiti murders,’ The Guardian, September 8, 2006)

Campbell reported allegations that “one of the authors of the report, Athena Kolbe, had previously written favourably about Mr Aristide when working as a journalist in Haiti under the name of Lyn Duff. The Lancet report quotes articles by Ms Duff without saying that she is the same person as Ms Kolbe”.

Campbell, however, added:

“It is accepted by all parties that the study’s core findings – that there have been disturbingly high levels of violence and sexual abuse in Haiti in that period – are true…”

The editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, has defended the study’s excellent credentials and peer reviews: “It was very thoroughly reviewed by four external advisers.” (Ibid)


Alongside the two mentions in the UK press, the Lancet report has been mentioned once in the entire US press in an article that appeared last week in the Miami Herald. Ira Kurzban, the general counsel for Haiti for 13 years during the governments of René Préval and Aristide, noted that several days after Aristide‘s expulsion in 2004 Gerard Latortue was airlifted by the US into Haiti and named the prime minister “with barely a fig-leaf as a process“. Kurzban continued:

“His major qualification, as with many Iraqi advisors to the Bush administration, was his strong ties to the US intelligence community and neoconservatives in the White House. Having fed the administration what it wanted to hear about how unpopular and dictatorial Aristide was in Haiti – similar to the disinformation campaign waged by Ahmed Chalabi regarding Iraq – the unqualified Latortue was rewarded by being anointed prime minister.” (Ira Kurzban, ‘Latortue’s disturbing legacy,’ The Miami Herald, September 7, 2006)

Kurzban added:

“The Bush administration legacy of terminating democracy under Aristide and allowing gross human-rights abuses and corruption to fester during Latortue’s regime will take many decades to reverse. Nor was the administration successful in terminating the Haitian people’s desire for the return of Aristide, who is as popular as ever in Haiti.”

Almost nothing of this has appeared in the mainstream media. We could be forgiven for assuming that Aristide had been long forgotten by the Haitian people, that Haiti had achieved some kind of normality.

In 2004, with the US, UK and French governments eager to see Aristide demonised and removed from power, the British and US media published hundreds of articles about the human rights situation in Haiti. Dozens of journalists lined up to vilify a democratically elected Haitian government that, in reality, had temporarily thrown off the “traditional predators” promoting Western interests.

Just two years on, a peer-reviewed report published in a prestigious scientific journal showing that Western policy has again unleashed mass killing on Haiti has simply been ignored. The US and UK governments have of course responded with silence. As though functioning as a fully-fledged state-run propaganda system, the watchdogs of our ‘free press’ have followed suit.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Ask the journalists below why they had so much to say about human rights abuses under Haiti’s President Aristide but nothing to say, now, about the Lancet report on human rights abuses in Haiti post-Aristide.

Write to Andrew Gumbel
Email: [email protected]

Write to David Usborne
Email: [email protected]

Ask the four senior editors below why they have had little or nothing to say about the Lancet report on Haiti.

Write to Alan Rusbridger editor of the Guardian (one mention of the Lancet report)
Email: [email protected]

Write to Roger Alton editor of the Observer (zero mentions)
Mail: [email protected]

Write to Simon Kelner editor of the Independent (one mention)
Email: [email protected]

Write to BBC online editor Steve Herrmann (zero mentions)
Email: [email protected]

Write to director of BBC News, Helen Boaden (zero mentions)
Email: [email protected]