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Haiti's Army Shoots at Haiti's Press

August 23, 1987|Bernard Diederich | Bernard Diederich published and edited the Haiti Sun, a weekly newspaper, for 14 years until the 1960s and is co-author of "Papa Doc and the Truth about Haiti Today" (McGraw-Hill)

MIAMI — The Haitian army is aiming at the Haitian press. On one particularly harrowing day last month, soldiers shot and wounded two Haitian newsmen while another group of soldiers opened fire on eight foreign journalists, killing a young Haitian who had been accompanying them.

The crux of the problem is the army's frustration with Haiti's new liberal constitution that was overwhelmingly endorsed in a spring referendum. It ends the army's role as power-broker and strips the military of its protection from civil justice, making the army liable to a civil court for any crime committed against civilians. It also calls for the creation of a separate police force, responsible to the ministry of justice, to guarantee public order and citizen protection. And the constitution removes the electoral machinery from the manipulative hands of the Ministry of Interior and National Defense, placing it in an independent nine-member electoral council.

So the press became a target for army fury. In a communique replying to a media protest calling on the army to respect the press, Col. Gary Leon made journalists even more vulnerable by declaring that there were individuals, not members of the media, driving around in vehicles with press signs carrying out terrorist acts and opening fire on the military and on civilian demonstrators. The Haitian Journalists Assn. quickly printed up large presse signs limiting distribution to legitimate newsmen. While the signs may afford some protection from rock-throwing anti-government demonstrators, they also serve as a bull's-eye for the trigger-happy, press-hating soldiers ordered to put down anti-government demonstrations. So far, rock-throwers have inflicted damage only to newsmen's vehicles while the more aggressive soldiers have shot and wounded five Haitian newsmen in the past six weeks.

In 1957, when the Francois Duvalier dictatorship came to power, Haitian opposition media were closed down. The military liked those days better. "This army is the creation of the dictatorship," says a Haitian editor, "its soldiers were Duvalier's mad dogs. There has been no real effort to tame and educate them for their role in a democratic society." A manager of one of Haiti's leading radio stations says, "They hate the press because it is the first and last lines of defense of democracy and they fear democracy because a truly democratically elected government might put them on trial for past crimes." A radio reporter who has covered most of the recent shooting incidents says, "The army is shooting to kill. It is what we call a method of 'caponage,' to coward the people and force them back into a state of zombification as the Duvaliers did for 29 years." In a country that has known only fleeting moments of press freedom in 183 years of existence, today's media do not at all resemble the servile, adulatory, subsidized press of the dictatorship.

Today there are witnesses, young tenacious newsmen, many with no formal journalistic training, who refuse to be intimidated, reporting to a score of lively Haitian radio stations. They report from distant villages and they patrol city streets with little walkie-talkies, broadcasting news flashes and instant analysis. For all their shortcomings in experience, they take their roles seriously. The risks are high. They are constantly threatened and their families menaced. The army has reason to fear these newsmen as they improve their skills.

A plainclothes policeman, Henri Toussaint, disrupted an anti-government march last month, launching a shooting spree that wounded seven people. One victim later died. Toussaint, however, told a radio reporter that he had not been there; at the time, he was enjoying a soft drink. Then the evening daily, le Nouvelliste, published photos of Toussaint in action, blazing pistol in hand.

Newsmen, complained a weekly magazine, have been branded as "terrorists" and they have become targets of soldiers "who seek to hide their misdeeds." The Haitian press--especially the radio in a country with 85% illiteracy--is a major force for the difficult and painful birth of Haitian democracy. To snuff out press freedom would presage the death of democracy and bring about a cut-off of vital U.S. aid.

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