The Miami Herald
Sun, Feb. 29, 2004
Journalists often in the crossfire

Foreign correspondents and local reporters find themselves in harm's way as rebels aim to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Miami Herald

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Elie-Sem Pierre used to give play-by-play reports of Haitis spiraling political crisis from his radio station outside the northern city of Cap Haitien.

But only his eyes moved last week, as he lay paralyzed in a hospital after gunmen shot two bullets into his neck almost two weeks ago.

''I was [reporting] about what was happening in Gonaives. I was talking about what [was] happening in St. Marc,'' Pierre said, referring to two western port cities at the center of the revolt. ``I was talking about people against Aristide.''

Local and foreign journalists in Haiti are increasingly under threat as a rebellion against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide expands, and international human rights groups are sounding alarms. The journalists are being harassed and threatened at gunpoint, mostly by Aristide's supporters.

Attacks on journalists are not new in Haiti.

In the most prominent examples, unidentified gunmen killed Haitis best-known radio broadcaster, Jean Dominique, in April 2000 and a pro-Aristide mob hacked Brignol Lindor to death in December 2001. Both cases remain unsolved.


But as the streets of the capital grow more dangerous, with government supporters manning barricades to fend off a potential rebel attack, even foreign journalists are finding themselves in trouble.

Radio Canada reporter Michel Jean, 40, and cameraman Sylvain Richard, got into trouble last week when they tried to interview armed Aristide supporters manning a barricade on the Carrefour Shada intersection on the outskirts of the capital. The government supporters confiscated a camera at gunpoint. The gunmen and nearby police traded shots, and the journalists had to take cover in a police station.

''Im not going to approach them anymore,'' Jean said in a telephone interview. ``I guess [the motive] is because theyre mad at the media. But I think theyre mad at everyone.''

There have been other attacks.

Aristide supporters manning barricades throughout Port-au-Prince harassed more than a dozen foreign correspondents Friday, during a day of widespread looting and lawlessness. A New York Daily News reporter was carjacked.

Several foreign correspondents were accosted Feb. 20 while covering a student protest in Port-au-Prince. Mexican Televisa reporter Carlos Loret and cameramen Raúl Guzmán and Jorge Pliego and Roberto Andrade, a cameraman with Mexicos TV Azteca, were attacked with machetes, stoned and chased by a group of angry government supporters.

Haitian reporter Claude Bellvue with Radio IBO was slightly injured after government supporters shot him, according to other journalists.


Aristide supporters ''aim directly at journalists. Were not the rebels. Were not the people trying to overthrow the government,'' complained Guyler Delva, director of the Haitian Journalists' Association and a reporter with the newspaper Nouvelliste.

Haitian government officials claim the attackers are opposition members posing as government supporters, and that radio stations enjoy more freedom today than before Aristide was first elected in 1990.

Many of the privately owned radio stations, sources of most news commentary in this poor and largely illiterate country, sympathize with the political opposition to Aristide.

Human rights groups such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists have noted the increased attacks. Measuring the number of attacks is difficult, but several radio stations have shut or burned down, like Hispagnola International in Cap Haitien, which fell under rebel control on Sunday.

''Its an extremely dire situation, and I would imagine Aristide supporters are angry and tense, and may see the journalists as giving the rebels a forum'' Ann Cooper, CPJs executive director, said in a telephone interview.

Government media have been targeted as well.

Armed rebels ransacked and burned the offices of the pro-Aristide Radio Afrika and Radio Tele Kombit in Cap Haitien after they seized the city a week ago. Both stations are owned by members of Aristides Lavalas Family party.

The rebels, on the other hand, have welcomed foreign reporters with open arms.

They hold regular impromptu news conferences in a tin shack in Gonaives, and rebel leader Guy Philippe has dined with reporters and taken them along on night patrols of Cap Haitien.