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Thursday, 21 January 2010

Andy Kershaw on Haiti

Andy Kershaw calls bullshit on TV reporting from Haiti in today's Independent and comes pretty darn close to calling BBC reporter Matt "Mine's a Beef Wellington" Frei the kind of names that this blog does not see fit to publish. He particularly takes issue with the notion of a massive "security threat" and the implicit  need for military intervention that comes with it - intervention Matt Frei called for earlier this week.

"This assumption that there is a security threat has gone completely unchallenged by an army of foreign press, equally unfamiliar with Haiti and the character of the Haitians. Indeed, TV reporters particularly, having exhausted the televisual possibilities of rubble, have been talking up "security", "unrest" and "violence" when all available evidence would indicate anything but. 

Astonishingly, among these TV dramatists, I am sorry to say, is the BBC's Matt Frei. An incongruously ample figure around Port-au-Prince, Frei has been working himself up all week into what is now a state of near hysteria about "security" and the almost non-existent "violence". 

Over the weekend we saw him anticipating an outbreak of unrest, standing before a crowd of thousands of hungry, humiliated Haitians as they waited, patiently and quietly, to be given rations by UN soldiers. Their dignity and stoicism seemed to escape Frei who was, in any case, looking away from them while ranting about the inevitability of looming bloodshed – conspicuously unlikely, judging from the evidence of his own report. (When he is not almost tumescent about violence, Frei speculates and pontificates pompously to camera, or booms at earthquake victims in French. Most Haitians don't speak French. They speak Creole). 

Frei's reluctance to recognise the amazing self-control of these desperate people, and instead to amplify the hysteria about violence for which he has scant evidence, has brought him at times worryingly close to calling the Haitians savages.
Disgracefully, on Monday's Newsnight, Frei had the audacity – and again, anything but the evidence – to declare: "The dignity of Haiti's past is long forgotten." 

No, it certainly is not. And it took Bill Clinton, being interviewed by Frei on Monday, to correct him on that one, and to point out that Haiti still has dignity, immense quantities of it, especially in the present catastrophe. Their chat was turned by Frei, inevitably, to his appetite for imminent violence. "But what about this history of violence," he asked, "and civil unrest in this country?" 

"When you consider," explained Clinton, "that these people haven't slept for four days, haven't eaten and have spent their nights wandering the streets tripping over dead bodies, I think they've behaved pretty well." 

Clinton might have added that Haiti's history of violence has been state violence against its own people. And the Haitian enthusiasm for civil unrest has always been directed bravely at brutal and corrupt rulers. 

Most journalists were also reporting breathlessly that Port-au-Prince's main prison had collapsed. Good story. But not for the reasons we were told. The inexperience – and indeed arrogance – of every single reporter who drew our attention to the jail, missed the real significance of its destruction. 

It was not that "violent criminals", "murderers", "gang bosses" "notorious killers" or "drug dealers" had "simply walked out the front gates". (And just how did these escapees miraculously avoid being crushed to death in their cells?) Even if true, that was a minor detail to the people of Port-au-Prince, who had more urgent concerns. 

The true significance of the prison's implosion was that it represented for ordinary Haitians, like the wreckage of the presidential palace and the city's former central army barracks, exquisite revenge upon the prime symbols of decades of state cruelty and oppression. 

And many of the prison's inmates were surely not the dangerous stereotypes of these lurid reports. Haiti's jails were, notoriously, full of petty thieves and other unfortunates who shouldn't have been in there anyway. I once had to go into that Penitentiaire Nationale, where I saw hundreds of men kept in cages, without room to lie down, shuffling around literally ankle deep in their own shit, to get out of there the son of a Haitian friend who'd been arrested so that the local police could extort money from his father for the release of his boy"


Stan B. said...

He aint the only media buffoon- though I think those watching the media outside the US can more readily spot the incongruence of it all.

S. Newbery said...

Hi Colin--the links to the original article aren't working. Good and thoughtful post. Amy Goodman of 'Democracy Now' (http://www.democracynow.org) likewise reporting on the ghastly irony of UN aid to Haitians held up by UN's own demands to establish 'security' (read 'military presence') before moving in to help the desperate. She interviewed a man who told of a thirsty crowd amazed by helicopter that wouldn't land---only throw bags of bread (they didn't think to bring water) out the hatch from a safe distance in the air, as one might do to animals. No violence by the crowd; just a heart-breaking anguish at humiliation being inflicted on them by 'foreign aid'.

colin pantall said...

I don't think so Stan - people everywhere just watch and believe. I do most of the time.

Thanks Sheila - hopefully the link should work.