When the floodwaters of New Orleans forced the nation to stare unflinchingly at the black underclass, you could hear the same refrain everywhere: "That looks just like Haiti." But as usual, no one gave much thought to Haiti itself, the society that sets the standard for misery in the Western hemisphere. Two-thirds of Haitians are unemployed, life expectancy is roughly fifty years, and the average wage is about a buck a day. On November 20 the country will conduct the first national elections since a coup ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide last year, but candidate and Aristide supporter Father Gerard Jean-Juste won't be on the ballot -- because the government has thrown him in prison. Meanwhile the slums outside Port-au-Prince yield near-daily harvests of corpses, victims of government repression and gang warfare.
Despite these desperate straits, and evidence of American involvement in the coup, most US media outlets have been decidedly nonchalant. In fact, Kevin Pina, a filmmaker born and raised in Oakland who has spent the last six years shooting documentaries about Aristide and the coup, may be the only American reporter dedicated to the prospect that Haitian lives matter. Two weeks ago, this dedication almost got him killed.
On the afternoon of September 9, while reporting from Port-au-Prince, Pina received a call: Officers with the National Police were ransacking Jean-Juste's church for evidence he'd been involved in the murder of a journalist. Pina grabbed his camera and raced to the scene. Just outside the door to the priest's private residence, he heard men breaking furniture. "I push open the door, and there are three policemen dressed in black," Pina says.
Pina waved his press pass and started rolling tape, and the group's leader suddenly turned on him. "This man in a suit starts yelling at me, 'You terrorist! You white bandit!'" he says in a phone interview. It would be hours before he learned that man was Jean Perez Paul, president of the National Magistrates Association and the judge presiding over Jean-Juste's case. As Perez Paul screamed at him, Pina says he flashed his credentials and retorted that the Haitian constitution allows the media to be present during the search of a defendant's home. After a few minutes, he stopped taping and started walking toward the door, but the cops grabbed Pina and cuffed him.
Perez Paul demanded to know how he heard about the search. When Pina replied he had an anonymous tip, the judge ordered the officers to check the numbers in Pina's cell phone. "I responded, 'You may do so, but I am demanding that a representative of my government be present when you search my person,'" Pina recalls. "At that moment it became a question of protecting my sources."
Pina says Haitian police threw him in the back of an SUV along with Jean Ristil, a Haitian Associated Press reporter nabbed when he tried to photograph Pina's arrest. The two spent an hour in the back of the sweltering vehicle until cops drove him to the Delmas 33 juvenile prison facility.
The two reporters spent the night in a cell with fifteen teenage boys. They lay sheets on the ground to sleep. Cockroaches scuttled around them, and inmates relieved themselves in a bucket. Sometime around midnight, Pina says, a guard ordered a fourteen-year-old boy to the cell entrance, then beat the boy and forced him to break-dance for his amusement. "It was sick, just absolutely sadistic," Pina says.
Outside, Pina's friends were working to free him. Pina and Ristil were moved to a smaller, cleaner cell, which they shared with four police officers accused of killing a prisoner. On the third day, Pina says, Perez Paul interrogated him personally. For more than three hours, the journalist says, the judge tried to get him to admit he was guilty of assault, and said "that he would never, ever let me go, just make a point of the fact that Haitians still run this country. And that he would throw me in the National Penitentiary and lose the key." But Pina didn't break. In fact, he says, he insisted the president of the Association of Haitian Journalists serve as his interpreter during the interrogation. On September 12, the government let the two reporters walk.
Haitian activists say Pina's story isn't nearly so remarkable as the fact he is virtually the only American reporter working full-time to publicize that country's incomparable misery. A search of the Nexis news database revealed that The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times combined have written just six substantive stories about the Haiti situation in the past six months, and the Washington Post has published nothing exceeding six hundred words, save one editorial. In the same period, NPR has done just a handful of stories, and CNN has done nothing of substance. Just as the Taliban could reduce Afghanistan to a Stone-Age theocracy with only sporadic hand-wringing from the press, Haiti can apparently bathe itself in blood and the open sewers of Cité Soleil with just the occasional feature writer taking notice.
Pierre Labossiere moved from Haiti to the East Bay 25 years ago; in the 1990s, he cofounded the Haiti Action Committee, a local organization dedicated to connecting volunteers and charitable donations with peasant cooperatives. Although his personal contacts in Haiti keep him abreast of current events, he says that as far as the American media is concerned, he has to rely on KPFA's Flashpoints program and the San Francisco Bay View, a black newspaper with a circulation of 20,000. "He is the only guy," Labossiere says of Pina's reporting.
Steven Forester, who works to halt the deportation of refugees on behalf of the nonprofit Haitian Women of Miami, says Florida's Haitian residents learn about their mother country's troubles via a string of Creole radio stations. But apart from the occasional editorial in the Miami Herald, the English-speaking press is virtually oblivious to Haiti's suffering. "We think there should be much more focus by the media on the horrendous political conditions," Forester says. "If Venezuela were about to host elections and not permit the most popular person in the country to be on the ballot because he's in prison on trumped-up charges, the US would be roundly condemning that government. We have a double standard when it comes to Haiti."
Fathoming the priorities of the national media is, of course, an imprecise science. Haiti has always been a mess, and the United States has always been complicit in its suffering, from military intervention in the 1930s through our relationship with the Duvaliers, right up to the latest shameful episode last year. Perhaps fresh pain is more newsworthy than the perpetual kind.
Meanwhile, Pina will continue broadcasting his quixotic stories for as long as he lives. He's trying to recover from a fever he picked up in the jail, lying low, and trying not to antagonize the country's cops for a while. According to Labossiere, Haitian police beat Pina two months ago, and this latest episode has made his friends fear for his life. "I'm very worried for his safety," Labossiere says. "We've talked, and I urged him to protect himself, but he says he's doing his work as a journalist."
Asked if he's afraid he might be killed, Pina replies, "Sure I am. I'd be lying if I said I weren't. But I can't live in fear either. I just have to keep my wits about me."
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