Wanted: P.R. Director for Haiti

By Downie, Andrew | American Journalism Review, May 1995 | Go to article overview

Wanted: P.R. Director for Haiti


Downie, Andrew, American Journalism Review


For a man who spent his three-year exile in Washington, D.C., the spin capital of the world, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide learned very little about how the press works.

Since his historic return to power last October, the Aristide administration's handling of the media has been problematic at best and arrogant at worst.

The media relations of the regimes preceding Aristide offer a sharp contrast to those of the current administration. The military regimes understood the value of cultivating the foreign press, probably because it allowed them to divert attention from the atrocities they committed. The media were the only conduit to the outside world for the military, because governments and international organizations treated it as a pariah.

But it seems as though the Aristide administration has no such agenda. In addition to typical problems with the press, such as an aversion to returning phone calls, the Aristide government has placed the most uncooperative officials in positions in which people skills are needed and has succeeded in alienating the foreign press.

"I don't think they took the time to see they could use the press to their advantage," says Kathie Klarreich, an American journalist who has covered Haiti for the Christian Science Monitor.

But at least the incompetence of Aristide's staff is not complemented with denial. "It is an office still in the making," Aristide spokesman Yvon Neptune says. "I have to say, frankly, we are at the stage of trying to better things."

This will not be easy. The government inherited by Aristide was thoroughly ransacked by the outgoing regime. The press office, staffed by 10 employees - one-third the target number - has just two telephone lines and only recently acquired a fax machine.

The Haitian government has also fallen into the classic Third World trap of failing to delegate responsibility. Even the tiniest scrap of information must be approved by the highest official source or come from an official spokesperson. This means reporters can spend an entire day trying to find out something as mundane as the age of a new public works minister or the Supreme Court justices.

And for those rare facts that are public knowledge, spokespeople refuse to verify them until Aristide makes an official announcement. …

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