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Shoot the Messenger


The important study "Human rights abuse and other criminal violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: a random survey of households," by Athena Kolbe and Royce Hutson of Wayne State University in Detroit, was initially posted to The Lancet‘s website on Thursday, August 31, two days prior to its release in print as a feature article in the September 2 issue of the journal (Vol. 368, No. 9538). 

Today happens to be Tuesday, September 12.  This means that the Kolbe – Hutson study has been in circulation online for 13 days, and in print for 11.  During this period, I've been able to find three reports about the substance of the study bylined by Jeff Heinrich and circulated via the CanWest News Service in Canada (which has meant that multiple Canadian print dailies have published these reports beginning with the first of them on September 1); one report by Andrew Buncombe for the September 4 Independent (also republished that same day in the Belfast Telegraph); one commentary by Ira Kurzban in the September 7 Miami Herald; a single 175-word news blurb placed into circulation by Associated Press over September 7 and 8; one report by Marina Jiménez for the September 7 Toronto Globe and Mail; one report by Duncan Campbell for the September 8 Guardian; and, finally, one editorial in the September 11 Montreal Gazette. (Note that during these 13 days, the Montreal Gazette published three reports by Jeff Heinrich.) 

Now.  It is always possible that something else appeared some place else, and I simply didn’t find it.  But from what I have in fact found, a perfectly reasonable inference follows.  Namely, that within the English-language news media, there has been very little interest overall in the Kolbe – Hutson study.  As our friends over at the U.K.-based Media Lens group put it in their September 11 Media Alert (Haiti – The Traditional Predators”):

In 2004, with the US, UK and French governments eager to see Aristide demonised and removed from power, the British and US media published hundreds of articles about the human rights situation in Haiti. Dozens of journalists lined up to vilify a democratically elected Haitian government that, in reality, had temporarily thrown off the "traditional predators" promoting Western interests.

Just two years on, a peer-reviewed report published in a prestigious scientific journal showing that Western policy has again unleashed mass killing on Haiti has simply been ignored. The US and UK governments have of course responded with silence. As though functioning as a fully-fledged state-run propaganda system, the watchdogs of our 'free press' have followed suit.   

You see, it all depends on whom is doing the killing.  And, more precisely, on whether or not the killing and the suffering can be blamed on an officially-designated demon.  As a rule, when killing and suffering can be blamed on an officially-designated demon–and my absolute favorite example over the past 15 years has been Slobodan Milosevic or the Bosnian Serbs or simply ethnic Serbs per se during the contests over the fate of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, ca. 1991 through the present–though I should add that the case of the light-skinned Arabs of Khartoum ranks pretty high, too, as does "Islamic Fascism" more generally–then the professionals who work for the news media will zero-right-in on the blameworthy, leaving no stone unturned, no corpse uncounted, no missing person uncommemorated.  And this practice occurs regardless of whether the blame is fair and balanced or an out-and-out fabrication. 

But what is most striking about the last four items that I catalogued at the outset (i.e., by AP, the Toronto Globe and Mail, The Guardian, and the Montreal Gazette) is that each one of them takes an interest in the Kolbe – Hutson study only because, and only insofar as, other parties have sought to discredit it. 

Thus during its very short public life (i.e., the study is not quite two-weeks-old yet), the Kolbe- Hutson study has gone from being almost completely ignored (except in Canada) to being trashed, all without ever passing through a period when its findings were so much as reported.—Can you imagine a report published in a highly respected, peer-reviewed, scientific journal making comparably startling claims about the levels of violence–including sexual violence–in theaters of conflict such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, or The Sudan receiving the same kind of ignore-it or bash-it treatment?

Still more precisely yet, it isn’t so much the Kolbe – Hutson findings of large-scale violence in post-Aristide Haiti that have come under criticism and attack.  Quite the contrary.  It is the integrity of the researchers themselves that is under fire.  And one researcher in particular—Athena Kolbe. 

Thus each of the three reports by AP, the Globe and Mail, and The Guardian, as well as the editorial in the Montreal Gazette, have focused on what they or the people they are quoting descry as a alleged “conflict of interest” in Athena Kolbe’s background.  According to AP (“Haiti: UK medical journal investigating author of study,” Sept. 7 – 8):

British medical journal The Lancet said Thursday it is investigating an alleged conflict of interest by an author of a report in the current issue that claims 8,000 people were slain under Haiti's interim government.

A critic of the study accused one of the report's authors of being a supporter of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose ouster following a violent uprising led to the installation of the U.S.-backed interim government that ran the country from 2004 to 2006.

Astrid James, a deputy editor of The Lancet, said the journal is investigating the allegations, but stands by the report, which also said up to 35,000 women were sexually abused while the interim government ruled the troubled Caribbean nation.

The journal took the action after learning that Athena Kolbe, one of two U.S. authors of the report, had volunteered in 1995 at an orphanage founded by Aristide and has written articles in various newspapers in support of Aristide while he was president and after.

Kolbe, a researcher at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, denied any conflict.

As the Globe and Mail described it (Author of Lancet article on Haiti investigated,” Sept. 7), “Ms. Kolbe herself is now the subject of controversy after revelations that the 30-year-old master's degree student at Wayne State University's school of social work in Detroit used to be an advocacy journalist who wrote under the name Lyn Duff and worked at a Haitian orphanage founded by Mr. Aristide.” 

Then in the very next two paragraphs, excerpts from a “letter of complaint to The Lancet” drafted by one Charles Arthur of the U.K.-based Haiti Support Group were reproduced.  These two paragraphs read as follows:

"How can Kolbe/Duff's research into the issues of human-rights violations be regarded as objective when she herself states that for 3.5 years she worked with the Lafanmi Selavi centre for street children, where she befriended Aristide himself and presumably some of the boys who later left the centre . . . [who] then acted as armed enforcers?" Charles Arthur, co-ordinator of the British-based Haiti Support Group, wrote this week in a letter of complaint to The Lancet.

"There is a concerted international campaign to distort news and manipulate information about Haiti with the apparent aim of repairing the reputation of Aristide. I am concerned The Lancet has unwittingly been used as part of the pro-Aristide propaganda campaign."

What is important to notice here, I believe, is that the Charles Arthur letter has not been published by The Lancet—and if it ever is published, one day, it won’t be published by The Lancet for several weeks. 

(Quick aside: See if you can find a copy of Charles Arthur's letter, either at The Lancet's website or the website of this Haiti Support Group.  I know I for one haven't found it yet.)

My hunch is that this Charles Arthur letter entered circulation as a P.R. – type news release on behalf of the Haiti Support Group (and whomever supports it), and that the newspapers that have chosen to cite it have decided that it possesses a great deal of credibility, as opposed to the Kolbe – Hutson study itself.  I honestly don’t know much of anything about Charles Arthur or the Haiti Support Group. But for AP, the Toronto Globe and Mail, The Guardian, and the Montreal Gazette to have given greater weight to an as-yet unpublished letter to the editor of The Lancet than they did to The Lancet‘s decision to publish a peer-reviewed study of violence in post-Aristide Haiti is a pretty remarkable fact, I think.  And a pretty revealing fact, too.  It certainly makes me wonder whether there might be a concerted international campaign to distort news and manipulate information about Haiti, with the apparent aim of preserving the reputation of the powers that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide over the course of February, 2004, and that subsequently undertook the management of the country’s political and economic institutions, both via the United Nations and more direct methods.  Needless to say, it also makes me concerned about the possibility that that AP, the Toronto Globe and Mail, The Guardian, and the Montreal Gazette have quite wittingly permitted themselves to become accomplices in an anti-Aristide, pro-military-interventionary propaganda campaign.—What do you think?

To date, the Montreal Gazette has turned out to be most harsh of all toward the Kolbe – Hutson study.  According to its September 11 editorial (“Haiti study deserved to be trashed”), “Kolbe's authorship, coupled with her involvement with an orphanage founded and run by Aristide, constitutes an obvious conflict of interest.”  Involvement with an orphanage founded and run by the Lavalas-founding, table-overturning, preferential-option-for-the-poor-spewing demon himself—now there is an obvious reason to discredit the study’s findings, based on the obvious biases of one of its co-authors. 

To reproduce this monstrous Montreal Gazette editorial in full (though the italics are entirely mine):

A recent study by the respected British medical journal, the Lancet, contains explosive allegations about violence in Haiti. Its most shocking finding is that in a 22-month period following the ouster of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 8,000 people were murdered and 35,000 women raped or sexually assaulted. Half of the victims were children.

The study was innovative, using satellite-based global-positioning technology to select a representative sample of addresses that the principal author of the study, Athena Kolbe, could then visit to ask questions. And great efforts were apparently made to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information from respondents.

The survey's conclusions heavily imply that violence and chaos in Haiti increased after Aristide's forced flight into exile to Africa in February 2004.

Small problem, though: Kolbe neglected to mention she is an advocacy journalist who wrote under a pseudonym, knew Aristide personally, and had worked more or less directly for him for 31/2 years.

In her defence, she told the Globe and Mail that the Lancet knew of her pseudonym and that she was not a political supporter of Aristide's Lavalas party, although she conceded to having "warm feelings toward" the man. Her study was dumped into trash cans around the world.

Skewed, alarmist reporting can sometimes achieve precisely the opposite of its intended effect – it can desensitize and alienate people who would otherwise be receptive and valued allies in combating the ills the research purports to chronicle.

Why did the Lancet not see fit to disclose to its readers the information it apparently had about Kolbe? In fact, the last page of the study includes this unequivocal statement: "We declare that we have no conflict of interest." But Kolbe's authorship, coupled with her involvement with an orphanage founded and run by Aristide, constitutes an obvious conflict of interest.

The study makes no mention of Canadian police or Canadian peacekeepers who were then deployed in Haiti. Yet in an interview with The Gazette, Kolbe alleged drunken off-duty Canadian and U.S. troops were among the worst in making unwanted sexual advances to Haitian women and girls. Why make such a claim only verbally?

Since no similar survey was done under Aristide or pre-Aristide, no conclusion can be drawn about violent-crime trends in Haiti.

Plainly, deposing Aristide has done nothing to alleviate Haiti's extreme poverty, crime and wanton brutality. But in this tale of misdirected enthusiasm and lack of academic rigour there is an important lesson for academics, for respected journals, for the media, and for media consumers.


In other words: To hell with methodology—coordinate sampling, GPS, demographics, and the like.  Just shoot the messenger.  And wash your hands of the matter.  The same way it's been handled for centuries.

Can anybody tell me the last time you read objections such as these raised about a study published in a venue such as The Lancet?  We all recall how the study by Les Roberts et al. of mortality rates inside Iraq both before and after the American war there was treated, for one stellar example.  But I don’t recall Roberts or his colleagues ever being accused of anything as gross as Athena Kolbe has been.  Nor as quickly: For almost as quickly as the Kolbe – Hutson study was published, Kolbe’s person was being trashed. 

"Human rights abuse and other criminal violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: a random survey of households," Athena R. Kolbe and Royce A. Hutson, The Lancet, Vol. 368, No. 9538, September 2, 2006
"UN peacekeepers in Haiti," Editorial, The Lancet, Vol. 368, No. 9538, September 2, 2006 

Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey,” Les Roberts et al., The Lancet, Vol. 364, No. 9448, November 20, 2004

"Open season on Haiti's poor, study finds: UN soldiers often identified as perpetrators," Jeff Heinrich, Montreal Gazette, September 1, 2006
"Canadian troops in Haiti accused of making death, rape threats," Jeff Heinrich, Montreal Gazette, September 2, 2006
"Police and political groups linked to Haiti sex attacks," Andrew Buncombe, The Independent, September 4, 2006.  (Republished in the Sept. 4 Belfast Telegraph.)
"Latortue's disturbing legacy," Ira Kurzban, Miami Herald, September 7, 2006
“Haiti: UK medical journal investigating author of study,” Associated Press, September 7 – 8, 2006
"Military police probe claims troops threatened Haitians," Jeff Heinrich, Montreal Gazette, September 7, 2006
Author of Lancet article on Haiti investigated,” Marina Jimenez, Toronto Globe and Mail, September 7, 2006
Lancet caught up in row over Haiti murders," Duncan Campbell, The Guardian, September 8, 2006
"Haiti study deserved to be trashed," Editorial, Montreal Gazette, September 11, 2006 
 

"Lancet probes allegations of bias," Marina Jimenez, Toronto Globe and Mail, October 14, 2006

U.S. – Haiti,” Noam Chomsky, ZNet, March 9, 2004
The Illegal Coup in Haiti,” Marjorie Cohn, CounterPunch, March 31, 2004
Who Removed Aristide?” Paul Farmer, London Review of Books, April 15, 2004 (as posted to ZNet)
Option Zero in Haiti,” Peter Hallward, New Left Review, July 1, 2004 (as posted to ZNet)
"Invisible Violence: Ignoring murder in post-coup Haiti," Jeb Sprague, Extra!, July/August, 2006

For more on Haiti, also see the material archived by the U.S.-based Council On Hemispheric Affairs

Haiti – The Traditional Predators,” Media Lens, September 11, 2006
"'You Are a Dog. You Should Die!' — Death Threats Against Lancet's Haiti Human Rights Investigator," Jeb Sprague and Joe Emesberger, CounterPunch, September 11, 2006
"The Lancet on Haiti — Whom Are Its Critics?" Media Lens Forum, September 13, 2006

"Terror in Haiti," ZNet, September 2, 2006 
"Shoot the Messenger," ZNet, September 12, 2006

 

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