Discrediting the Lancet Study on Haiti

Some of the best work from Medialens reveals how the corporate press shields the powerful from their most formidable critics. High level UN administrators Hans Von Sponeck and Denis Halliday; former chief UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter; leading epidemiologist Les Roberts were all ignored even as Medialens readers flooded the BBC, UK Guardian, and the London Independent with emails asking why. [1]

Prominent dissidents such as Noam Chomsky and Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter fared even worse. The more impressive their achievements the easier they are to trash. The Guardian’s hatchet job on Chomsky by Emma Brockes is an extreme example. It was so clumsily done that it generated a huge backlash and, eventually, a retraction.[2]

How then, did an obscure, left leaning author from the UK obtain instant access to the corporate press from which to attack a human rights study about Haiti published by the prestigious UK medical journal, The Lancet? [3] Days after the study’s publication, the AP, Toronto Globe and Mail, and the UK Guardian were all uncritically quoting Charles Arthur. To slightly rephrase a question the David Peterson pursued on his blog: Who is this guy? What does he have that Chomsky, Ritter, Halliday and others didn’t have? Why were his arguments and motives not scrutinized by the journalists who handed him a megaphone?[4]

Here is a hint. The study he wanted to discredit did not exactly flatter the powerful.

An unelected regime backed primarily by the US, France and Canada – though they had plenty of accomplices – had ruled Haiti since February 29 , 2004 when President Jean Bertrand Aristide was overthrown, until May of 2006. The study found that 8000 murders, and 35,000 rapes had taken place under the interim regime. About 4000 of those murders were found to be politically motivated and committed by the government security forces and its partisans. The survey did not detect killings by Lavalas (pro- Aristide) partisans or MINUSTAH (UN forces). Arthur’s objections were that Athena Kolbe, the co-author, had volunteered at an orphanage founded by Aristide, had written articles he viewed as sympathetic to Aristide under the name Lyn Duff, and that the study seemed to “exonerate” Lavalas supporters.[5]

Charles Arthur smelled a rat. Athena Kolbe would soon receive a dead rat in the mail. Nameless callers phoned from the UK to threaten her and her family members with death and a package wrapped to look like a bomb was mailed to her co-author, social work professor Royce Hutson. The packages and threats promoted an investigation by the local bomb squad, the US postal inspectors, the Detroit City Police Department and the FBI. Which would the corporate press pay attention to; the human rights study which promoted such a swift and vicious response or Arthur’s suspicions about the Lancet being duped into spreading Lavalas propaganda? As of writing this, not a single corporate outlet has reported on the backlash against the Lancet human rights investigators, despite being fully informed during interviews of the events which had taken place.

Instead, the media’s emphasis was on Arthur’s suspicions about Kolbe, but interest in her was selective. It is worth remembering that in the US, where Kolbe and Hutson live, people like Haitian death squad leader Emmanuel Constant have found safe haven. It is not only in Haiti are they shielded from accountability. [6]

Rather than parrot Charles Arthur’s objections to the study, journalists could have explored an important question: Are the findings of the Kolbe/Hutson study credible?

It is not difficult to find human rights reports that suggest they were, but reports by Harvard Law School, the Miami University of Law, Amnesty International, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) were ignored by the corporate press.[7] Instead the AP, Guardian and the Globe and Mail offered us Charles Arthur and his suspicions.

Had reporters asked Arthur, as I did, if he disputed that the unelected government and its allies committed most of the political killings they would have found him revealingly evasive: “I don’t have an answer to this because I have not carried out a survey.” [8]

Journalists should have wondered why Arthur was completely untroubled by the fact that killings by MINUSTAH were not detected in the study. MINUSTAH has certainly killed innocent people in Haiti. The July 6 , 2005 massacre in Cite Soleil was so well documented (captured on film by journalist Kevin Pina) that MINUSTAH was compelled to issue a statement saying it “…deeply regrets any injuries or loss of life during its operation.” Up to 23 civilians, including children, were killed in that raid. [9]

Massacres by MINUSTAH were also reported by Canadian freelance journalist Isabel MacDonald and, significantly, Athena Kolbe – writing then as Lyn Duff. [10] Had Kolbe decided to exonerate MINUSTAH of their most serious crimes after having documented them as a journalist? Put aside how she would have put this past her co-author and the Lancet reviewers. The much more reasonable explanation is the one Kolbe gave: no one had been exonerated. Killings by MINUSTAH were not committed on a large enough scale to be picked up in the survey. But this undermines the charge that Kolbe’s political sympathies skewed the results. It was therefore ignored by both Arthur and the press.

The press would not reveal that Charles Arthur’s Haiti Support Group is part of a larger network of NGOs that facilitated the coup of 2004. This network includes Christian Aid and Batay Ouvriye, a leftist anti-Lavalas group often featured on Arthur’s website. [11] The U.S. and Canadian governments generously funded many of these groups. In 2000 the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) drastically increased its funding of left leaning opponents of Lavalas. Among them were Rights and Democracy, Alternatives, Oxfam Quebec and various human rights groups in Haiti – including the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, NCHR (now RNDDH) which received $100,000 from CIDA in 2004. [12] RNDDH became notorious for the way it ignored repression of Lavalas supporters after the coup. The Lancet study highlighted the human cost of their silence, but also the cost of the corporate media’s silence. That explains why Charles Arthur would gain such prompt and uncritical attention.

Consider the Toronto Globe and Mail. Weeks before the coup, Globe columnist and foreign editor Paul Knox put out several reports from Haiti that depicted Aristide’s opponents – sweatshop owners Charles Baker and Andy Apaid – as frustrated democrats. Knox created the impression that Aristide had minimal popular support. The huge demonstrations that had taken place in support of Aristide were completely ignored. By the time the coup took place Knox would express disillusionment with the “peaceful” opponents he had coddled but he would never retract the aspersions he cast on Aristide’s legitimacy. Despite the length of his reports he would never clarify the relevant history that would have allowed his readers to understand what was going on. [13]

Aristide was overthrown for the first time in 1991, months after becoming Haiti’s first president in Haiti’s first democratic election. That coup left thousands of Haitians dead, drove tens of thousands into hiding, and left untold numbers raped, tortured and traumatized. In 1994, the U.S. ordered the junta to step down after outrageous concessions were secured from Aristide. The US insisted that Aristide serve out only what was left of his term and that the coup’s perpetrators be shielded from accountability. The US still refuses to deport Emmanuel Constant, leader of the FRAPH deaths squads that terrorized Haitians following the coup.

Aristide was re-elected in 2000. A minor dispute over the legislative elections of that year became a pretext for a devastating aid embargo. In 2002 US commissioned polls showed Aristide remained by far Haiti’s most popular politician. Early in 2004, while various governments and NGOs lashed out at Aristide, armed rebels made their move. One rebel leader was Jodel Chamblain – second in command of FRAPH – whose exploits during the 1990′s, including overseeing mass rapes and murders, were well documented. Chamblain’s rebels freed criminals from jail including General Prosper Avril who served the Duvalier dictatorships. The 2004 coup was led by the same cast of characters who had perpetrated the first – Haiti’s tiny elite and their armed servants. No one remotely familiar with Haiti needed a crystal ball to see what was coming for Lavalas supporters.

Familiarity with this history would have helped readers assess the credibility of Lancet study. The strength of Lavalas has always been its popular support – which has been shown in every election since 1990. Their opponents, on the other hand, have shot their way into power twice since 1990. It is clear who has the fire power, and the need, to engage in much larger scale violence – an observation the press is unable or unwilling to make.

Shortly after Aristide’s ouster, commentaries by Paul Knox disappeared from the pages of the Globe, but he continued to work as foreign editor. In January of 2005, the Globe rejected a report by Yves Engler on Canada’s role in Haiti. Knox told Engler his report could not be used “as it has a lot of commentary and opinion woven through it.” [14]
Engler would ask about a Marina Jimenez article that appeared in the Globe at about the same time “Is there no ‘commentary’ in a story that focuses on a brave Canadian police officer who only wants to help Haitians? ” The Globe had no issue with that type of commentary or with statements that were contradicted by overwhelming evidence. Jimenez would write on February 11, 2006 that “….by the time Mr. Aristide left office, he was largely discredited.” [15]

The Globe and Mail is far from being the only newspaper that should be made to answer for its coverage of Haiti. A pundit at another Canadian newspaper has stated to me in private correspondence that Haiti has been rejected as a topic for debate.

Don’t expect the corporate press to ask “Where are the other peer-reviewed studies?” According to Dr. Les Roberts of John Hopkins University, total expenditures for his mortality study in Iraq were $40,000 – far more than what the Kolbe/Hutson study cost; and not even round off error in the $200 million that the Canadian government provided the Latortue regime. Don’t expect the press to ask why studies haven’t been done by the pro-coup NGOs flush with US and Canadian government cash. Expect the corporate media to welcome anyone who can help them obscure their complicity with the worst human rights disaster in the Western Hemisphere.


[1] Medialens alert: “Burying Genocide – The UN ‘Oil For Food’ Programme”; http://www.medialens.org/alerts/04/040423_Burying_Genocide.HTM
Medialens Alert “Burying the Lancet Part 1″ Sept 5, 2005; http://www.medialens.org/alerts/05/050905_burying_the_lancet_part1.php
Medialens Alert “No Mea Culpa From The British Media – Part 1″; Sept 2, 2004;http://www.medialens.org/alerts/04/040902_No_Mea_Culpa.HTM
[2]Medialens Alert, “Brilliant Fools: Harold Pinter, John Le Carré And The Media” , Dec 19, 2005; http://www.medialens.org/alerts/05/051219_brilliant_fools.php
Medialens Alert: “Smearing Chomsky – The Guardian in the Gutter”, Nov 4, 2005; http://www.medialens.org/alerts/05/051104_smearing_chomsky_the_guardian.php
[3] Athena R. Kolbe and Royce A. Hutson, “Human rights abuse and other criminal violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: a random survey of households,” The Lancet, Vol. 368, No. 9538, September 2, 2006,
[4] David Peterson http://blog.zmag.org/node/2744
[5] Arthur would broadcast his objections on UK Indymedia and include information on churches that Ms. Kolbe and her parents attend
[6] For more details see Znet: Sprague Emersberger: You Are a Dog. You Should Die!
Death Threats Against Lancet’s Haiti Human Rights Investigator: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=10940
[7] Thomas M. Griffin, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI SCHOOL OF LAW: HAITI HUMAN RIGHTS INVESTIGATION: NOVEMBER 11-21, 2004 http://www.law.miami.edu/news/368.html
Harvard Law School; “Keeping the Peace in Haiti?”;March 2005: http://www.margueritelaurent.com/campaigns/campaignone/human_rights_reports/harvard.html
Amnesty International: Haiti: Breaking the cycle of violence: A last chance for Haiti: June 21, 2004
National Lawyers Guild, Summary Report of Haiti Human Rights Delegation—March 29 to April 5, 2004 ; http://www.nlg.org/programs/international/Haiti_delegation_report1.pdf
For IJDH human rights reports see http://www.ijdh.org/reports.htm
[8] See full exchange at http://www.haitiforever.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=6678&sid=65450d58f71114b1b449b3975f55c10d
[9] Independent: Buncombe: Peacekeepers accused after killings in Haiti :July 29, 2005 http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article302259.ece
[10] Znet: Isabel MacDonald: MINUSTAH in Cite Soleil: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=55&ItemID=9245
Lyn Duff: Bloody U.N. siege on Cité Soleil; http://www.williambowles.info/haiti-news/2005/soleil_siege.html
[11] Helen Spraos has produced apologetics for the coup on behalf of Christian Aid. See http://www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=619&highlight=helen+spraos
Christian Aid, a donor to Arthur’s Haiti Support Group, is partially funded by CIDA through the Jeannot Succes Binational Human Rights Network.
The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, through two grants from the U.S. Department of State and the NED, has a $450,000 dollar program working specifically with Batay Ouvriye. Jeb Sprague has tape recorded a Solidarity Center official confirming this. Batay Ouvriye’s hysterical denunciations of Lavalas – 2 months before the coup – can be read at http://www.batayouvriye.org/English/Positions1/decsituation.html
[12] See Yves Engler and Anthony Fenton “Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority” Chapter 3 for much more detail.
[13] My email exchanges with Paul Knox at the time can be read at http://www.en-camino.org/?p=5
[14]Yves Engler, Haiti Lies, January 29, 2005 http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=55&ItemID=7130
[15] Globe & Mail: Marina Jimenez: Haiti’s endangered elite, February 11, 2006

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