More Journalistic Savagery from the Times

January 29, 2010

Tent city, Petionville

The Times has been very keen to show Haiti in its best light over the past few weeks. It’s best light for an audience of racist Victorian imperialists, that is. The paper has constantly featured lurid details and printed rumours as if they were facts – giving images of savagery and chaos where the overwhelming majority of the evidence we have suggests a remarkably orderly and civilized response to utter misery.

Today is a great example, with one of the paper’s internet hacks uncritically quoting verbatim from Haiti’s Chief of Police (sic), who tells of how “With the blackout that’s befallen the Haitian capital, bandits are taking advantage to harass and rape women and young girls under the tents.”

Escaped criminals are running “wild” apparently, using this golden opportunity to get back to rapine and pillage. The paper even then prints a totally unsubstantiated account of a “rape” by someone who did not see it – all she saw was a pair of panties on the ground.

Meanwhile, the UN has been ramping up its own PR machine to distract from the abject aid effort, claiming that gangsters will use the earthquake as an opportunity to traffic children out of the country.

This may be so, and doubtless there are rapes occurring, but this is certainly not the main narrative. The major crime occurring in Haiti is the sluggish and totally uncoordinated response to massive human need. Aid is arriving at a snail’s pace. Tent cities have sprung up, but there is a huge shortfall of tents that are strong enough to withstand Haiti’s rainy season. Water born diseases lurk ready to strike, taking far more children than gangsters ever could, while medical staff fear epidemics of measles and tetanus. Around half of Haitian children have not been vaccinated against either. Meanwhile, malaria cases are rising, and all forms of medicine are running short including anaesthetics used in amputations.

American troops and aid agencies refuse to roll out as much aid as they could, citing security concerns. As Scott Lewis of the Eagles Wing Foundation told AFP, “Our approach is to flood the area (with aid), get it all out there” but “(US forces) told me, you’re crazy, you’ll get someone killed. But we haven’t reported any injuries. I’ve been frustrated.”

Soldiers recognise this, even if the bureaucracy doesn’t. As Army Captain John Hartsock has found, “At first, we came here with weapons, just like any military mission. But once we got down here we realized there was very little threat.”

This attitude has compounded the obvious problems arising from a massive earthquake such as blocked roads, a damaged port, ruined hospitals and administrative collapse. But it is plain wrong – morally and factually – to explain the faltering aid effort away as somehow inevitable.


Some businesses have recovered remarkably fast from the devastation. Big Star Market in Petionville, for example, has refilled its shelves with breakfast cereals, toiletries and champagne:

Big Star Market, January 26

Life is getting “back to normal” for the rich, it would seem. According to journalist Sheldon Alberts, outside Big Star, “two private security guards stand sentry with shotguns to keep looters away” while the store has received special assistance from Haiti’s police.

If you have money, then aid is at hand. As Alexander Panetta of the Canadian Press reports from Port au Prince, “As for hygiene, there are portable toilets installed by the public square. But they reek so badly some people won’t go near them. Some people go right in the street. Missiona considers herself lucky because she’s using a friend’s house to shower and do her business.”

Yet, “There are perfectly good toilets right across the street – at the Kinam hotel. In fact, visitors there have a choice of bathrooms: there’s the one by the stone fountain decorating the lobby, the one by the pool in the back courtyard, and those in the rooms….Visitors here are served beef, chicken, pork, and fish. And if they’re not drinking water, it’s because there’s always plenty of wine and beer on tap.”


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