Opinion and Analysis: International | Venezuelan Media
Reporters Without Borders and Washington's Coups
British press baron Lord Northcliff said, "News is something that someone, somewhere wants to keep secret, everything else is advertising." If this is true, then U.S. government funding of Reporters Without Borders must be news, because the organization and its friends in Washington have gone to extraordinary lengths to cover it up. In spite of 14 months of stonewalling by the National Endowment for Democracy over a Freedom of Information Act request and a flat denial from RSF executive director Lucie Morillon, the NED has revealed that Reporters Without Borders received grants over at least three years from the International Republican Institute.
The NED still refuses to provide the requested documents or even reveal the grant amounts, but they are identified by these numbers: IRI 2002-022/7270, IRI 2003-027/7470 and IRI 2004-035/7473. Investigative reporter Jeremy Bigwood asked Morillon on April 25 if her group was getting any money from the I.R.I., and she denied it, but the existence of the grants was confirmed by NED assistant to the president, Patrick Thomas.
The discovery of the grants reveals a major deception by the group, which for years denied it was getting any Washington dollars until some relatively small grants from the NED and the Center for a Free Cuba were revealed (see Counterpunch: "Reporters Without Borders Unmasked"). When asked to account for its large income RSF has claimed the money came from the sale of books of photographs. But researcher Salim Lamrani has pointed out the improbability of this claim. Even taking into account that the books are published for free, it would have had to sell 170 200 books in 2004 and 188 400 books in 2005 to earn the more than $2 million the organization claims to make each year 516 books per day in 2005. The money clearly had to come from other sources, as it turns out it did.
The I.R.I., an arm of the Republican Party, specializes in meddling in elections in foreign countries, as a look at NED annual reports and the I.R.I. website shows. It is one of the four core grantees of the NED, the organization founded by Congress under the Reagan administration in 1983 to replace the CIA's civil society covert action programs, which had been devastated by exposure by the Church committee in the mid-1970s (Ignatius, 1991). The other three pillars of the NED are the National Democratic Institute (the Democratic Party), the Solidarity Center (AFL-CIO) and the Center for International Private Enterprise (U.S. Chamber of Commerce). But of all the groups the I.R.I. is closest to the Bush administration, according to a recent piece in The New York Times exposing its role in the overthrow of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide:
"President Bush picked its president, Lorne W. Craner, to run his administration's democracy-building efforts. The institute, which works in more than 60 countries, has seen its federal financing nearly triple in three years, from $26 million in 2003 to $75 million in 2005. Last spring, at an I.R.I. fund-raiser, Mr. Bush called democracy-building 'a growth industry.'" (Bogdanich and Nordberg, 2006)
Funding from the I.R.I. presents a major problem for RSF's credibility as a "press freedom" organization because the group manufactured propaganda against the popular democratic governments of Venezuela and Haiti at the same time that its patron, the I.R.I., was deeply involved in efforts to overthrow them. The I.R.I. funded the Venezuelan opposition to President Hugo Chavez (Barry, 2005) and actively organized Haitian opposition to Aristide in conjunction with the CIA (Bogdanich and Nordberg, 2006).
The man who links RSF to these activities is Otto Reich, who worked on the coups first as assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs, and, after Nov. 2002, as a special envoy to Latin America on the National Security Council. Besides being a trustee of the government-funded Center for a Free Cuba, which gives RSF $50,000 a year, Reich has worked since the early 1980's with the I.R.I.'s senior vice president, Georges Fauriol, another member of the Center for a Free Cuba. But it is Reich's experience in propaganda that is especially relevant. In the 1980's he was caught up in investigations into the Reagan administration's illegal war on the Sandinistas. The comptroller general determined in 1987 that Reich's Office of Public Diplomacy had "engaged in prohibited covert propaganda activities." (Bogdanich and Nordberg, 2006). In early 2002, once George Bush had given him a recess appointment to the State Department, "Reich was soon tasked to orchestrate a massive international media defamation campaign against Chávez that has continued until this day" (Conkling and Goble, 2004).
Did Reich introduce RSF to the I.R.I. grants and coach the group in its propaganda efforts against Aristide, Chavez and Cuba? A look at the group's methods indicates this may be the case; the propaganda against Aristide, a former priest, was as crude as any of Reich's trademark slanders of Latin American leaders. RSF branded the Haitian president a "predator of press freedom" after linking him, without any evidence whatsoever, to the murders of journalists Jean Dominique and Brignol Lindor. It prominently featured photographs of the journalists' bodies on its web site, turning them into poster victims of Aristide's alleged repression against the press.
In 2002 RSF wrote, "A journalist was beaten to death in the town of Petit-Goâve on 3 December 2001 by a gang of killers with ties to local politicians and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas ("Avalanche") movement. The murder happened at a time when press freedom in Haiti was steadily deteriorating in the wake of the killing of Jean Dominique, head of the radio station Haiti-Inter, on 3 April the previous year" (Lionet and Avila, 2002). Note the intentional mistranslation of Lavalas (which means flood, not avalanche), and the way RSF tied the gang of killers to "Aristide's Lavalas movement," implying that the president himself was in charge of the gang.
The article is riddled with this kind of innuendo and outright falsehoods: "In this atmosphere, the killing of Lindor was seen by the entire media as a new warning." Here RSF has already tried and convicted Aristide by implying that he ordered the murders of the journalists to send a warning to the opposition media not to be critical of him. But Jean Dominique was murdered in April of 2000, many months before Aristide was even elected, and there is likewise no evidence the president had knowledge of the Lindor murder.
In the same piece RSF called the Aristide government an "authoritarian regime," accused him of calling for lynchings by the "necklace" method (see origin of this slander below), described Aristide supporters as "street thugs" and concluded that all of these alleged actions the group imputed to the government were "part of a wider strategy by the authorities to make use of para-legal militias to intimidate the media."
The propaganda would have been bad enough if RSF hadn't taken additional steps to help strangle the desperately poor, aid-dependent country a tactic it has also tried to employ against Cuba (Barahona, 2005). AP quotes Secretary General Robert Menard, referring to the government's alleged failure to bring Dominique's killer to justice, "President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is responsible for this obstruction, and we will list him among the Predators of Press Freedom, if no progress is made in coming months" (Norton, 2001).
The article continued,"Menard said he hoped the list, which would be sent to world governments and financial institutions, would help influence the European Union to prolong the suspension of some $100 million in foreign assistance." The economic sanctions imposed by the United States caused inflation to soar and deprived the government of the money it needed to operate or defend itself. To illustrate RSF's double standards, Colombia has a dismal record when it comes to prosecuting the killers of journalists, but Menard has never lobbied the United States or the EU to cut off aid to the Uribe government.
But Reporters Without Borders wasn't content with a mere cutoff in aid; by January 2002 Menard was calling on the U.S. Congress and the EU to take "individual sanctions" against Aristide and Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, including "the refusal of entry and transit visas" and "the freezing of any foreign bank accounts they have" (Norton, 2002).
Following the Feb. 29, 2004 ouster of Aristide, RSF ignored nearly all of the violence and persecution against journalists critical of the foreign-imposed Latortue government, instead claiming that press freedom had increased. RSF's 2005 and 2006 reports failed to condemn the extrajudicial execution of community journalist and radio reporter Abdias Jean, whom witnesses say was killed by police after he had snapped shots of three youngsters the police had killed. It also ignored the arrests of journalists Kevin Pina (Pacifica Radio) and Jean Ristil, and failed to properly investigate several attacks on pro-Lavalas radio stations.
Asked for his response to news of the grants, Pina had the following to say: "It was clear early on that RSF and Robert Menard were not acting as objective guardians of freedom of the press in Haiti but rather as central actors in what can only be described as a disinformation campaign against Aristide's government. Their attempts to link Aristide to the murder of Jean Dominique and their subsequent silence when the alleged hit man, Lavalas Senator Dany Toussaint, joined the anti-Aristide camp and ran for president in 2006 is just one of many examples that expose the real nature and role of organizations like RSF. They provide false information and skewed reports to build internal opposition to governments seen as uncontrollable and unpalatable to Washington while softening the ground for their eventual removal by providing justification under the pretext of attacks on the freedom of the press."
We asked the group's Haiti expert based in Paris why RSF had ignored the murder of Abdias Jean, and he said, "We asked the police about the killings of Abdias Jean and we were told by the police that it was an attack made by the police but that they didn't know he was a journalist. He was taking pictures." He admitted that none of the witnesses to the murder had been interviewed, while all the unpublished information he had on the case was based on the testimony of the police, known for their widespread killings and abuses. Regarding the arrest of Pina and Ristil he said, "Generally when somebody is put in jail, we wait to see how long they will stay.They were released so we did not take up that case." Considering RSF never took up the case of Abdias Jean, the likelihood it would stick its neck out for Pina, a critic of both the interim government and of RSF, is negligible.
He who pays the piper calls the tune. Taking its cues from the State Department, RSF has been guilty of demonizing governments that the U.S. wanted to overthrow, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti, while downplaying the human rights abuses of strategic allies such as Mexico and Colombia. Because it was able to hide I.R.I. grants which would have alerted people to its ulterior motives, RSF has been an effective tool in the Bush administration's covert attacks on recalcitrant Latin American leaders. The organization has also leveraged its image as an independent human rights organization to get its message into the U.S. media and university textbooks. This would be an impressive feat for a small group of individuals with no apparent journalistic credentials were it not for the fact that they have the richest, most powerful patrons in the world.
Diana Barahona is an independent journalist with an interest in Latin American politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeb Sprague is a graduate student, freelance journalist, and a correspondent for Pacifica Radio's Flashpoints. Visit his blog at http://www.freehaiti.net
Special thanks to Jeremy Bigwood and attorney Michael D. Steger.
Barahona, D. (2005, May 17). Reporters Without Borders Unmasked: It's Secret Deal With Otto Reich to Wreak Cuba's Economy. Counterpunch.org.
David Ignatius (Sept. 22, 1991). Innocence Abroad: The New World of Spyless Coups. The Washington Post. Retrieved from ProQuest database. "'A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA,' agrees [Allen] Weinstein."
Bogdanich, Walt and Nordberg, Jenny (2006, Jan. 29). Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Towards Chaos. The New York Times. Retrieved from ProQuest database.
Barry, Tom (2005, Aug. 4). Profile: International Republican Institute. International Relations Center. Retrieved July 4, 2006, from
Conkling, Will and Goble, Sam (2004, July 13). Otto Reich: A Career In Disservice. Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Lionet, Christian and Avila, Calixto (2002, Sept. 10). Zero tolerance for the media : an enquiry into the murder of journalist Brignol Lindor. Reporters Without Borders. Retrieved on 7 July 2006 from www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=3755
Necklace slander: The "necklace" allegations, as explained by Erwin Stotzky in his book Silencing the guns of Haiti , refered to a 1991 speech given by Aristide at the UN in which he vowed to "turn the streets red" employing the well-known kreyol protest mechanism of burning tires, with no explicit reference to "necklacing" or any method of violence. Soon after the speech, the Haiti Observateur, a right-wing opposition paper, twisted the kreyol metaphor into the allegation of support for "necklacing," which was recycled tenfold over the years by foreign media, CIA reports, and conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation.
Norton, Michael (2001, Nov. 24). International press freedom group blasts Haitian government for stalling progress in Jean Dominique murder investigation. Associated Press. Retrieved 7 July 2006 from Lexis-Nexis database.
Obstruction slander: Three suspects (Ti Lou, Guimy and Markington) were arrested in connection with Dominique's murder under the Aristide government but they mysteriously escaped in a "prison mutiny" under Latortue's watch in February of 2005 and were never apprehended.
Norton, Michael (2002, Jan. 10). Journalists Group Urges Sanctions for Haiti's President. Associated Press. Retrieved 7 July 2006 from Lexis-Nexis database. "Aristide is personally responsible for the deterioration of press freedom in Haiti and sanctions should be taken against him personally," Menard said.
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