Haitian Press Aggressively Hunt Their Prey

The Port au Prince press corps is proving to be a relentless bunch. With the return of a former dictator this week, the country's current and former diplomats experienced first-hand what it is like to be pursued by free and feisty journalists.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Haiti's former dictator, Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, faced a new challenge when he returned from exile this past week: an aggressive and free news media.

NPR's Jason Beaubien covered a tumultuous week in Haiti and found himself hanging out for long hours with the Port-au-Prince press corps. As he recounts in this Reporter's Notebook, it's a feisty group.

(Soundbite of people speaking Creole)

JASON BEAUBIEN: You've never done a media scrum until you've done a Haitian media scrum. Cameras are constantly swinging at cranium level, shoving matches break out just as the hapless interviewee finally starts to say something quotable. Photographers could care less about the needs of radio reporters who are trying to obtain clean audio. Radio reporters could care less about photographers' desire for portraits that are not bisected by a microphone. And print reporters don't care about anyone.

Unidentified Man: Don't push me, OK? Don't push.

BEAUBIEN: Sunglasses, baseball caps fumbled into the churning mass get crushed underfoot. And as a press corps they're predatory - they stake out, they chase, they pounce.

(Soundbite of reporters speaking Creole)

BEAUBIEN: A judge pulls up to the front of the Caribe Hotel, where Jean Claude Duvalier is staying. The judge's bodyguards open the door of his SUV and then abandon him to a swarm of three dozen journalists. The aging public official is surrounded and can't even find the door of the hotel.

Haitian journalists have no qualms about scaling chain-link fences. They squirt through police lines, they crush foliage and bushes.

(Soundbite of reporters yelling in Creole)

BEAUBIEN: "Baby Doc" Duvalier, as president, cowed the press, using his dreaded secret police, the Tonton Macoute, to make reporters stay in line.

(Soundbite of reporters yelling in Creole)

BEAUBIEN: Twenty-five years later when he flew back in from exile, the reporters were so aggressive that security forces used pepper spray and batons to keep them away from the toppled dictator. At Duvalier's hotel, his former ambassador to France, Henry Robert Sterling, held court in the center of the violent media storm. Sterling, who at the point was claiming to be Baby Doc's spokesman, was serving up quotes like this one in several languages...

Mr. HENRY ROBERT STERLING (Former Haitian Ambassador to France): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I have absolutely no idea what's going on here, he said. But the press kept pushing, asking for more details about what exactly he didn't know. They pester, they badger, they ring details out of uncooperative government officials.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

BEAUBIEN: Later, as a screaming convoy of police SUVs hauled Duvalier into court, our producer got hit by a carful of reporters. The media car didn't even stop to see if he was OK. The Haitian journalists are scary if you're their prey but, ultimately, they're a lively part of an emerging democracy and they're doing something that "Baby Doc" never would've allowed during his reign - demanding information about what's going on in their country.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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