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University of Wisconsin–Madison

“Off-the-record” in Haiti: A tough call in a violent country

The police chief of one of the most corrupt police forces in the Western Hemisphere was a good interview. Mario Andresol, Haiti’s top cop, was candid, engaging, not at all afraid of the camera, and he told a good story. Andresol has an instinct for the media. Near the end of our interview, in Port-au-Prince, he talked about his determination to root out corruption in the 6,000-man force, and about the dangers inherent in that mission. “I’ll clean the force up,” he said with a Clint Eastwood flourish, “even if I’m the last man standing.”

Andresol wasn’t kidding. After he started getting death threats, the United Nations stabilization mission in Haiti him gave him a squad of French bodyguards. They are very hard-looking men who drive fast, and they escort him to and from work every day. He said he wouldn’t let this distract him from the job of rooting out the 25% of the policemen who, he says, are on the take. It’s a critical job. Without an upright police force, Haiti will never achieve the kind of security it needs to develop and maintain democratic institutions. But assassinations are not unusual here, and considering the amount of graft at stake, Andresol is a natural target. He grinned when he uttered the “last man standing” line; you sensed that he’s used it before.

What journalist can resist that kind of bravado?

Suitably awed, I prepared to wrap up the interview, when Andresol leaned forward and said he had something else to tell me. “But this is strictly off the record,” he said darkly. Then he recounted a tale of alleged improprieties by a group of foreigners in Haiti—a tale that, if true, would cause an international scandal and seriously undermine the ability of a United Nations force to do its work in Haiti. I was taken aback. Why was he telling me this? What could I do with this information? I never formally agreed to keep this information off the record, but I did vaguely nod in agreement when he started talking, and my cameraman was definitely NOT rolling. Now I knew something I was not supposed to know, something which would color all my other reporting in Haiti, but something that would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to confirm.

I was in a classic journalistic bind. What to do?

First, some background:

I was in Haiti for the CBC early this year, to cover the preparations for elections in that troubled island country of 8.5 million people. Haiti is the classic failed state. In its 200-year-history, the former French colony has been ruled by a motley collection of kleptocrats, dictators, buffoons, failed priests, arrogant generals and assorted misfits.

When former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide dissolved the army in the mid-1990s, it left a yawning power vacuum that the country’s National Police were only too eager to fill. Power has always flowed from the barrel of the gun in Haiti, and with the army gone, the cops in their tan-and-blue uniforms had unobstructed access to the rich gravy of corruption: cocaine, extortion, the protection rackets, larceny, shake-downs of motorists. A resourceful cop who played his cards right could, over time, rake off enough money to buy a big house with a view in Petionville and a big American SUV, all on official salary of about $50 US a month.

Alerted to this possibility, and worried that the cops would try to transplant the army as a locus of power in Haiti, Aristide knew he had to create a countervailing force. So he started his own private militia—the so-called chimeres, or ghosts. These were mostly young men, mostly poor, all very resourceful and street-smart, who lived in Port-au-Prince’s slums, and who were devoted to the former priest. He flattered them by hosting them in the Presidential Palace, and in his walled estate, and he made sure they were taken care of.

When Aristide was ousted in 2004, this militia, by now a loose collection of very well armed gangs, had retreated to the festering slums of Cite Soleil and Bel Air and Cite de Dieu where they became the de facto law. Police ventured into these neighborhoods at their own risk, or not at all.

When thousands of United Nations peacekeepers flowed into Haiti to stabilize the country after Aristide’s departure, and to prepare Haiti for elections, these gangs became the UN’s biggest single headache. They launched a campaign of kidnapping, murder and arson. For obvious reasons, the UN was reluctant to send its peacekeepers, guns blazing, into populated neighborhoods. It preferred that the local police do that. But Haiti’s police, as we have seen, are not very adept at crime fighting. Also, they were extremely intimidated by the gangs, who were not above atrocities like cutting off tongues and chopping off hands.

Which brings us to Haiti’s current security stalemate, and to Chief Andresol’s off-the-record comments to me in his office. For obvious reasons, I can’t be more specific, but his information, which he says came from informants, was meant to explain why the UN hadn’t taken more muscular action against the gangs.

A journalist’s first question, when this kind of information falls into his lap, should be: Why me? Why would an official give such incendiary information to a journalist he’s never met? And the corollary should be, why would he assume that I, a total stranger who hadn’t even shown him a press card, would even respect the “off-the-record” rules of my profession?

The answer to the first question was evident. The police chief was highly impatient with the UN mission but he couldn’t say so publicly. That would be a serious breach of protocol, and might even cost him his job. But if he “leaked” his impatience to journalists, especially those with a foreign audience, the message would surely get across.

That was easy. The second question was trickier. After some reflection, I decided that Andresol didn’t care if I honored his “off-the-record” or not. I didn’t have his comments on tape. If I published or went to air with his allegations, he could deny everything, or dismiss it as a misunderstanding due to a language problem. And he would still get his message across.

Meanwhile, I was left with a number of choices:
(a) I could ignore what he’d told me.
(b) I could violate my implicit agreement to keep his remarks off the record, and quote him directly.
(c) I could publish the information, but not reveal my source.
(d) I could take this information to other officials, ask for corroboration, and if they denied it, I could name my “impeccable” source, or finally,
(e) I could take this information to other officials without identifying my source, push it aggressively, gauge their reactions, and then decide.

Complicating matters was the fact that the information Andresol had given me was almost impossible for me to confirm (or refute) independently, on my own.

Choice (a) was a non-starter. Once you as a journalist “know” something that is fundamental to a story you are covering, it’s impossible to ignore it. Often it will color all the other information you gather in your researches and interviews. Like it or not, it becomes part of the corpus of information you have collected. You can’t not know. As you interview other people, you can’t not incorporate this information in your questions. At the same time, you cannot refer to that off-the-record information explicitly.

Choice (b) was, ethically, not a choice at all for me. And choice (c) was too hazardous. What if Andresol was outright lying? Besides, the information was too hot to use without at least one strong corroborating source. Choice (d) was very tempting, but it still skirted the ethical line.

In the end, I decided to take the only road. The high road. Yes, I was probably being manipulated by an official. Yes, I could probably get away with breaking an ethical rule; I was far away from home. I could cover my tracks and there would likely be no consequences. Yes, the information, if true, was important enough to deserve an airing.

But “off-the-record” means exactly that, in whatever circumstance. And the rules of verification are well known. I took the police chief’s information to a number of people in a position to know (I’m certain he knew I would) and they could not, or would not confirm it. When I pressed, they offered some circumstantial evidence of why the information was unlikely to be true. But that’s as close as I got. I never named my source.

I’m still not sure whether I missed out on a good story. Perhaps I did. But there are other stories out there, bigger stories, and when you pick up the phone to request an interview on that next story, your ethical reputation may be the factor that determines whether you succeed or not. That’s the underlying lesson.


CLAUDE ADAMS is the former Washington bureau chief for major newspapers, and the former Chief Correspondent in Europe for the CBC, covering such events as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the 1990 Gulf War. He hosted a number of current affairs programs on the PBS network in the United States, including a 13-part series on World Terrorism. Adams headed a Hong Kong-based video production company, which produced documentaries for distribution in North and South America, Europe and Asia. He is currently an instructor in broadcast journalism at the UBC School of Journalism. Also, Adams has been the CanWest Global Visiting Professor at the school.


Past Commentaries

January 13, 2006

Memo to Media by Alan Bass

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