Sergio in Port-au-Prince, and the collapse of international journalism

Just finished Samantha Power’s extraordinary book on Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special rep who died in the August 2003 bombing of the United Nations in Baghdad. It was magnificent.

As someone who spent several years writing about the UN in all its flawed crucial complexity, I was prepared to hate this book – but instead found myself blown away by its portrayal of the agonising tension between pragmatism and principle, through the powerfully simple tale of ‘one man’s fight to save the world’.

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As Terry George, the director of Hotel Rwanda, told Ms Power, the narrative drive comes from the most archetypal of plots: “Once upon a time there was a kingdom. And in that kingdom, there was a good, flawed knight named Sergio. He had a sword, and he had a shield…”

The story of three decades at the highest peaks of the UN, we learn of a man torn between the desire to promote humanitarian principles, save lives and offer dignity, and the grimy reality of dealing with powerful governments, war criminals and shifting public opinion. He is dragged in both directions during his career, sometimes going too far one way, sometimes the other. Along the way he destroyed, then rebuilt, his personal life.

It is a constant struggle, and one which – by its essential nature – the UN will always face. The United Nations is both a club of governments, and an organization committed to improve humanity’s lot. These two objectives often stand in stark opposition. To save the world, one sometimes has to make grim compromises. How much compromise is the question. Compromise too much, and you may find the world you saved to be a deeply unpleasant place.

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Haiti is no different.

The UN is here to staunch violence, and provide sufficient stability – and guidance – to enable Haitians to rebuild their fragile island. Peacekeepers provide breathing room. But it is up to Haitians to breathe.

In the broad scheme of things, it is doing a credible job. A full-fledged rebellion (in 2004), and the stranglehold of Haiti’s marauding gangs, have been ended. Institutions are, to a degree, being strengthened. And the UN is on hand to help mitigate the worst of nature’s calamities – such as last year’s explosive hurricane season.

At the same time, however, the current president is widely seen as consolidating his powers and playing fast and loose with a flawed electoral process ahead of polls next year. (The radio is filled with debate about a possible ‘electoral coup d’etat’, the kidnapping of Haitian democracy). The UN itself may be seen as a distorting influence on Haiti’s economy, creating a drift towards servicing the aid industry rather than rebuilding the country’s own capacity.

As long as it is here, the UN also serves as a distracting target for popular discontent; easy to blame where the root causes are far more structural.

The decisions it faces on a daily basis are no less complex than those faced by Sergio. How far should it support Haiti’s pre-election process, if it is seen to be unfair? Intervene too much, and the ultimate point of the UN’s presence – for Haitians to take peaceful control of their own destiny – is compromised.

With the world’s great powers otherwise engaged, and given their limited appetite for more conflict, the UN is also on something of a limb; it needs to cooperate with the government of the day. At the same time, if it is seen to go too far in the government’s direction, it runs the risk of losing popular legitimacy.

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These are the questions Mr de Mello faced every day.

Which brings me to my thought. The Samantha Power book did an extraordinary job of presenting the trials of political decision-making in a real time format, and yet cannot escape from the fact it was written with hindsight. Interviews were conducted after the event… with the clarity of knowledge that says ‘these were the pertinent facts’.

The fog of the present, however, does not allow such luxuries. How is one to know if the current uptick in Haitian violence is a pre-Christmas spree, or something more worrying. How can one tell if the exclusion of Lavalas, the party of exiled ex-president Betrand Aristide, is a major challenge to stability, or merely a reflection of its has-been status? These are questions that often cannot be answered until it’s too late.

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Telling that story is important work.

The decisions made here in Haiti are profoundly relevant to the new world order under construction. The role of the UN. Of peacekeepers from developing countries. Of the aid industry. Missionaries. International investors.

But who is charting this? Who is recording these challenges in an accessible journalistic manner, in a way that a broad international audience might understand?

The answer is: almost no-one.

The AP has a reporter here full time, and he is doing a great job. But that’s basically it. Major international media occasionally send a correspondent for a day or two, but with revenues falling, bureaus closing, and the model of independent journalism in wholesale collapse, it is very limited.

The Washington Post, for example, has one correspondent for all of Latin America. One.

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Who will take these journalists’ place? On one level, local reporters will, of course. Through the internet they have the power to reach out far wider than ever before. But resources are limited, and they will often have a personal axe to grind. The dispassionate views of outsiders remains invaluable.

Can the UN itself fill the gap? Not really. The UN – as any major organisation – does marketing, not reporting. It cannot criticise itself in public.

NGOs? To an extent. NGOs increasingly are the media in the world’s poorest most inaccessible countries, but they too need to market themselves. With finances under threat, they will be reluctant to present anything that could threaten their income.

Foundations? Maybe. But while they could provide a valuable service by sponsoring independent reportage – so crucial to conveying a message beyond tight academic circles – they are not doing so in practice, or certainly not on a sufficiently large scale. They are more interested, it seems, in promoting their own projects and political aims.

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So it is left to the occasional blogger. The random tourist. The short-term visitor.

But our resources are limited, our access curtailed, and our independence compromised by the realities of power relationships. Troubled times.

I would love to see a path through. Any ideas?

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13 responses to “Sergio in Port-au-Prince, and the collapse of international journalism

  1. Blogging is a way through – where individuals can unite, groupthink can be created and we can circumvent the ulterior motives of the mainstream media and politics and vested interests of business groups.

    • let’s hope so. as a former mainstream media guy, there were compromises, certainly, but also a tremendous independence in being paid to work for an influential outlet. the erosion of that independence is worrying. it can be easy to intimidate a blogger.

  2. Great article Mark! It takes informed people like you on the ground to raise awareness…No ideas to offer you though…That book just went on my list…

  3. Just stumbled upon your blog accidentally, and read this post not really knowing what to expect. Very interesting stuff. I will definitely keep following your blog, you seem like an intelligent person.

    Btw I’m from Denmark. My favorite (Danish) film-maker/journalist/author/philosopher/whatever lives in Haiti. I think I read in a book it’s because “he can only find peace in a land of chaos” or something like that.

    Anyways, keep up the good work that journalists apparently aren’t doing.

  4. Mark,
    although I have not read everything you wrote in your life, I htink this piece is one of the best best. You inspire people Mark!

    • That’s incredibly flattering Marianna. I don’t feel anything I have done here yet is in the slightest bit inspiring, but I aspire to do at least one valuable thing over the coming months. That would be enough.

  5. Very thoughtful piece. Sergio could represent the best and the worst of what the U.N. had to offer. I remember covering him in Rwanda in 1996. He wore soft-soled Italian loafers to mass grave exhumations. He was remarkably intelligent, but yet hobbled by his organization.

    The world needs news organizations to pick you up as a stringer in Haiti.

  6. Wow, really wish I’d discovered your blog before our reporting trip to Haiti last month. What a resource! Great entry, lots of heavy, important material here, and as you mention, happening in real time environment before your eyes in Haiti.
    I’d like to add that foundations are slowly ramping up their contributions to foreign reporting in a more broad, less issue/agenda-driven manner. Our trip, which will result in a 10 min package on PBS, was 100% supported by foundation money, specifically earmarked to support lacking international reporting in the US media. That said, we are one organization, and only funded/able to do a limited amount of reporting. But our trip is representative, I think, of a growing trend and perhaps the only solution for the moment.

    • Hi – I had only just started it, so was unlikely you would have seen it. You were working with the Pullitzer center, correct? Any suggestions you might have on funding for work I might do here would be very appreciated! (And I realise it’s a limited pot atm, so this is often expensive advice. Although I tend to believe that this is one area where reporters can benefit by helping each other… making the cake bigger, so to speak.)

      Thanks for your kind comment!

      Best
      M

      • It doesn’t appear that GlobalPost has anyone in Haiti… I’d be happy to discuss further and share opinions. Drop me a line to my e-mail. I also might be back in PaP in Jan.

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