Over the past year, U.S. news stories about press freedom increasingly have cited the work of a Paris-based organization, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontières, or RSF). Indeed, despite its small size and lack of high-profile principals, Reporters Without Borders has achieved nearly the same name-recognition as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which can boast of having Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw on its board of directors.
To be sure, RSF has embraced many causes near and dear to American journalists. For example, it was among the more outspoken organizations demanding a Pentagon investigation of the shelling of the Hotel Palestine, in which two journalists were inexplicably killed. More recently, it has lambasted federal prosecutors for targeting Judith Miller, Matthew Cooper and other journalists in an effort to force them to disclose their sources.
But RSF, unlike the CPJ, is heavily funded by government grants, raising questions about its objectivity. And a closer examination of the battles RSF wages—and those it ignores—strongly suggests a political agenda colored by its choice of patrons. Unfortunately, the organization appears unwilling to address such concerns: RSF’s New York representative, Tala Dowlatshahi, terminated a telephone interview when asked if the organization had applied last year for any U.S. government grants other than one received from the National Endowment for Democracy.
Most notable, perhaps, is the group’s obvious political bias in its reporting on Haiti. RSF expressed its support for the Feb. 29, 2004, Franco-American overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide at the same time that it received 11% of its budget from the French government (€397,604, or approximately $465,200 in 2003). According to Haiti-based journalist and documentary film-maker Kevin Pina, the organization selectively documented attacks on opposition radio stations while ignoring other attacks on journalists and broadcasters to create the impression of state-sponsored violence against Aristide’s opponents.
RSF blamed Aristide for the unsolved murders of two journalists, calling him a “predator of press freedom,” then celebrated his departure in a July 2004 article headlined, “Press freedom returns: a gain to be nurtured.” “A new wind of freedom is blowing for the capital’s radio stations,” it proclaimed, adding that Aristide—who had no army—was planning a “scorched-earth ending” to the crisis that began when 300 paramilitaries armed with M-16s invaded from the Dominican Republic.
But RSF fell silent in the bloody aftermath of the coup, even in the face of continued attacks on journalists. For example, the police killing of radio reporter Abdias Jean in a Port-au-Prince slum this January went unnoticed by the group, as did an attack on journalist Raoul Saint-Louis, who was shot this February after receiving death threats and who is now in hiding. In fact, unlike its sustained campaign against Aristide, RSF doesn’t blame the current government for anything.
Pina claims the stories told in the press about Aristide losing support and using gangs to hold onto power were a manipulation designed by a U.S. State Department-created opposition and by the national and international media. The story the media—and RSF—refused to show is one of a hugely popular president and a citizenry that wanted him to finish his term. Opponents of Aristide staged demonstrations which the media dutifully covered while ignoring the much larger pro-Aristide marches; at the same time, the country’s largest political movement, Lavalas, was portrayed as a violent mob.
Reporters Without Borders also has gone after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for allegedly threatening the private media. The conflict between the Chávez administration and the media goes back to before April, 2002, when Venezuela’s four private television stations actively aided and abetted a military coup against the government. On the night of the coup, following months of broadcasting anti-Chávez speeches and calling for a “transitional government,” media mogul Gustavo Cisneros’s station hosted meetings among the plotters—including would-be dictator Pedro Carmona.
The president of Venezuela’s broadcasting association signed the decree dissolving the national assembly, and for the next two days the stations blacked out information about the kidnapped president or the retaking of the presidential palace by loyal troops backed by hundreds of thousands of supporters in the streets. No television owners or managers have been prosecuted or lost their broadcasting licenses; nevertheless, RSF continues to side with the private media against the “authoritarian” Chávez.
On November 26, 2004, RSF issued a report critical of a proposed media reform bill in Venezuela’s National Assembly (“Reporters Without Borders criticizes new law threatening press freedom”). Coincidentally or not, the report came just two weeks after RSF had applied for a grant from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. Although the NED ostensibly is a private agency, its money is appropriated by Congress and controlled by the State Department.
Human rights lawyer Eva Golinger has documented more than $20 million given by the NED and USAID to opposition groups and private media in Venezuela, many of them headed by coup participants. The NED granted RSF nearly $40,000 in January. Although the rights group has criticized Chávez since the time of the 2002 coup—well before the grant—its application for money from a U.S. government agency that has been targeting the Venezuelan president for regime change raises questions about RSF’s independence, as well as its willingness to criticize its benefactors.
That brings us to Iraq and RSF’s 2004 report on the invasion and its aftermath, which is rambling and contradictory. It reports, for example, that the overthrow of Hussein “opened a new era of freedom . . . for Iraqi journalists;” meanwhile, the International News Safety Institute reports that 44 Iraqi journalists and support staff have died covering the conflict since it began two years ago. Similarly, the RSF asserts that the bombing of the Ministry of Information—a war crime under the Geneva Conventions—“[ended] decades of zero press freedom.” That sunny assessment is followed by 11 pages detailing journalists killed, wounded, missing and imprisoned.
To its credit, the report doesn’t whitewash the killing by U.S. forces of five foreign journalists or missile attacks by the U.S. on Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV. But these and other attacks on the press in Iraq, such as the closing of Al-Jazeera, apparently haven’t hurt too badly the United States’ position in RSF’s ranking of countries by press freedom, currently a reasonably respectable 17th. By comparison, Venezuela is way down the list at number 77.
And a telling example of how RSF mutes its criticisms of U.S. policies is the way it has responded to the abduction of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj. Al Haj disappeared in December 2001, while on assignment in Afghanistan , and ended up in the U.S. concentration camp in Guantanamo , where he remains to this day. Not only has Al-Haj disappeared physically, he has all but disappeared from the RSF web site, where he is mentioned only once in a January 27 press release about Al-Jazeera. By contrast, RSF routinely wages high-profile campaigns on behalf of European journalists kidnapped by Iraqi resistance fighters.
Diana Barahona was an elections observer in El Salvador and Venezuela in 2004. She is studying journalism in California.
© Copyright 2005 The Newspaper Guild