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Journalistic Betrayal in Haiti

There has been no dearth of commentary of Mac McClelland’s recent piece in GOOD.  However, as an advocate for “Sybille” and numerous other victims of rape in Haiti, I find it necessary to cover yet more ground in this debate.  Though it is undoubtedly important that journalists -- just like human rights and humanitarian aid workers – develop strategies to cope with the stresses inherent in their chosen line of work, it is even more important that they do so in a way that does not involuntarily traumatize the subjects with whom they work.

Unfortunately, as McClelland’s article attempts to describe her struggle to manage her trauma, it compounds the trauma to the victim whose story she weaves into her own and possibly adds to stereotypes about Haiti that have historically been, and continue to be, the basis for harmful foreign policy directed towards Haiti.

Publishing an account of a rape victim’s story revisits the victim’s original trauma and risks subjecting the victim to unwanted public scrutiny and possible danger as a result.  These harms would be serious for any rape victim, but for a woman who suffered almost unimaginable barbarity and still lives in extremely precarious conditions, they are catastrophic.

But the article’s account also represents a deep personal betrayal to Sybille herself, who asked McClelland, in writing, not to use her story in any way.  McClelland had access to Sybille because her U.S. attorney – who does not work for my office – allowed McClelland to “shadow" a Haitian worker supporting rape victims.  As has been noted in Edwidge Danticat’s response, after becoming aware of the tweets that McClelland dispatched during the ride-along, Sybille sent a note to McClelland on November 2, 2010, asking her not to use her story in any form.

From the perspective of Sybille and her supporters, McClelland took advantage of privileged access in an emergency situation and thus inflicted additional harm on an individual who had already suffered her fair share.  The harm from such a betrayal is particularly severe in the case of a rape victim, because rape victims typically have extreme difficulties re-establishing trust in the world and a sense of control over their own lives. It also has the potential to chill the voices of future victims who fear that journalists will not respect their wishes regarding their privacy.  The knowledge that someone who was granted access to highly-sensitive and personal events would gratuitously ignore a request to not repeat the story can re-traumatize a victim and turn the clock back on her recovery and re-integration into society. 

Of course, while McClelland’s use of this story is a serious instance of this betrayal, we have seen similar recklessness with rape victims’ privacy by other journalists. In one case, a reporter took an on-camera interview of a five year-old rape victim that was posted to the Internet.  The grandmother of the victim told her attorney that the reporter had promised she would get help if she shared the child’s story online.  In another instance, a journalist reported the name of a 15 year-old victim she had interviewed at the BAI, claiming that she had consent from a partner women’s organization providing support to the victim.  However, in Haiti, consent for minors may only be given by a parent or guardian. Both of these cases illustrate a lack of responsibility and care in taking measures to safeguard the victims’ privacy and security, particularly objectionable given their ages. 

A final point worth mentioning speaks to a wider problem of appropriating stereotypes on Haiti in the media.  North American and European stereotypes of Haitians as violent or backward have been employed to justify three centuries of traumatizing policies towards Haiti, from slavery and a 60-year refusal to recognize Haitian independence to support for 20th century dictators and a lethally mismanaged response to the earthquake that has left over 600,000 Haitians exposed to hunger, illness and violence in internal displacement camps. It is thus important for journalists covering Haiti to be mindful of this history and steer well clear of illustrations that have a potential for fueling future hurtful policies towards Haiti.

True solidarity with Haitian victims of rape means avoiding creating further risks of danger to them, no matter what personal benefits a retelling of their stories might hold. It means acknowledging Haitian women’s efforts to overcome their own trauma while working to prevent future rape. It means not reproducing damaging stereotypes of Haiti that give rise to international policies that ultimately undermine its development. While the focus of this article was McClelland’s own attempt to manage the effects of secondary trauma, she should not have used the story of a victim who expressed her desire for privacy by withholding permission to use her story while painting Haiti in a misleading light.

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Meena Jagannath

Meena Jagannath is a legal fellow at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), the Haiti-based partner of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). Over the past fifteen years, the BAI and IJDH have helped hundreds of victims of rape seek justice in Haiti.

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