Journalists May Have Been Target of Haitian Violence

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By: Jay DeFoore

Last Sunday, pro-Aristide gunmen opened fire on a crowded street demonstration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, killing at least six people and wounding 30 others. Jose Ricardo Ortega, 37, a New York-based correspondent for the Spanish television station Antena 3, was among those killed.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Click for QuikCap) photographer Michael Laughlin, who was shot in the face, neck and shoulder, was flown to a hospital at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before being airlifted to a Miami hospital on Monday. He was released on Wednesday and is currently at home recovering from his wounds.

More than a hundred Haitians have died during the conflict to remove former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power. Journalists have encountered several attacks in the two-month uprising, but Sunday’s shooting was believed to be the first in which a journalist was killed.

Laughlin believes he was targeted by the chimere — pro-Aristide gunmen — for retaliation for what they see as the U.S.’s kidnapping of their democratically elected president.

“I was in pretty good cover along a city street lined with buildings,” Laughlin says. “I wasn’t an easy target — someone pretty much had to have me in their sights and decide to shoot me.”

Speaking from his home in South Florida, Laughlin gave the following account:

“We were covering a march, which was about a 12-mile walk. It was very peaceful, very celebratory. As we got to the downtown plaza, some scuffling broke out. We were advancing up the street, parallel to a Haitian SWAT team … Gunfire broke out and shortly thereafter I was hit. We never really saw who was firing at us.”

With bullet wounds to the neck, face and shoulder, Laughlin ran back along the street where he met Miami Herald photographer Peter Bosch, who quickly escorted Laughlin to a vacant courtyard and dressed his wounds. He then helped Laughlin and an unidentified Haitian man who was also shot into a nearby safehouse. Ortega and several other photographers followed.

“[Ortega] was filming me getting attention,” Laghlin says. “At some point he walked out of the house where we were back into the courtyard, and that’s when he was shot.”

Ortega was apparently struck two times in the stomach. Neither he nor Laughlin were wearing protective vests. After about an hour, the two injured journalists and one injured Haitian were taken by ambulance to a hospital in Port-au-Prince. Ortega died about an hour later.

Ortega’s previous coverage in conflicts zones included stints in Chechnya, Sarajevo, and Afghanistan for Spain’s Antena 3 network. He also covered the 9/11 attacks in New York, his last job as a correspondent. He was on a leave of absence in New York City when he volunteered to cover the Haiti crisis for Antena 3.

Hundreds of journalists flocked to Haiti in the last few months to cover the unrest. By Sunday, American Airlines had resumed flights out of the country and many of the journalists had already left. Laughlin had just arrived the Friday before to replace another Sun-Sentinel photographer.

Sun-Sentinel Director of Photography Tim Rasmussen says the paper has now pulled out its fixer and reporter, and the decision to send anyone back will be carefully considered.

“We more than most newspapers believe in this story, but I’m not sure there’s any story worth getting one of my photographers killed over,” Rasmussen says.

Miami Herald Director of Photography Luis Rios says news organizations need to be more responsible when sending journalists into dangerous, chaotic situations. The Herald has pulled one of its photographers but plans to keep Bosch on the story for the forseeable future.

“It’s pretty scary, but we feel compelled to continue the story and stay on top of it,” Rios says. “It’s difficult to tell what will happen next, and I think that’s why we stay there and bite the bullet.”

Rios and Rasmussen both say they have journalists eager to return if given the chance.

Laughlin, who expects to take a couple of weeks to recover, says his biggest disappointment is not getting a chance to pursue the in-depth news stories he and his reporter had planned. He says journalists working in Haiti should be prepared for a lawless situation where whoever has the biggest gun is boss, and nobody is safe from the violence.

“You think as long as you have a camera and you’re not a threat [the soldiers] will leave you alone,” he says. “All of a sudden they’re shooting at you and it puts things in a different perspective.”

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