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Haiti's lost hope for press freedom

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It is not generally recognized in the United States how effective President Carter's human rights policy was. Here is an example:

In 1977, I was asked by the Inter-American Press Association to go to Haiti to help promote freedom of the press. President Duvalier's is perhaps the most repressive regime in the Westerm Hemisphere. It seemed to be a task as futile as attempting to further press freedom in Fidel Castro's Cuba.

But to our amazement, my colleague, Bill Landray of the St. Petersburg Times, and I found a legitimate move by Duvalier toward press freedom. Since the country is mostly illiterate, radio is the principal news medium. We found several radio stations actually criticizing the government. We interviewed Duval-ier, and he personally committed himself to guarantee the safety of the dissident journalists.

Recently, here in New York, I came across one of those daring radio journalists, Jean Dominique. He had been the owner of the leading independent radio station, and himself the most consistent critic of the government. Dominique had become the symbol of the move toward Haitian press freedom. Other Haitian journalists took their cue from him. They observed how far Dominique would go in ''testing'' the so-called ''democratization'' process, and after a safe interval they would follow.

Now Dominique is in exile. And, in fact, is lucky to be alive. In 1981, Duvalier's henchmen took over the radio station. Dominique fled and hid several days in a cane field. He was rescued by a US Embassy official who risked his life taking Dominique in his car to the Venezuelan Embassy.

What happened to the hopeful glimmer of press freedom in Haiti?

It turns out that the entire ''democratization'' process in the late '70s was the result of President Carter's human rights policy. I would give the young Duvalier the benefit of the doubt and speculate that he personally wanted to soften the brutality of his father's regime. His justification, as he faced the old guard led by his mother, was that ''this is what the Americans want.'' The argument was convincing. This was indeed what the US ambassador consistently communicated to the Haitian government. US aid to Haiti was contingent on the country's move toward greater personal freedom.

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