Journalists Pack in Droves For Last Flights out of Haiti

With satellite phones and 60 suitcases, journalists flocked for an invasion, clamoring for a scoop - any scoop

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THE invasion of Haiti actually happened two months ago.

Not the United Nations- or United States-led invasion now under discussion in the UN, but an onslaught of journalists who arrived in Haiti in droves in May and then waited for the military fireworks to begin.

Now, with that promise unfulfilled, journalists are making a beeline for the airport before tomorrow, when the last flight of the last carrier, Air France, departs from this island nation.

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Most of the hundred-plus journalists on the July 27 Air France flights (an extra 747 was added to accommodate the large number of passengers) had been in Haiti for weeks waiting for the story to break. When none of the rumors of an imminent invasion materialized, they packed their bags, determined not to be grounded here without air service. Crossing overland to neighboring Dominican Republic is virtually impossible.

``I kept waiting and waiting for something to happen,'' one European reporter said. ``After eight years of working in the region, I've never had a more frustrating two weeks. The feeling of helplessness is even worse when you see how stagnant the situation is.''

The swarm of journalists was precipitated not so much by events in Haiti, as, in a large part, by US reports of the inevitability of an invasion.

US troops did not land, but the major television networks, some of which tripled their staffs, fought for space at the exclusive Hotel Montana, bringing in upwards of 60 pieces of luggage for their satellite communications. The networks have been spending an estimated $300,000 to $400,000 per month for their operation here. In order to justify this and their inflated expense accounts, averaging $1,000 per person per day, the camera crews earnestly combed the city looking for stories.

Apart from increased sanctions, a short-lived flood of Haitian refugees, and the deployment of US Marines off Haiti's coast, the story has changed little over the last three months.

``Once you do one story on sanctions, on human rights abuses, on the military, and on refugees, you've covered it all,'' a foreign journalist says. ``But the television crews invested so much money here that they have to produce something, so they are doing their best to push the story to keep Haiti in the news.''

This drive for news has changed Haitians' relationships to reporters as well. Initially, crowds were suspicious of cameramen, but have since gotten used to their presence. On-camera interviews are still difficult to obtain because poor and rich Haitians alike fear retribution. But in certain cases, particularly in interviews with those seeking political asylum, Haitians have learned to say what journalists want to hear and what may help them win political asylum.

And having so many reporters here has fed journalists' efforts to out-compete each other. A few weeks ago, a US network scooped the others by reporting Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico was meeting with Haitian Army Commander Raoul Cedras, at the general's invitation. Alarms sounded on internal radio frequencies. Crews were caught in fancy restaurants without their radios; cameramen without their gear.

Cameramen stalked the airport, believing that Congressman Richardson was cutting a secret deal with General Cedras that might result in a clandestine midnight flight. Dozens of journalists collected at the hotel where Richardson was staying. When he showed up about midnight, he announced he would give a press conference the following morning at 9 o'clock. Disappointed, the crowd left. They were even more disappointed when they arrived the next morning to learn that he had checked out three hours before.

Answering the demand of journalists, the United States Information Services has increased press briefings to foreign journalists to twice a week, while briefing Haitian journalists only once a week.

Though the trend is to leave now that flights out of the country are ending, there are still dozens of foreign journalists here. Many are less concerned about the possibility of an invasion than they are about how they will eventually leave, though. Six Colombian journalists stranded here made national news in Colombia, not because of their reporting on Haiti, but when their foreign minister announced the Colombian government would not leave them stranded.

Meanwhile, stateside bureau chiefs are waiting to see whether the UN approves the US proposal authorizing a multinational invasion. If that happens, US troops will be replaced by a 6,000-member UN mission, which at the very least may breathe new life into the journalists' story.

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