Backstory: The voice of the secretary-general
UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — From the elevated podium of the United Nations' press room, Michele Montas peers over her glasses with patient elegance at the journalist whining about poor access to the new secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon. "No, it's not policy," she says, responding to a query as to why Mr. Ban didn't meet with journalists after lunch. "This is just today, which happens to be very busy for the secretary-general."
Her polite smile pleads for understanding from the media rabble arrayed before her – after all, Ban has only been on the job three weeks as this peppering occurs.
But the unhappy journalist, just back from an absence and hungry for news, pursues his line of attack. With "a lot of issues going on in the UN it would not be a bad day for [Ban] to stop and talk about those issues."
Ms. Montas drops the smile and pulls off her glasses, as if physically adjusting to her new job at the receiving end of the journalistic firing squad. "Well, we talked a lot about those issues while you were away," she retorts with a refined French-accented sting, "and I'm sure the secretary-general will keep on talking about them."
Montas, a celebrated radio journalist in her native Haiti before she fled for her life in 2003, is settling in to her new role as spokesperson for the UN secretary general. In some ways, it's not so different from what she did before. Granted, facing down ill-mannered darts from the media is hardly comparable to what she faced from the Duvalier dictatorship's tonton macoutes henchmen or the assassins of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's more recent chaotic regime. But in Haiti, she saw her job as giving voice to those who were seldom heard – the poor and forgotten majority. Now she's the voice of one world leader, but also of a global institution that she believes in passionately for its work for the world's less fortunate.
After an earlier moment in the world spotlight for her role in "The Agronomist," Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme's 2004 paean to her martyred husband, the Haitian radio journalist and democracy advocate Jean Dominique, Montas is back in the kleig lights. Only this time, it's as spokesperson to the man dubbed "the world's top diplomat."
Think of her as Tony Snow with a chignon and dangly earrings. Except that, as a manager at Radio Haiti Inter, Montas once thrilled to the dispatches she commissioned from Managua during the Sandinista revolution – not an event the spokesman to President Bush and former Fox News journalist is likely to have celebrated.
She is also a fervent UN supporter. "You can't be passionate about the bureaucracy, but you can be quite passionate about the ideals this institution stands for," says Montas, from her office on the third floor of the azure-blue UN headquarters.
Director of the French language service of UN Radio before taking this assignment, Montas says she "did not hesitate for a minute" when Ban asked her to take the job. Her explanation is enlightening for what it reveals about the impact her life in Haiti continues to have on her. "I was intrigued by his emphasis on a UN that should be transparent and accountable," she says of Ban's campaign last fall to become secretary-general. "Accountability is something that means a great deal to me as a journalist, but it also is something important to me as a person," she says.
Alluding to her husband who, until his (still unpunished) murder in 2000, was one of Haiti's most outspoken critics of government corruption and arrogance, she adds, "You see, the end of impunity is something very important to me."
Though her time as UN spokesperson may eventually change things, Montas is still best known as the wife and professional companion of Mr. Dominique. But as her own words and those of friends and colleagues attest, she was set on her journalistic path before she met Dominique at the cinema in Port-au-Prince in 1972.
"Her sense of the role of the journalist, especially in places like Haiti, where the voices of so many are muzzled or never heard, is something that really comes through when you work and talk with Michele," says Mr. Demme who still meets her for occasional an dinner or coffee. "She brings an expertise developed on the ground to all the areas of concern to the UN."
Montas, a daughter of the thin upper crust of Haitian society, graduated from the University of Maine in 1968 (her beauty and social skills getting her elected homecoming queen in 1965) and then journalism school at Columbia University. She aspired to a career in print journalism upon her return to Haiti in 1972, until she realized that radio was the only medium that reached the largely poor, black, Creole-speaking population.
"Print was really for a tiny minority, the elite, in a poor place with so much illiteracy," Montas says. "But radio, and Creole radio especially, was something else. It was exciting because it changed people's lives." When Dominique asked her to come to a new radio station he was building "to broadcast voices that had never been heard before" – in direct challenge to the dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier – it was another request that Montas did not hesitate to accept.
Such choices were shaped by a family that, while privileged, frowned on any flaunting of it. If anything, her university-professor parents encouraged her to confront the inequality that benefited them. At their country house outside Port-au-Prince, family members weren't allowed to take their meals outside in the balmy mountain air. "Our mother," Montas recalls, "said it would be an affront to people who don't have enough to eat."
She was deeply affected by the killing of five family members under the Duvalier regime – and also by the experience of a neighbor girl whose quick action held off Duvalier thugs coming to seize members of her family. It taught Montas that people do have the power to change things.
Still, Montas learned that exercising that power came with a price. She and Dominique developed many enemies as they built Haiti's antiregime, anti- status-quo voice. They fled into exile twice – in 1981 when the Duvalier regime destroyed the radio station, and a decade later when a coup toppled Mr. Aristide, the democratically elected president.
By 2000, when Dominique was gunned down one early morning on the steps of Radio Haiti Inter, his crusading against corruption had ironically put him at odds with backers of the very man – Aristide – he'd campaigned to put in office a second time. Montas kept the station going after the murder, but finally shut it down for good in 2003 after her bodyguard was killed and the death threats multiplied.
Even some of the station's former associates believe the couple became so engaged in their quest for change in Haiti that it hurt their journalistic enterprise and exposed them to attack.
"There are moments when all professionals forget their rigor and commit mistakes, and ... that happened in this case," says Marvel Dandin, who developed his skills as a reporter under Montas and is now news director and co-owner of Radio Kiskeya in Port-au-Prince. "She was a workhorse, she knew her stuff, and it was exciting working with her because you knew she was bringing a new level of professionalism to Haiti," he says.
But Mr. Dandin says Montas will have to call upon different qualities as a UN spokesperson. "Here [in Haiti] she was politically motivated against dictatorships," he says. "There, she will have to be more diplomatic and less of a militant for something."
Demme insists that it is Montas's "passion for the really important things the UN does, in human rights, peacekeeping, women's rights, education," that make her perfect for her job.
Montas emphasizes the power of information and the need for transparency to explain why she accepted her new post. But there's something else that keeps her returning to what she occasionally calls a "battlefield" of journalists' questions about everything from the opportunity for corruption in UN spending in North Korea to Secretary-General Ban's position on the execution of Saddam Hussein.
"One of the first days I briefed [the press], the doubts about whether I was up to it tried to trickle in," Montas says. "But then a colleague said, 'Go ahead, girl, Jean is right there with you.' It gave me a lot of strength."