© The Haitian BloggerThe young journalist was not only devoted to his work but also to the community and the whole nation of Haiti. Those who were close to him remember Jean Ristil as courageous, humble and socially conscious.
In the early hours of 29 February 2004, the democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his wife Mildred were forced to leave their home under escort of the US military and summarily marched onto an unmarked plane whose destination they did not know. This year marks the eighth anniversary of that fateful day when, with the help of a group of Haitian traitors, the US, Canada and France took it upon themselves to destroy the dream of a Haitian majority who had voted Aristide as their president. Following the coup, the three countries together with the UN occupying force which was subsequently deployed set about attacking President Aristide, his party, Lavalas and his supporters. In Haiti they began by violently purging the country of his supporters [Kevin Pina’s excellent film ‘Who Will Kill the Bandits’ and, Haitian journalist Jean Ristil Jean-Baptists, footage of U.N. December 2006 massacre in Site Soley, are two excellent examples]. Internationally they began creating a false narrative discrediting Aristide and Lavalas. US, Canadian and French NGOs and media colluded with spreading the lies – a series of disinformation campaign which dates back to the early 90s. Diana Barahona has an excellent article in Counter Punch which explains the mechanisms by which the government’s narrative is dished up by the media and how this was done in Haiti. One can easily see the similarities in reports from 1994 and 2004 which centre around dismissing 70 per cent majority in elections, calling him a demigod, corrupt and bloodying Haiti’s past, much of this with barely concealed racist language.
One of the few Haitian reporters who has been at the forefront of documenting Haiti over the past eight years was photojournalist, Jean Ristil Jean-Baptiste, fondly known as ‘the people’s journalist’. On the 25 February at the young age of 31, Jean Ristil, made his transition after a long illness compounded by stress and constantly having to go into hiding. In addition to his work as a journalist Jean Ristil was a community organiser and founder of Kole ZepÃ²l Sove Ti Moun, Cite Soleil which worked with orphaned children in his community of Cite Soleil where he lived. The many obituaries dedicated to Jean Ristil speak to his courage and commitment towards a “people’s Haiti’. Filmmaker Kevin Pina who worked with Jean Ristil on the film ‘We Must Kill the Bandits’ writes of his friend:
‘Jean Ristil was one of the most courageous people I’ve ever known. When no one else would dare to report on police raids and indiscriminate killings in neighborhoods like Cite de Dieu, Cite Militaire and Bel Air, Jean Ristil would pack his camera and run, not walk, to get the photographic evidence. He knew that since the corporate media and human rights organizations had turned a blind eye to Haiti, in the end all the world would ever see was the photographic evidence we provided of the killings……..Jean Ristil also watched my back on countless occasions while I was videotaping massive Lavalas protests during this period where the police would simply start shooting at people randomly to sow terror. ‘
One description I have heard repeatedly about Jean Ristil before and since his passing is his fearlessness and his love of life. Pina describes one particular incident:
‘It was already a strange day when I received a frantic phone call from Jean saying that the police were searching Father Gerard Jean-Juste’s residence at St. Claire’s church in Ti Place Cazeau. Jean-Juste was being held in prison and Jean Ristil was convinced the police were going to try to plant guns in the church to justify his arrest. ‘Pina, you’ve got to come now!’ he yelled over the telephone. Jean was waiting for me as I arrived and followed me as I jumped a fence and began filming the police searching Jean-Juste’s bedroom. A judge accompanied by several large police wearing black ski masks grabbed my arm and tried to take my camera calling me a ‘White Lavalas Bandit!’ I quickly spun to protect my camera yelling, ‘I have the right to film!’ as the judge’s own momentum sent him flying to the floor in a heap. I told Jean to leave as the police rushed me. The judge, in a screaming and spitting fury, ordered me arrested on the spot. Jean Ristil was out in front of the church videotaping as they escorted me out in handcuffs. Suddenly the judge turns to one of the masked policemen and tells them, ‘Take this one too. He’s with the blan’ and now both of us are handcuffed and thrown into the back of a jeep. Jean Ristil spent two days in jail thinking they would keep him longer because he was Haitian and let me go because I had a US passport. When it turned out they let him go a day earlier and the judge ordered me to stay behind bars ‘until I decide your fate for disrespecting me,’ Jean Ristil said to me as he left the jail, ‘Don’t worry. You’re Haitian now, we’ll make sure nothing happens to you.’
Writing on the Haitian Blogger, Ezili Danto documents Jean Ristil’s life, his courage, humbleness and dedication to the people of his community….
‘Jan Ristil was born in Site SolÃ¨y on December 12, 1981. Jan lived his entire life in the city. Through good times and bad times, he was always there for the people of Haiti. He was thrown in jail under the Gerard Latortue regime. He was persecuted. They beat him many times’ for his work as a journalist and photojournalist. He fought hard to give voice to the voiceless.
‘He didn’t have much formal schooling, but he was a degreed professor in the university of life. He knew the real meaning of ‘honour and respect.’ He educated us: his life showed us how a Haitian without material means fights on without rest for justice for the people. His life showed us the very meaning of being in the struggle for justice. His life is testimony that a genuinely educated man is a man with empathy for those less privileged. [Pale FransÃ© pa edikasyon. Speaking French is doesn’t mean you’re necessarily educated.]’
Finally a tribute from fellow journalist, Jeb Sprague who first met Jean Ristil in 2006 and speaks of the ‘intimidation, threats and police brutality’ he faced.
‘In August of 2006 myself and another participant in the delegation interviewed Jean, the transcript of which can still be read on upsidedownworld.org. He provided us with hundreds of more photos that haitianalysis still has backed up on a hard drive (a website in the midst of being relaunched at a new URL). We kept in touch, and the next year he asked me to make a website for his Cite Soleil based children’s center Kole ZepÃ²l Sove Ti Moun. Others from our delegation soon returned to help set up internet at Kole ZepÃ²l. The website we made remains online. Jean was well known in his community, cherished by his family, and was a great friend to Haiti solidarity activists. His work appeared on various websites, in newspapers such as Haiti Liberte and Haiti Progres and in stunning documentaries..
President Aristide returned to Haiti on the 18 March 2011 welcomed by thousands and thousands of supporters. He promised to focus his energy on education especially overseeing the opening of the Aristide Foundation University Medical School, which did open last September. Despite his absence from political and public life, again thousands of Lavalas supporters came out to demonstrate on the 29 February. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to state that Michel Martelly is concerned and nervous over Aristide’s potential to mobilize the people even as a non-political figure. Martelly’s recent summoning of the former president to answer questions on cocaine trafficking speaks of his desperation to discredit and neutralise his influence. It will be interesting to see how he proceeds during the next elections and what trumped up reasons will be found once again to prevent a Lavalas candidate from running.
At the same time as attempting to discredit President Aristide, Michel Martelly defends Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier who shockingly will not face charges on human rights abuses such as torture, rape, killings during his 15 year dictatorship. In a recent interview filmmaker, Kevin Pina of the Haiti Information Project comments on the protection and exoneration of Duvalier by Martelly who not only invited the ex dictator to the commemoration of the 2010 earthquake but publicly introduced him to President Bill Clinton. In contrast the Lavalas movement is a struggle which was borne out of a rejection of Duvalier and Duvalierists which says a great deal of those supporting Martelly such as Bill Clinton and Sean Penn who was recently appointed ‘Ambassador at Large’.