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Haitian police seize PBS news crew, tapes

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Haitian police seize PBS news crew, tapes 08/23/1994 HAITI -- Haitian police in late July seized three members of a…

HAITI — Haitian police in late July seized three members of a PBS news crew and confiscated their videotapes before deporting them several days later.

The “MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour” crew members — correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth, cameraman John Knoop and soundman Jaime Kibben — returned to the United States in early August without their tapes.

Haitian authorities continued to hold the tapes in mid-August but released the crew’s driver and interpreter, who are both Haitian, from the national penitentiary, Farnsworth said.

The crew was filming at the Port-au-Prince airport on July 31 when airport security police seized them and held them in the Civil Aviation Building. They confiscated three blank videotapes, three tapes containing footage, and two rolls of film. Police then took the three to their hotel, Farnsworth said. Farnsworth said the crew was “just filming a deserted runway.”

Police took the crew’s interpreter and driver to the 22nd Army Company Headquarters and later took them to the national penitentiary, Farnsworth said.

Farnsworth, Knoop and Kibben went to the Ministry of Information two days later to get their interpreter and driver released. When they gave authorities their press credentials, the authorities did not return them, Farnsworth said.

Haitian police came to the crew’s hotel August 3 and took their passports. The next day, police returned to the hotel and loaded the three into a pickup truck, Farnsworth said.

Police drove the three to a police station in the middle of town, but the three refused to enter the station. “We were afraid if we went in, we’d never come out,” Farnsworth said. Police fingerprinted the three in the truck.

Police then drove them to the Dominican Republic border and dropped them off, Farnsworth said.

The three suffered no physical harm, Farnsworth said, but it was “scary” at the police station. A paramilitary group of men outside the station yelled at the crew and took away the piece of cardboard Farnsworth was trying to sit on, she said.

The police gave no reason for seizing the crew, Farnsworth said. “We were never allowed to confront anyone about what we had done,” she said.

Police seized the crew to “intimidate the foreign press, to send a message to Haitians who work with the press, and to tell the Haitian press they meant business,” Farnsworth said.

In a letter to Lt. General Raoul Cedras and President Emile Jonassaint, Al Vecchione, president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, protested the crew’s treatment. The crew was “only trying to report accurately and fairly events taking place in your country,” Vecchione wrote.

The Inter American Press Association also sent a letter of protest. “Violence against the media represents the most extreme form of censorship and violation of the right to freedom of the press and expression,” wrote Eduardo Ulibarri, president of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information.

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.