WASHINGTON/PORT-AU-PRINCE - Haitian Ambassador to the United States Bocchit Edmond on Thursday said he has called for an investigation of national police officers who used tear gas on journalists covering a peaceful protest against President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince.
“I personally condemn the attack on journalists,” Ambassador Edmond told VOA Thursday, adding that he intends to discuss the Wednesday attack with the national police chief and ask him to launch an investigation.
Edmond also said it is possible the police officers were tired after being out in the streets all day, and that the Moise government has respect for the media.
“I will be the first one to condemn it. I don’t think it's right.” Edmond said. “President Moise’s administration respects the freedom of the press. No society is immune from police brutalities. This is our commitment to you, and you can spread [the word] to all of your colleagues — it is not our mission to persecute the press.”
According to reporters, police first fired tear gas to disperse a large crowd of protesters who were marching through the streets of the capital chanting, "Jovenel's term is over. Down with dictatorship!"
After breaking up the protest, police turned on reporters, firing tear gas and spraying an unknown substance in their faces. At one point, a police unit fired tear gas into a pick-up truck belonging to Radio-TV Pacific, which was transporting at least 10 people, overwhelming it with smoke.
WATCH: Police fire tear gas at journalists
VOA Creole reporter Matiado Vilme said members of the media had their press badges visible to law enforcement. Some wore bullet-proof vests with the word “press” printed on the front and back. When Vilme took cover behind a nearby pole, she said she was followed by a police officer who fired a tear gas cannister at her feet.
Shaken and furious, the group of journalists with cameras, microphones, mobile phones and various other reporting equipment held high, walked to the Bureau for the Western Department — the capital region's governmental administration known by its French acronym DDO (Délégation Départementale de l'Ouest) — to file a complaint.
"We spoke to the DDO [Director Paul Menard]. We explained the situation and gave him examples of journalists who had been victimized by the police," said Florence Lisene, a VOA Creole stringer who was one of three journalists who filed the complaint.
"The only guarantee he gave us was that he was going to bring this complaint to the police chief to be examined and investigated. He also said they would investigate the police backup who committed these actions to determine what disciplinary measures are warranted," Lisene said.
VOA Creole's efforts to contact Menard for comment were unsuccessful.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told VOA: "The United States has seen reports of police injuring journalists as they attempted to disperse recent demonstrations. We call on Haitian authorities to respect the freedoms of expression and association and the right to peaceful assembly, and we call on the Haitian National Police Inspector General to conduct a thorough investigation of these incidents.”
The Haitian Online Media Association (ANMH) issued a statement denouncing the attack.
"ANMH vehemently condemns the barbaric acts committed by the police, of which journalists were victims over the past days," the organization said.
The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) recently issued a statement expressing concern about a February 8 police shooting of two journalists as they covered a protest in the Champ de Mars neighborhood calling for Moise’s resignation.
"Haitian authorities should thoroughly investigate the shootings of journalists Alvarez Destiné and Méus Jeanril, identify those responsible and hold them to account," CPJ said.
One of the wounded reporters has undergone two operations for the injuries he sustained at the hands of police.
"I was stunned to learn that journalist @CheryHaiti was injured today during a protest in the capital," Tweeted Haiti Secretary of State for Communications Eddy Jackson Alexis on Wednesday. "I invite @pnh_officiel to be more careful in its interventions and invite journalists to exercise caution while working."
J’ai appris avec émoi que le journaliste @CheryHaiti a été victime lors d’une manifestation ce jour dans la capitale. J’invite la @pnh_officiel à plus de prévoyance dans ses interventions tout invitant les journalistes à plus de prudence dans ce métier.— Eddy Jackson Alexis (@Eddyjalexis) February 10, 2021
A United Nations report published in September 2020 said the worldwide uptick in violence against journalists covering protests was cause for concern. Among its recommendations for protecting media workers was "strengthening training for police and law enforcement on freedom of expression, and appropriate behavior in dealing with the media."
Matiado Vilme and Florence Lisene in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report