Haiti pranksters unmask themselves - sort of
By Sidhartha Banerjee
MONTREAL - A group of Canadians who pranked the French government expressed satisfaction with their successful Internet stunt — and vowed to deliver additional ones. In their first public appearance since triggering an international media stir with a fake video and news release, they promised Thursday that more pranks were on the way.
In that video hoax, someone pretending to be a spokesman for the French government promised to pay huge reparations to Haiti — to the tune of US$21 billion, roughly the same sum France extracted from Haiti after its slaves rebelled and won their independence. It took 122 years for Haiti to repay the money, crippling the new country under a mountain of debt from which it has never escaped.
The group's spoof video garnered at least 50,000 hits on its first day. (You can watch the original press statement as well as the follow up stories and the July 22 press conference here: http://www.diplomatiegov.info/rubrique.fr-14-07-2010.html.)
Members of the group, called the Committee for the Repayment of the Indemnity Money Expropriated from Haiti, or CRIME for short, unmasked themselves at a news conference Thursday. Sort of. Because an angry French government has threatened legal action, they wore Zorro-type face covers to shield their true identities, on the advice of a lawyer.
"We want to talk about why we took this action but, at the same time, there are serious threats from the French government about legal action," said one CRIME member, who didn't identify herself.
"That being said, we have every intention of continuing."
No names were used. Instead the organization chose to use the faux moniker Laurence Fabre, also listed as the organization's spokeswoman.
The group said there are about two dozen members behind the spoof in Canada, the U.S. and France. They believe France paying reparations to its former colony would go a long way to helping rebuild that earthquake-ravaged country.
The $21 billion is believed to be equivalent to the price of 90 million gold francs that Haiti was forced to pay ex-slaveholders after winning its freedom from France in 1804. Payments began in 1825 and ended in 1947, with that massive punishment often blamed for permanently crippling Haiti's economy.
The video prank has prompted a number of reports by news organizations from around the world. The hoax — in which a video streams over a cleverly designed website that mimics the one belonging to the French foreign affairs department — was a close enough copy to dupe many. Even France's national news agency mistakenly reported the stunt as real news, according to a New York Times blog post.
The group said it was inspired in part by the Yes Men, the group that embarrassed Canada in Copenhagen last December. A fake statement, purported to be from Environment Minister Jim Prentice, pledged to cut carbon emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 at the United Nations climate conference last year.
But France isn't laughing. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said last week that the perpetrators are "spreading false information and fraudulently copying the site of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs."
The group's Montreal members said they hadn't heard anything directly from the French government. "If the government does sue us, it will simply give us more visibility," a spokeswoman said.
Haitians in Montreal applauded the action. "I think the Haitian youth are happy with this action," said Didier Berry, who attended the group's news conference.
"It permits us to sensitize a large segment of the population to what is happening in Haiti."
Before he was ousted, president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had announced his intention to launch legal action to recover the money. That idea, unpopular in France, was abandoned after Aristide was overthrown.
Haitian-born Montrealer Serge Bouchereau said he supported the pranksters. "This sum was extorted from the Haitian people after gaining their independence and defeated the army of Napoleon," said Bouchereau, who was also at the news conference.
"No other country has had to pay for its independence in this way."