A Spanish journalist based in New York was killed and an American photojournalist was wounded Sunday, March 7 2004, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when gunmen opened fire on a large demonstration of protesters calling for the prosecution of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As many as five people died and more than twenty-six people were wounded in the attack near Haiti's National Palace.
Killed was José Ricardo Ortega, 37, a New York-based correspondent for the Spanish television station Antena 3. Witnesses were quoted as saying he was shot in the chest. Wounded in the face and right shoulder was Michael Laughlin, 37, a staff photographer for the South-Florida Sun-Sentinel.
"Michael is at this moment being airlifted from the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he is being flown to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami for more surgery," Sun-Sentinel director of photography Tim Rasmussen said Monday morning by telephone. "We've been up all night arranging this. The Navy doctors couldn't get the bullet fragments out of his right shoulder blade. They were able to take care of his face wound, but not the second bullet." Rasmussen said Laughlin was initially taken by military medivac to the Navy base in Cuba for treatment and surgery on Sunday night, and that he was in stable condition. "There were two different bullets," Rasmussen said. "One grazed his face, the other went through his neck and into his shoulder. They were able to take care of the one that hit his face."
Laughlin's wife, Kathy, is a senior copy editor in the Sun-Sentinel's sports department. Rasmussen said that she was "doing fine" this morning, and that she had been working with them through the night to arrange for her husband's transfer from the Navy base in Cuba to Miami. Laughlin has been an NPPA member since 1990.
Sun-Sentinel correspondent Jane Regan filed an audio report to the newspaper's Web site in which she gave details about Laughlin's shooting. "He was caught in between Haitian police and the people doing the shooting." She reported. "When the shooting started some journalists took refuge inside the courtyard of a house. Then the people with guns, the guys with guns were up on the roof, and they started wildly spraying gunfire down into the courtyard." Regan said that's also when Ortega was shot in the chest.
Regan said that before Laughlin was taken away in an ambulance, he told her that "I always wanted to be in my own newspaper, but not like this." He was smiling when he said this, she reported, and said to her "I'm in a good mood right now because they just gave me some medication."
Witnesses to the shooting told reporters that the initial gunshots came from different directions, from both nearby rooftops and possibly from an SUV passing nearby. U.S. Marines guarding the protest march returned fire, journalists on the scene said. Up until the shooting, the march of more than 10,000 Aristide opponents had been peaceful and had traveled from Petionville to the Champ de Mars plaza at the National Palace. American and French troops had escorted the marchers but had pulled off the crowd as it approached the plaza, according to the Sun-Sentinel's story.
The newspaper reports that a protester fell when the first shot was fired, and that police returned fire, which caught some marchers and bystanders in the crossfire. Some early reports wrongly said that Laughlin was still near the Haitian police when he was struck first by bullets. Later it was clarified that Laughlin had moved away from the police and was with other journalists who were taking cover from the gunfire when he was shot.
Miami Herald photojournalist Peter Bosch is seen in photographs helping carry people to safety during the shooting. Bosch was quoted in the Sun-Sentinel's story as also having seen Ortega when he was shot in the chest. Bosch is quoted as saying, "I heard three different kinds of weapons at the same time, and that's when Jose [Ortega] took it in the chest. He was knocked back about three feet." Ortega was taken by ambulance to a hospital, and he died shortly after arriving there.
Ortega transferred to the New York bureau about three years ago, according to reports, after starting out in Moscow. He had also covered the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the conflict in Chechnya. Reports say he had recently taken a leave of absence but had volunteered to go to Haiti for the network when the uprising began several weeks ago.