Context lacking in Peace Corps crime coverage

Letter to the Editor

Washington Post

Published: August 26

written by Matt Losak co-founder of the Peace Corps Fund, a nonprofit that supports a Peace Corps goal to increase Americans’ understanding of the peoples served. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho from 1985 to 1987.

The Post’s coverage of the safety and security of Peace Corps volunteers [“Volunteers on a quest for due process,” front page, Aug. 21] fell short of any reasonable standard of journalism. While zeroing in on volunteers who have been victims and the agency’s response, The Post failed to provide context and made the story more salacious than informative. This, as you noted, comes as the Peace Corps celebrates 50 years of Americans volunteering in the huts and villages of half the globe.

For example, The Post cited more than 1,000 rapes, attempted rapes and sexual assaults for 2002-10. How many were rapes and how many were sexual assaults and under what circumstances? Ask any victim, and she’ll tell you there’s a vast difference between them.

Where is the comparison of crime statistics in similar institutions, college campuses, the military? What about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, at our large corporations, on Capitol Hill?

You noted examples of rape and murder that shock and sadden, but this story failed to point out that they are rare. Instead, you lumped these terrible instances into overall crime statistics, making it appear as though there had been a crime explosion in the Peace Corps. Was there really?

Further, instead of characterizing the Peace Corps for having successfully fielded more than 200,000 volunteers in 149 countries since 1961 with some reasonable understanding of the unavoidable unevenness in staffing that comes with such a varied, global operation, you portrayed the agency as generally cold and unresponsive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Those of us who have proudly served in the Peace Corps are outraged whenever a fellow volunteer is a victim of crime, as are the people in the countries where we serve. We expect the Peace Corps at all times to be vigilant regarding volunteer safety and to promptly fix problems when they arise. We can all cite a time when our agency stumbled. But we can also remember with pride that we answered our nation’s call to service. Our legacy of helping people and living in peace is a fine example of the American character that deserves celebration and support, as well as fair coverage.

Matt Losak, Silver Spring

The writer is co-founder of the Peace Corps Fund, a nonprofit that supports a Peace Corps goal to increase Americans’ understanding of the peoples served. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho from 1985 to 1987.

3 Comments

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  • Nicely stated, Matt, especially your pointing out that the people of the countries where these crimes happen are also outraged by them. The American perspective is ‘them’ and ‘us,’ with the subtext of this story being ‘them’ raping/murdering ‘us.’ The real story is one of isolated crimes perpetrated by criminals we all find repugnant. RPCVs know the sort of embarrassment, horror, outrage, and helplessness the average Beninois feel about the murder of Kate Puzey, let alone about their own co-patriots who are murdered. Thank you for speaking up on the issue of the media over-hyping this salacious story without either the context of the actual numbers, or taking into account that these rare crimes have saddened our foreign friends, too.
    Thank you for defending the Peace Corps, whose good work makes the world a better place for everyone.

  • Tony is correct…Matt says what all of us have seen…Peace Corps has always placed the safety and security of the Volunteers at the top of the list…from day one in 1961! Do we make mistakes, sure but we work to make it right for the Volunteer, and quickly. The Post needs to look at their desire to find problems not solutions…we need to improve our levels of journalism. What is the real motive of the Post?
    Thanks Tony and Matt…happy 50th!

  • This issue might be retitled: Peace Corps meets the First Amendment. Freedom of Press and the Washington gets to emphasis or slant its crime reporting anyway it wants to. Freedom of Speech and RPCVs challenge the Post, challenge the PC agency, and report their experiences, positive as well as horrific, to the world. But what I like,now, about the First is that guarantee “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That is precisely what RPCVs via First Response Action have done.

    The result is the bipartisan Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protect Act of 2011, now pending in Congress. Those petitioning Congress for redress include the NPCA and thousands of RPCVs. The bill would define sexual assault and stipulate accurate reporting. Congress could have real oversight.

    To see what Peace Corps has done right and where it has fallen down, read Peace Corps IG Kathy A. Butler’s testimony to Congress. (Peace Corps website – Inspector General’s link -What’s New).

    Let’s get this legislation passed so we can concentrate on the real fights coming up. A Colorado Congressman is demanding that Peace Corps get out of China, NOW!

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