The French Court of Appeals this week will render its decision in a case pitting state-owned France 2 television and one of its senior news producers, Charles Enderlin, against media critic Philippe Karsenty whom they seek to convict of criminal defamation. The legal action, winding its way through the French legal system for eight years, involves an event that still reverberates mightily today.
On September 30, 2000, at the start of the second Intifada, France 2 broadcast approximately one minute’s edited footage of an episode filmed by its Palestinian stringer Talal Abu Rahma at Netzarim Junction in Gaza. Abu Rahma was the only one of the scores of cameramen filming at Netzarim that day to record the incident, which he claims occurred over the space of a full hour. Charles Enderlin, France 2’s Jerusalem correspondent – who did not witness the scene – broadcast the footage informing his viewers that 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura and his father, Jamal were “the target of fire from the Israeli position” as they took cover behind a barrel near a wall at the Junction. In later interviews, Abu Rahma accused the Israeli soldiers of murdering Mohammed “in cold blood,” firing “hundreds of bullets” while the boy bled to death of a stomach wound.
The “lethal narrative” that Israeli troops wantonly killed Mohammed became a clarion call for Jihadists and other foes attacking Israel, Jews and Western democracies. Bin Laden featured images of al-Dura prominently in his recruiting videos; Pakistani jihadis beheaded Daniel Pearl on camera invoking the image of Mohammed al-Dura.
From the moment of broadcast, the scene raised troubling questions for Enderlin’s account, and many more surfaced during the years that followed: Why, although Abu Rahma and Enderlin alleged the Israelis hit Mohammed and his father a dozen times with bullets that tore through their bodies, does no blood whatsoever appear on the wall, the barrel, or the ground near the alleged victims? Why do the people around Abu Rahma shout the “the child is dead! The child is dead!” before he even shows signs of being hit. Why, two “takes” after Enderlin has declared him dead does the boy peek out from under his arm at the camera, showing no sign of a stomach injury? And why did Enderlin cut that final scene from his broadcast? Why did news photographers find red ‘blood’ the day after the incident on the ground near the barrel, under the father’s position, but not where the son allegedly bled to death of a stomach wound? Why did 45 minutes of continuous, targeted fire leave no more than 11 bullet holes in the wall by the al-Duras? Why – despite Abu Rahma’s varying claims to have collected or filmed bullets at the scene and Jamal’s alleged surgeries in Gaza and Jordan to have bullets removed – has not a single bullet or fragment ever been produced, in response to Israel’s repeated requests for such evidence?
The Al-Dura incident and the questions surrounding it raise matters extending far beyond the events of that day and the geographic boundaries of the Middle East. At issue are the bedrock rights and responsibilities of the media as it reports on events, especially in cases where it assigns motive and blame.
Too often, in the court of public opinion, the press simultaneously holds itself as judge and jury and advocate. The rules of evidence prevailing in the court of public opinion are far less defined than those in a court of law. Precisely for that reason, the press has a heightened responsibility to police itself, when determining what images and messages it injects into the public sphere it is meant to accurately inform.
It has been said that truth matters less than perception and belief in shaping world events. But that merely increases the journalists’ responsibility – if they can shape perceptions so powerfully, they must proceed scrupulously. Democracies give their press freedom to speak truth to power. Abusing this freedom to recycle false accusations designed to stoke war betrays the very profession itself.
Yet, on more than one occasion, members of the media have defended their choice of images purveyed, chosen precisely due to their emotional, rather than their probative, content. Patrick B. Pexton, Ombudsman of the Washington Post, in an opinion piece published November 23, 2012 entitled “Photo of dead baby in Gaza holds part of the ‘truth’ ” recalled MaryAnne Golon, the Post’s director of photography, explaining to him that the purpose of any front-page photo, regardless of subject, is to move the reader, whether through its beauty, sentiment or drama.” Apparently, the fact that the journalist mistakenly blamed Israel for the child’s death did not impede the search for emotional impact.
In the case of al Dura, France 2 failed to investigate basic questions of fact and causation before, during and after its passing on of poisonous images and allegations to the public relying on France 2 – and still remains in exclusive possession of materials crucial to properly answer those questions. Perhaps France 2 rushed because it did not want to be scooped by others filming the scene, but that hardly excuses its subsequent failure to investigate properly.
The utter refusal by France 2’s journalists and editors to examine evidence that contradicted their basic assumptions remains deeply disturbing. Enderlin not only conflated absence of proof with proof of absence, but justified willful blindness to certain facts as grounds to dismiss their very possibility. Even more disturbing, France 2 doubled down when confronted with its error, trying to legally straitjacket Karsenty for having the temerity to call out the al-Dura hoax for what it is. If the French court, for either political or technical reasons, sides with state-owned France 2 against a bold and correct critic, they strike a blow not only against press responsibility, but the very fabric of the civil society they ought to play such a key role in preserving. Such an abject failure on the part of both the media and the courts to correct this penchant for mainstreaming the enemy’s lethal narratives makes the world a much more dangerous place.