This week the Paris Court of Appeals disgraced itself and revealed the dark side of France’s arcane laws of defamation, elevating the principle of French honor above the value of truth-telling for French journalists. The appellate court’s sentencing of Philippe Karsenty to a fine of 7,000 Euros for the “crime” of speaking truth to power telegraphs how France has decided to treat whistle-blowers who have the temerity to demand that state-sponsored media outlets differentiate between theater and news. Perhaps this second panel of the appellate court was not entirely at fault for its misstep. It operated with blinders, since the French Supreme Court forbade it from viewing the relevant evidence that led the first panel of the court to acquit Karsenty. For the French legal system, the facts of what happened at Netzarim were and are essentially irrelevant. This case was not about getting at the truth, but about protecting the honor of French institutions.
The al-Dura hoax remains an icon of journalistic deception. It is a pity this now has the imprimatur of the French judicial system.
On September 30, 2000, upon the launch of the second Intifada, the France 2 TV network broadcast approximately a minute’s truncated footage of an episode shot by its Palestinian stringer, Talal Abu Rahma, at Netzarim Junction in Gaza. Abu Rahma was the only photojournalist of dozens filming at Netzarim that day to record the incident. Charles Enderlin, France 2’s Jerusalem correspondent, who did not witness the scene, narrated the broadcast footage, based chiefly on Abu Rahma’s say-so alleging 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 and Enderlin reaffirmed and embellished their allegations, indicting Israeli soldiers for slaying Mohammed and grievously wounding his father, firing “hundreds of bullets” over a period of 45 minutes at the al-Duras.
The broadcast footage raised myriad questions – but France 2, Enderlin and Abu Rahma continued to promote their story despite the mounting inconsistencies surfacing in years subsequent. Here are just some questions remaining unanswered:
Why was no blood whatsoever visible on the wall, the barrel, or the ground near the alleged victims immediately following the incident and the morning of the next day – before reporters were invited – although Abu Rahma and Enderlin alleged Mohammad was riddled by ordinance that that tore through major blood vessels leaving posterior exit wounds and Jamal alternatively claimed to have been struck by nine or 12 bullets, which Abu Rahma averred were explosive rounds?
Why did bright red ‘blood’ appear only the day following the incident on the ground near the barrel – but none where Muhammad supposedly bled to death – just in time for an organized journalist photo opportunity?
Why did the people next to Abu Rahma shout the “The child is dead! The child is dead!” while Muhammad was clearly alive and visibly unhurt?
Why did Charles Enderlin relegate to the cutting room floor the scene where Muhammad – already pronounced dead by the journalist – peeked out from under his arm at the camera?
How could 45 minutes of continuous, targeted fire leave less than a dozen 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?
Why do Jamal’s “injuries” correspond exactly to scars that resulted from his surgery undergone in Israel years before – and why did Jamal sue, albeit unsuccessfully, to keep that information hidden?
Despite these extensive anomalies, the al-Dura “narrative” developed iconic power. No surprise, there. Few charges carry the condemnatory power of the accusation “child-murderer.” The lethal narrative that Israel slaughtered an innocent boy in the arms of his father inspired acts of terrorism, starting with the suicide terror campaign of 2000-2007 that got 80 percent approval from a Palestinian population saturated in false images of an Israeli soldier killing “the martyr of the world,” the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002, and most recently the murder of Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse France in order “to avenge the murder of Palestinian children by Jews.”
Overlooking the truth in the vain hope that this story might go away proved disastrous on many levels, from the ongoing dominance of a school of lethal journalists in the coverage of every clash between Israel and its foes, to the continued radicalization that these images inspire. The Israeli government’s recent expose of this affair, motivated partly by a realization of this ongoing damage, was long overdue, but extremely important. It revealed how France 2 and Charles Enderlin doggedly transformed the phrase ‘investigative journalism’ into an oxymoron, defended by many journalistic colleagues who supported Enderlin’s account – admittedly without even looking at the evidence – and promoting what may be the most enduring news media hoax of such impact in the modern era. It is time for journalists who care about truth to declare that finger-pointing never substitutes for serious investigation. Fact is fact – and theater remains theater. Charles Enderlin narrated a death into film footage that shows no such thing, and as a result, deaths ensued.
Enderlin and France 2 have dedicated a lot of time and money trying to shut up Philippe Karsenty and almost anyone else with the impertinence to call them to account for their charade. Significantly, Enderlin did not sue Nahum Shachaf who was the first to prove the fraud – because, as Enderlin revealed in an interview with Esther Schapira – he didn’t think he could get much money out of Shachaf.
Ironically, Charles Enderlin and Talal Abu Rahma have sniffed indignantly about not being interviewed by Israel’s investigating commission. In fact, Enderlin – and Jamal and Abu Rahma – have already been interviewed extensively about this event over the past decade. Scads of their self-contradictory testimony exist on videotape for anyone with the patience to listen. Jamal and Abu Rahma seemed so skittish that Israel has lost its patience vainly anticipating that the media would do its job and they began posturing for an “international investigation”. Perhaps they hope for something like the Goldstone report, which showcased how capably such investigations have bowdlerized truth in the past. But one doesn’t need an international tribunal to ask the necessary questions about the al-Dura footage. One needs only eyes, a functional brain, and a willingness to look at and analyze the evidence.
Anyone who levels a murder accusation must back it up with fact, or face the consequences when the truth comes out. When a media bureau chief’s baseless indictment and slander of honorable people is challenged, he or she must present more than a response that amounts to “Who are you going to believe – me, or your lying eyes?” Except, apparently, in France. Surely the Paris court decision will only embolden Enderlin, France 2 and others to persist in their irresponsibility.
For too long, unchallenged lethal narratives have globally radicalized people to kill others in revenge – for crimes that never happened. As Philippe Karsenty observed, a false death has resulted in real murders. The murders of Toulouse 2012 and the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon symbolize the unspeakable consequences of promoting such narratives.
This decision by the second panel of the Paris Appeals Court provides an unfortunate fig leaf for journalists who invent news instead of reporting it – and will undoubtedly act as gasoline on a fire that has been raging across Europe and has now reached American shores.