Richard A. Landes

Al-Dura and the tragic legacy of lethal journalism

The French appeals court is again set to decide whether citizens have the right to criticize their media professionals

The French have a saying for the idea of a public secret, un secret de Polichinelle dans le tirroir – a humiliating fact still hidden in the drawer that will eventually come out, like an unwanted pregnancy. And France has one of those secrets, but rather than a life, this particular one gives birth to hatred, vengeance, and death. The drawer rattled recently when Mohamed Merah, native-born of Algerian parents, killed seven people, including three Jewish children in cold blood (he filmed himself), to avenge the way “the same Jews” kill his “Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine.” And many in the French Muslim community considered him a hero, imitating rather than drawing back in horror from his violence. The prognosis for a civil society with such an “enmity movement” in its midst is not encouraging.

And the secret in the drawer is the colossal failure of the French media in the case of Muhammad al-Dura from its original occurrence in 2000 to this very day. Al-Dura was the 12-year old boy whose alleged death from Israeli bullets in his father’s arms shocked the world and became the emblem of the Oslo Intifada, an image, it turns out, as false as it was powerful. So, for many good reasons, the French, indeed every civic-minded citizen of the global community, should pay attention to what is happening today in France’s Court of Appeals in Paris.

For the sixth time in as many years, the courts will hear accusations by France2 against citizen Philippe Karsenty for accusing them of having run “staged” footage as news in the case of Muhammad al-Dura. To his devotees, “le petit Mohamed,” as he’s known in France, is “martyr of the world” because, thanks to France2, “the whole world saw” him shot dead, the “target of fire from the Israeli position,” dying in his father’s arms. Except that no one saw him die on film, much less in his father’s arms. On the contrary the overwhelming evidence suggests that it was a scene staged by France2’s cameraman, Talal abu Rahmah, which Charles “Scoop” Enderlin, unknowingly or not, turned into sensational news.

Al-Dura, a lethal legacy (image: screen grab from IBA TV broadcast)
Al-Dura, a lethal legacy (image: screen grab from IBA TV broadcast)

Indeed, few stories better embody the lethal secret de Polichinelle that haunts France today. France2 (and everyone else, as Enderlin is quick to point out), runs staged footage – Pallywood – all the time: it’s a public secret that they openly admit in private but deny in public. “They do it all the time,” Enderlin and his bosses confided privately when confronted with the extensive evidence of staging in his cameraman’s work. But publicly Enderlin insists, especially when confronted with claims that he staged the al-Dura footage, “I have 100 percent confidence in my cameraman, so much that I wouldn’t even think of questioning him.” And yet, when the judges in the last trial saw the footage shot by the key “witness,” France2’s Palestinian cameraman, they dramatically reversed the lower court’s finding, with harsh criticism of Enderlin’s journalistic standards. “And to think I asked for that footage as a favor to France2,” one of the judges later remarked off the record.

Rather than provoke an “aha” moment among the broader profession, however, this decision inspired Enderlin’s colleagues to close ranks. The prestigious Nouvel Obs sponsored a petition in defense of both his honor, and of journalistic right to report freely, without the “chilling” criticism of lay citizens “sapping the energies of good journalists.” The reactions combined medieval honor-driven guild solidarities with medieval credulity: “I don’t care if it’s the Virgin Birth affair, I would tend to believe him. Someone like Charles [Enderlin] simply doesn’t make a story up.” 

Meanwhile Charles’ employer, the state-owned media giant France2, appealed to the highest court, which, despite a strong opinion against from the “Parquet,” (which vigorously defended the value to civil society of allowing such criticisms), ruled that the appeals court had no right to demand the footage, nullified their opinion, and sent the case back to appeals court where it arrives today, same room, same “Palace of Justice” in Paris.

The story of Muhammad al-Dura and the lethal journalism it has spawned deserve the close attention of anyone who cares about press freedom and the democratic culture it serves and preserves. No single incident better illustrates why the West has so far fared so poorly in its encounter with the forces of global Jihad in the new millennium, why Western progressives have consistently lost ground to some of the most repressive forces on the planet. 

The affair combines three traits in a deeply toxic stew: the absurdity of the narrative in the face of the evidence (Sherlock would not give it a second glance); the way in which some fashioned that narrative into weapons in a Jihad of vengeance against the Jews (Bin Laden and other recruiters for global Jihad); and the determined refusal of journalists, whose profession is to investigate, to re-examine the matter despite the extensive damage it occasioned. The result has been more than a decade in which credulous journalists have pumped poisonous lethal narratives about Israel into Western information systems as news, feeding the worst instincts of a radicalized minority, and crippling the ability of more sober people to understand the situation, much less resist what Bin Laden called, “the strong horse” of global Jihad.

Karsenty accused Enderlin of “being duped and in so doing duping us,” and that, claims Enderlin, is an intolerable and unacceptable blow to his honor. (He’s right about all but the “unacceptable.”) The accusation can be extended to the mainstream news media: they are duped by Jihadi cognitive warriors who manipulate them with an apparently irresistible supply of lethal narratives about Israeli malfeasance, and in so doing, blind us to the threats around the world to the very decency and humanity towards which modern, enlightened peoples everywhere strive.

In a Dreyfus Affair of global significance, will the French appeals court decide in favor of the right of their citizens to criticize their media professionals, or in favor of what Daniel Dayan has called the “new sacred institution,” the news media, and its right to use the power of the state to save its honor by silencing criticism of its prerogative? Is freedom of the press a privilege or a responsibility? And if it is a responsibility – to us! – dare we stand by silently while some with access use the levers of power to assert it as their privilege?

All the references for this piece can be found at The Augean Stables.

About the Author
Richard Allen Landes is an historian and author, specializing in millennialism. He currently serves as the Chairman of the Council Scholars of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). He blogs at The Augean Stables on matters concerning media coverage of both the Middle East Conflict and global Jihad.