2008: When it Comes to Al-Dura, Journalists Are Against Free Speech (Rosenthal)

Home/The Consequences/The Damage to Journalism/2008: When it Comes to Al-Dura, Journalists Are Against Free Speech (Rosenthal)

JOHN ROSENTHAL
Originally published by Pajamas Media
June 20, 2008

Despite the Al-Dura ruling, reporter Charles Enderlin can still count on his colleagues to stand by his story

Earlier this month, the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur launched a surreal “Appeal for Charles Enderlin” in response to a French court judgment clearing media critic Philippe Karsenty of charges of having “defamed” Enderlin and his employer, France 2 public television. The court thus overturned the October 2006 condemnation of Karsenty by a lower court.

A full professional translation of the higher court’s judgment is available here on Richard Landes’s Augean Stables blog.  Richard Landes’s translation of the Nouvel Observateur’s “Appeal for Charles” is here. The “Appeal” has in the meanwhile been signed by hundreds of Enderlin’s colleagues in French journalism, plus several “personalities,” and even some simple “web surfers” [internautes].

I say that it is surreal, since it is by no means clear what the point of the appeal is supposed to be or what exactly the signatories want done “for Charles Enderlin.” It was not, after all, Enderlin who was on trial: he and France 2 were the plaintiffs. The “Appeal for Charles” identifies Karsenty as the “person mainly responsible” for an “obstinate and hateful campaign” against Enderlin. But, as PJM readers will know (and Nouvel Observateur readers might not), Karsenty is in fact just one of numerous critics who have challenged the authenticity of Enderlin’s September 2000 report allegedly showing the killing of the Palestinian boy Mohammed Al-Dura by Israeli troops.

It was indeed France 2′s legal strategy of singling out Karsenty and two other website owners for prosecution — as well as Karsenty’s “obstinate” refusal to be intimidated — that converted him into one of the chief protagonists of what has become the “Al-Dura affair.”

The authors of the “Appeal” — like Enderlin himself in a blog post published shortly after the rendering of the court’s decision — take heart in the fact that the higher court “recognized” that Karsenty’s litigious remarks regarding the Al-Dura report “unquestionably do damage to the honor and reputation of news professionals”: i.e. Enderlin and France 2 as a whole. But the court’s observation in this connection is in fact a mere tautology. In his November 2004 text — in which, incidentally, Karsenty called for the “immediate dismissal” of Enderlin and France 2 news director Arlette Chabot — Karsenty himself describes Enderlin’s Al-Dura report and, above all, France 2′s defense of it as “a masquerade that does dishonor [déshonore] to France and its public television.”

The real question, of course, is whether Karsenty’s criticisms of France 2 are well-founded and whether the underlying accusation that the Al-Dura report was a fake is true — or, in other words, whether it is not in fact, as Karsenty’s remarks suggested, Enderlin and France 2 that brought the “dishonor” upon themselves. The French court did not answer this question. Nor indeed did it have any need to do so.

As I discussed in my analysis of the original judgment against Karsenty two years ago, what has always been at stake in the Karsenty case is not the authenticity or otherwise of the Al-Dura report but the very right to freedom of opinion. As a public figure discharging a highly public function affecting a matter of obvious public interest — and for a public television channel no less — Charles Enderlin can hardly claim to be immune from public criticism of his work. Nor, of course, can France 2, as the public television channel in question.

It is this insight — an insight that one would expect to be entirely banal in a democratic society — that underlies the higher court’s ruling. The court did not find that the fraudulence of the Al-Dura report had been “proven,” but it found that Karsenty offered sufficient and sufficiently serious grounds for the claim of fraudulence to make it a legitimate matter of public debate.

To have ruled otherwise — as the lower court did in its original ruling — would be, in effect, to institute a sort of crime of lèse majesté protecting journalists and news organizations from criticism: placing them above society and the mere “lay persons” who are then supposed to accept the claims of the “news professionals” without question. Le Nouvel Observateur’s “Appeal for Charles Enderlin” positively exudes such a sense of corporate privilege, as Richard Landes and his commentators on Augean Stables were quick to point out.

The judgment “surprises us,” the authors of the “Appeal” complain, “since it gives the same credibility to a journalist known for the seriousness and rigor of his work…and to his detractors…who have no knowledge of the reality on the ground and no experience of reporting from a war zone.” (As so happens, many of Enderlin’s principal critics have as much if not more experience “on the ground” as Enderlin and some, like retired Le Monde correspondent Luc Rosenzweig, are also well-known “professional” journalists.)

In a sort of mini-revolution, commentators on Le Nouvel Observateur’s own website were equally quick to point out the disdain involved in such words and to reject the pretensions of the “news professionals” to being the guardians of truth. One commentator, for instance, wondered why Le Nouvel Observateur did not reproduce the court decision, as Augean Stables had, so that readers could judge for themselves. “The French are intelligent enough to understand,” the commentator added pointedly. With the reactions in the comments sections running overwhelmingly against Le Nouvel Observateur’s initiative, however, the editors quite simply suppressed the comments link. (Though the link is gone, as of this writing the comments pages can still be consulted here.)

Regarding the signatories of Le Nouvel Observateur’s “Appeal” Richard Landes has written that “in the future, [they] will be part of a list of ignominy.” It is interesting to note some of the names on this list.

Among the sixty or so original signatories, one finds at least two journalists who have themselves gained notoriety as the authors of extravagant, unverified reports concerning alleged Israeli misdeeds. Thus, in March 2002, Sylvain Cypel of the daily Le Monde published an article announcing the “dismantling” of “a vast Israeli spy network operating on American territory.” The “network” was supposed to have comprised some 120 persons who had already been “arrested or expelled.”

Citing details from a Fox News report and the supposedly independent research of French “intelligence expert” Guillaume Dasquié, Cypel declared the alleged operation to be “undoubtedly the most important Israeli espionage affair in the United States” since the Jonathan Pollard case and he mused darkly about circumstantial evidence apparently connecting the Israeli “spies” and several of the hijackers responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The second name that stands out in this regard among the journalists is that of Sara Daniel: one of the large cohort of original signatories from Le Nouvel Observateur and, as so happens, the daughter of the founder of the publication, Jean Daniel. In November 2001, Ms. Daniel would provoke controversy by publishing an article in Le Nouvel Observateur in which she accused Israeli soldiers of raping Palestinian women “while perfectly cognizant of the fact” that the women would later be killed by their families as a matter of honor. Ms. Daniel described the alleged Israeli practice as a “war crime.” She and her father would later claim that the passage was the result of a “technical” error.

The most prominent of the “personalities” featured in the list of signatories is none other than former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. Védrine was French Foreign Minister in September 2000, at the time the French public television broadcast its Al-Dura report and offered the controversial footage free of charge to other news organizations around the world. Barely a year and a half later, in January 2002, he would respond to the first manifestations of what would become a massive upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents in France by archly observing: “One shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that young French people from immigrant families feel compassion for the Palestinians and get agitated when they see what is happening” (Radio Classique, 12 January 2002).

But what if what the young French people “see happening” — notably, on the nightly news — is not in fact happening? As one of the most dogged partisans of France’s traditionally pro-Arab Middle East policy, it is not hard to appreciate how Védrine would have an interest in suppressing criticism of France 2 and its Al-Dura report. (For Védrine on French “Arab Policy,” and many other things, see here.)

Perhaps the most notable member of this “list of ignominy” is Robert Ménard, the founder and Secretary General of the Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders: or “RSF” as per its French acronym. Ostensibly dedicated to the defense of press freedoms and freedom of speech around the world, RSF’s reports are frequently cited in the American press and blogosphere: including by “pro-American” and “pro-Israeli” bloggers. In recent years, RSF has specially cultivated the goodwill of the blogosphere by launching initiatives like the “First Online Free Expression Day” and compiling a list of countries it designates as “Internet Enemies.”

As I noted in a recent exposé of the organization, however, RSF has maintained a conspicuous silence on the Al-Dura affair and France 2′s prosecution of Karsenty. At first glance, this might seem surprising, since Karsenty would appear to be the very model of what RSF colorfully refers to as a “cyber-dissident” in other contexts and the prosecution of him by France 2 would appear to be a textbook example of an attempt by a state agency to suppress speech. It is far less surprising, however, when one realizes that RSF receives a substantial chunk of its annual budget from the French government — including direct subsidies from the French Foreign Ministry — and major financial contributions from the European Commission as well. (On the RSF financials, see part I of my exposé here.)

It is on account of this massive funding by France and the European institutions that I have suggested that RSF be referred to not as a “non-governmental organization” (NGO), but rather as a “para-governmental organization”: a “PGO” whose supposedly objective assessments of the situation of press freedoms around the world are in fact largely and obviously influenced by the political agendas of its principal state sponsors. (See part II of my exposé here.)

Robert Ménard’s attitude to the Al-Dura affair is just further confirmation of the “PGO” status of Reporters Without Borders. By breaking his silence and signing the Nouvel Observateur “Appeal,” Ménard has now explicitly come out in favor of suppressing Philippe Karsenty’s right to criticize Enderlin and France 2. He has thereby pulled off the remarkable feat of outing himself and the “press freedoms” organization he heads as, in effect, enemies of free speech.

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook.

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