A court of appeal in Paris will hand down an important judgment today that serves as a kind of microcosm of how the media establishment can act in a co-ordinated way to protect its members’ perceived interests. It also, by the way, throws a sharp light on the way Israel’s interests are under attack far from the physical battlefield – while the casualties are all too real.
The decision will be the latest episode in a legal saga pitting the state-controlled France2 television juggernaut along with one of its senior news producers, Charles Enderlin, on one side against a lone-wolf French media critic, Philippe Karsenty. Enderlin and France2 are seeking to have Karsenty convicted of criminal defamation.
The matter has gone through four separate rounds of legal hearings since the well-funded plaintiffs launched their attack in September 2006 – testament to the determination of both sides, and perhaps to the larger issues at stake. (See the timeline)
Enderlin is a prominent French foreign correspondent based, and living, in Israel. A well-regarded veteran professional, he is the current head of the Foreign Press Association here and no innocent bystander when it comes to the powerful controversies that continually sweep over the media’s coverage of events in the Arab/Israel conflict.
The Enderlin/France2 legal action starts with an event that still reverberates mightily today. On September 30, 2000, at the start of the second ‘Intifada’, France2 broadcast footage of an episode that happened at Netzarim Junction in Gaza that day. It was captured on film by a Palestinian ‘stringer’ called Talal Abu Rahma who – perhaps oddly – was the only one out of the numerous cameramen filming at Netzarim that day to record the incident, which he claims occurred over the course of nearly an hour. Enderlin, France 2′s local correspondent, was not present and in fact was in another part of the country at the time.
France2 put the Abu Rahma footage to air the same days, accompanied by dramatic commentary supplied by Enderlin, and handed the clip to numerous other news agencies. It purported to show a scene both pathetic and horrifying: a father and his pre-teenage young son cowering behind a barrel as bullets are fired at them by (as the Enderlin commentary makes clear) IDF soldiers in a nearby emplacement. Eventually, the narrative became more concrete and accusatory: the Israeli soldiers had murdered the boy, Mohammed “in cold blood,” firing “hundreds of bullets”. Mohammed bled to death of a stomach wound.
Twelve and a half years have passed since the events depicted in the Al Durah video. That’s certainly a long time in terms of a news cycle. But along the way it morphed into something iconic and enduring, with devastating effect in terms of lives lost and ruined. It is at least as alive and potent today as it was in 2000.
People who view the video are usually convinced they are witnessing the horrible and cold-blooded killing of a child. That is what the voice-over tells them. Since it first appeared as a news report, the image of a dead boy beside his father has escalated into a plethora of posters, murals, online music videos and even postage stamps.
The problem, as Karsenty and others have repeatedly and publicly pointed out, is that the child is visibly alive at the end of the full clip, long after the audio track pronounces him shot dead. The frames capturing that startling final scene were ignored in some broadcasts, edited out of others, and are at the heart of the dispute.( They can be seen here.)
Whatever actually happened that day, the Al Durah footage continues to be invoked over and again as justification for violent deeds and acts of terrorism.
- The organizers of the notorious 2000 anti-racism conference in Durban exploited the Al Durah footage to market Israel as the villain of the new, global century.
- The grotesque 2002 video released by Pakistani jihadists that shows American journalist Daniel Pearl being beheaded depicts the face of Mohammad Al Durah in a corner of the screen.
- The Al Durah narrative played a key role in Osama Bin Laden’s video sermons. It became an icon of hatred that fanned the winds of global religious and cultural hatred and warfare.
- Jihadi groups have used the imagery to reach students at Western universities.
- The French jihadist Mohamed Merah ascribed his killing spree in Montauban and Toulouse in March 2012 to a will to avenge the Palestinian boy’s death.
The 2012 Toulouse tragedy highlighted, perhaps more graphically than the other instances, how a society exposed to hate-mongering narratives of children deliberately killed by a hated ‘other’ (and perhaps it’s just coincidence that this happened in France again), will produce men like Merah who kill Jewish school-children to avenge these journalistic accounts. Beyond this, it will nourish deep resentments that engender support and admiration for the “avenger”, lionizing him as a martyr for the act of child-killing and for the blows he strikes against authority.
The matter of the Al Durah event – and in this sense it matters less whether it was accurately reported or was a ‘Pallywood’ hoax – is at the heart of a serious debate about news reporting. Consider three points, from among numerous others:
- Among the most disturbing of the many failures highlighted by the Al Durah affair has been the remarkable lack of evident desire among investigative journalists to critically examine the Charles Enderlin/France 2 version of the evidence. And in a striking inversion of the role journalists should be taking, France’s union of media professionals, the Syndicat national des journalistes, stands explicitly behind Enderlin, the video clip’s producer. It has actively supported France 2’s sustained attack on Karsenty and his pesky questions for eight years.
- In some quarters, France 2′s defamation suit is perceived as a means to legally strait-jacket those who allege the video and the narrative it represents are a fraud.
- Journalism that promotes toxic narratives by presenting them as news, feeds hatred and incites to violence has arguably become central to the harshening of European public culture in the 21st century. Jews are only the first victims of a metastasizing process that is coming to be recognized as cognitive warfare.
Notwithstanding the small degree of attention paid outside France to this criminal defamation case, there are serious and large issues here. Beyond the immediate facts of the events at Netzarim and in Paris, they concern the immensely important role played by those who report and analyze the news, and the mutual responsibility existing between them and the societies they serve. What is the appropriate response if it turns out that deadly consequences result from malfeasance on the part of those who package and market the news?
Perhaps the decision of the Paris court on Wednesday may help to bring the questions into a sharper focus. They are likely to accompany us for some time.