The Al Durah Trials: Portrait of French Culture at the Beginning of the 21st Century

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SEPTEMBER 05, 2006   RICHARD LANDES

This fall three trials will take place in Paris at the Palais de Justice on the Ile de la Cité concerning the Al Durah affair.

Palais de Justice

I will be covering these trials in person on this blog and encourage others to follow the events closely because these trials — the issues, the mechanics of justice, the reaction of the public — tell us and will tell us a great deal about French society at the beginning of the 21st century. As a result, I will try to post something daily on the issues, stakes, and dynamics of what is happening. My first posting will be a memo on the overall issues.

1. Introduction

Starting on the 14 of September, 2006, there will be a series of three trials of individual French citizens who used internet sites to publish criticism of France2’s coverage of the Muhammad al Durah affair. Each of these trials invokes an 1881 law on press freedom that protects the individual, group, ethnicity, or religion from defamation that “strikes at the honor and consideration (reputation) of ”the individual or institution in question” (either France2 or Charles Enderlin).

The statements for which these individuals have been brought to trial are mild by American standards: “come protest France2’s gigantic manipulation…” “Charles Enderlin has committed grave professional errors…” “grave presumptions of disinformation exist around this affair…” “France2’s continuous refusals [to open an investigation] constitute so many brutal and unacceptable obstructions in the search for and demonstration of the truth.” Yet many of the people I have consulted on this matter think that France2 will win their cases. “French justice is not like American justice,” one Frenchman said to me. “C’est trucquée.” [It’s fixed.]

These trials all come before the juges d’instructions in Room 17 of the Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, Palais de Justice. This is a magnificent courtroom, the high court of French Justice.

The trials will take place fairly rapidly (two to three hours for each one), and the decisions will come within several weeks.

Two of these trials were initiated by France2 and Charles Enderlin in late 2002 when the first substantial evidence of either gross negligence or criminal manipulation first became available, and provoked public demonstrations concerning al Durah. The evidence was MENA’s short documentary and Esther Schapira’s longer Three Bullets and a Dead Child. The third trial (first to reach the court) dates from two year later and concerns an article written by Philippe Karsenty at his Media watchdog site, Media Ratings, in which he argues explicitly that the al Durah footage was staged and that heads should roll. The trials were inaugurated at a time when France2’s version enjoyed almost complete dominion in public opinion, even among Jews. At the time, France2 could count on widespread support for their position from other journalists. The plaintiffs aim at using the law of 1881, designed to keep journalists from abusing their freedoms and defaming members of the public, to stifle public criticism of a case of journalistic negligence that defamed an entire people.

Since then, however, a great deal has changed. Fallow’s piece in the Atlantic Monthly (June 2003), multiple articles on the internet, and Nidra Poller s piece in Commentary, have shifted opinion among those who are informed. Only people who have not seen the evidence still argue for scenario 1 (Israelis on purpose), even if most remain shy of scenario 5 (staged). In addition the material available at Second Draft has made it possible for anyone to view the evidence for him or herself, and Pallywood has become not only a widespread term, but a spur to rapid skepticism at Palestinian and now Lebanese efforts to produce new icons of sympathy and hatred.

But the shift goes still further: even among French media elites the word is out. In November of 2005 the scandal almost broke when two independent journalists – Daniel LeConte of Arte and Denis Jeanbar of L’Express — saw the Palestinian cameraman Talal abu Rahma’s rushes (what he recorded during the previous half hour). The embarrassment was palpable. Apparently, Jeanbar and Leconte were as astonishedas was I, and also commented on the pervasive staging. They got the same answer from Enderlin’s boss that I got from Enderlin: “Oh, they do that all the time.” “You may know that,” responded Jeanbar, “ but your viewers don’t.”

And they still don’t know. The measures protecting media from having to admit error in this matter mobilized. Some heavy efforts from people of influence got both independent journalists to stop discussing the matter. If the public sees the rushes, this private embarrassment could become a terminal catastrophe for France2.

In the final analysis, these are not arcane French legal matters at stake, but tests of the French ability to meet 21st century challenges. This is a Dreyfus affair played out in an international theatre in which the country’s success or failure has global implications.

2. Scope of the Issue:

The reported death of the young Al Durah operated in the Arab and Muslim world, and to a lesser extent in the media and academic world of the West, as a powerfully iconic instance of blood libel. A father had stood by impotently as the Israelis – in cold blood – shot down his pathetically terrified son. The Israelis deliberately kill innocent and defenseless children. In the West it appeared as a “real” proof of Israeli malevolence and a justifiable source of outrage to a beleaguered people fighting for their independence.

Almost immediately, in demonstrations all over Europe, a combination of radical “left” and Muslim “immigrants” denounced Israel’s barbarity. The vehemence of these repeated demonstrations often spilled over into violence, especially against Jews. Europe got it’s “Arab/Muslim Street” as a result: both its vulnerability to public violence, and a major injection of anti-Semitic discourse.

[Demonstration at Place de la Republique, Paris, date unknown, possibly October 7, 2000.]

But the evidence cannot support charges of Israeli evil intent or culpability and the icon operated as a call not to Palestinian liberation but to global Jihad. Europeans, who thought they had a “get out of Holocaust-guilt free card” were actually waving the flag of global Jihad, in which they, as infidels, were as much the targets of the hostility as the Israelis, in front of their Muslim populations, and approving (or looking the other way) as the violence against Jews increased alarmingly.

The Al Durah case is a mutli-faceted tale that can tell us a great deal about the disturbing direction of events in Europe (and the West) since 2000. It brings into play:

1. The radical misreading of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a Palestinian struggle for national independence rather than a part of global Jihad, which has the Europeans siding with the forces of global jihad against themselves.

2. The ways in which this pro-Palestinian rhetoric has introduced an Arab street in Europe and strengthened the forces of Islamism and Jihad around the globe.

3. The roles played by the French and European media in this process, and the exceptional denial that permeates French public life on the issues of Eurabia and global Jihad.

 

4. The fundamental significance of anti-Zionism in European perceptions of the Al Durah icon, and how Al Durah as a 21st century blood libel has opened the gates to both Islamic anti-Semitism and more overt European anti-Zionism.

5. The ways that French (and European) politicians have ignored the rise of anti-Semitism in their midst through repeated denial.

6. The relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism and the dimensions of France’s “politics of resentment.”

7. The close connections between the French media (especially AFP) and the French foreign policy elite (Quai d’Orsay)

8. The ways the French legal system has functioned both in encouraging anti-Jewish violence with its lenient sentencing of anti-Jewish comments and deeds, and is now being used to silence any criticism.

9. Overall, the way the al Durah affair has played out in France over the last 6 years shows in painful detail the dysfunctions of French culture and politics, and illustrates the ways in which Eurabia operates. We can see clearly that Europe has become vulnerable to aggressive Islamism and Jihadism in the cause and effect of Pallywood’s success among European media gatekeepers. The European media are astonishingly credulous when considering video footage that is transparently dishonest.

If the public could view the complete Al Durah video (Talal’s “rushes”), I think the reaction would be astonishment — and indignation at the media. It would be obvious that there is a direct correlation between media manipulation of information and the broad public support for anti-Zionism. But, absent the complete video, the eagerness with which Europeans “learned” about Muhammad al Durah’s “death” at the hands of the Israelis, made the fake so much more acceptable. In like fashion, the shocking news from Kafr Kana has triggered a horrified call to cease fire immediately. The West is being victimized by its enemies’ manipulation of images, for those deceitful icons and faked reports are received uncritically, even when not enthusiastically, by the West’s own media. Given that synergy between Islamist malice and easily-duped news outlets, how can the Western public make intelligent decisions?

Al Durah represents a major error of the French media that have severe problems living up to their ethical standards (déontologie). The consequences of this particular error have had a catastrophic impact on both Israelis (their reputation) and the Palestinians (led into a losing war with this picture as incitement). They have also done serious damage globally to the fabric of civil society. If free and responsible (hence reasonably accurate) media are the eyes and ears of civil society, then we are flying blinded by this kind of information over very dangerous terrain. The ability of French courts to defend the rights of citizens to criticize the media’s work and make their criticisms known, to assess the evidence before them fairly, and to understand what is at stake in their decision – all of these matters will be played out this fall in the Parisian court.

Much in our troubled world hangs in the balance. The more people know, the more the judges become self-conscious about making their decision, and the more we can hope that France will make a sane decision from the perspective of both the law and the media. And if the French courts decide against these defendants, then at least those of us paying attention will have a sense of just how reliable French society is, and how resilient it will be in these coming years.

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