Friday, September 08, 2006

J'accuse: a case of libel, the blood libel, and the French press

There's a case about to begin in France that--according to blogger Richard Landes--could rival the Dreyfus case in importance.

I've written previously about the underpinnings of the present case: the misleading media coverage of the alleged death of 12-year old Mohammed al Durah. Those of you who read Augean Stables and Second Draft are probably quite familiar with the fact that a deception was most likely perpetrated by the French media in broadcasting the story to the world.

But now there are new wrinkles to the tale.

If anyone isn't familiar with the original incident, here's a quick summary: in late September of 2000, the boy Mohammed al Durah and his father were taking cover from an exchange of gunfire between Palestinian and Israeli forces in Gaza. Mohammed was either (take your pick, depending on the source) purposely gunned downed by the Israelis, or "caught in the crossfire" and accidently killed by them, according to Talal abu Rahmeh, a Palestinian cameraman who filmed the only video that exists of the supposed death scene; French correspondent Charles Enderlin; and the TV station for which they both worked, France2.

The incendiary footage of al Durah and his father was beamed all over the world. It was viewed with rage and condemnation of Israel, especially in predominantly Moslem and Arab countries as well as in Europe. The al Durah incident and photos of it were prominently visible in propaganda justifying the bloody and horrific Second Intifada against Israel, with its repeated terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, including many children.

But subsequent research and revelations have led those who have investigated the incident to the almost inescapable conclusion that the facts were not only not quite as reported (for example, the direction of the shots were such that Israeli forces could not have been responsible for hitting al Durah), but what is far worse--that it was bogus from start to finish. That is, that it was staged. The Second Draft site has a great deal of information on this subject; take a look for yourself.

Why am I bringing this up now? The first reason is that media misrepresentation in the recent war in Lebanon has highlighted possibly widespread media complicity in promulgating misinformation and propaganda favoring the Arab/Palestinian position in the Middle East. The al Durah case is an example from six years ago that makes one wonder just how long this has been going on, and how successful it has been in shaping anti-Israel opinions (the answer to both questions appears to be: very).

The second is the aforementioned trial about to begin in France over the al Durah case. The operative French law is one that was passed in 1881, aimed at protecting the press from defamation that "strikes at the honor and consideration (reputation) of 'the individual or institution in question.'"

And who is France2 suing for defamation? Three French citizens who used their websites to publish internet critiques of the station's coverage of the al Durah affair. As far as I can tell, this is the equivalent of the television station suing a blogger such as myself (who, fortunately, lives in the US rather than France) for pointing out that the France2 emperor has no clothes in this matter.

The hubris of France2 is astounding. What's more, they might actually win, according to Landes, despite the fact that anyone viewing the video on which they based the al Durah story can only conclude that France2's journalistic standards in airing the footage were abysmal and deplorable.

If one reviews the history of the coverage of al Durah by France2 with an open mind, it becomes clear that the TV station should be the defendant in a defamation trial, not the plaintiff. The truth appears to be that France2 has not just been duped, but that it has lied, especially in the persons of cameraman Tamal and Charles Enderlin, who asserted that they had respectively taken (Tamal) and personally viewed (Enderlin) twenty-seven minutes of corraboratory video showing the death throes of al Durah, footage that cannot be produced and that in fact never existed.

What does exist? A mere fifty-nine seconds of video, embedded in more minutes of other obviously staged material, filmed by a single Palestinian stringer (Tamal), and showing not al Durah's death throes, but his voluntary movements after he had supposedly been killed by a strangely bloodless shot in the stomach. Take a look at the footage (click to download "Death of an Icon") and see what you think. The egregiousness of the Big Lie must really be seen to be believed (or, rather, disbelieved).

Why does this matter? Al Durah has become both an icon and a rallying cry, a modern and non-Christian twist on an ancient deception, the blood libel. Both the old stories and the new are propaganda used for the same purposes, to ignite anti-Jewish feeling--or its modern-day incarnations, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish feeling. The repercussions have been vast, especially in Europe, in which both anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment has risen since 2000, the year of the al Durah incident.

I find the very existence of the French law under which this lawsuit is being brought to be astounding. Why would the media, of all things, need a special stature to protect itself against criticism? Moreover, why is the media so accepting of evidence that anyone with a grain of critical thought would view as suspicious? And why are these fakes so badly done?

The latter question gnaws at me, as it did when the Rathergate memos were exposed as fakes. It wasn't just that they were fakes, it's that they were patently obvious fakes. The inescapable conclusion is that the media on which we rely so heavily to shape our view of the world is either stupid or lying. There's no other possibility, and both alternatives are almost equally horrendous in their consequences.

My other supposition is that we only have uncovered these particular fakes because they are so very obvious. But we can't assume that all the fakes that have been perpetrated on us over the years have been so poorly executed. Are there in fact many others that have passed muster because they are technically far more competently done?

For example, in the case of Rathergate, what if the forgers had actually gotten hold of an old typewriter from the proper era (duh--not so difficult to do, after all)? Would we have ever known such a document was fake? And, with al Durah, what if they'd actually staged these scenes more carefully? It seems to me that it wouldn't have been so very difficult to have done so; moviemakers do it all the time, do they not?

Even so--even with the amateurish and slipshod nature of these forgeries--they still worked, for a while, and still work for many viewers. Al Durah has worked much better and longer than the memos. I fear that, in the future, the perpetrators of such fictions will become more skillful, having learned their lesson from these cases.

There is some cause for cautious--very cautious--optimism, however. I agree with Landes that if the present case in France receives wide coverage, and if the video of al Durah is ever released to the public and receives wide dissemination, it could be a turning point. I like to think that, with repetition (including new incidents such as Reutergate), distrust of media coverage in the area will reach some sort of critical mass. Then, if that happens, even if a lie continues to get halfway round the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on, maybe that lie won't be so easily believed.

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