The departure of CNN news executive Eason Jordan came swiftly after reports of his apparent claim at a forum in Switzerland that journalists in Iraq had been deliberately killed by American soldiers. Offering no evidence to support the charge, Jordan resigned under a hail of criticism.
In just months, CBS ousted senior executives held responsible for airing a disastrously flawed segment on President Bush’s Air National Guard service. So, too, the New York Times and USA Today acted within months against serial falsifiers Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, firing senior executives as well as the individual perpetrators, and instituting measures to guard against future infractions.
Far different has been the response of the influential France 2 Television network, in an infamous and unresolved case of gross misconduct by its journalists. Charles Enderlin, Israel-based correspondent for the network, and his Palestinian cameraman, Talal Abu-Rahma, are directly responsible for the calumny spread worldwide against Israel starting September 30, 2000 in the Muhammad al-Dura affair.
Enderlin’s voice-over told France 2 viewers that they were seeing footage shot by Abu-Rahma at Gaza’s Netzarim junction earlier that day. As images unfolded of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura cowering against his father, Enderlin stated the two are “the target of fire coming from the Israeli position. The child signals, but… there’s a new burst of gunfire… The child is dead and the father is wounded.”
France 2 then promptly gave the video – barely 55 seconds in length – free of charge to other media outlets. The image of the boy ostensibly shot dead by Israeli guns raced around the world. Coming as it did in the first days of the Palestinian uprising, the dramatic scenes playing continuously on television stoked the violence.
In Arab nations, al-Dura was quickly mythologized as an emblem of alleged Israeli cruelty, with streets, parks, stamps and newborns named after him. Videos recreated the event, some with calls for young people to seek “martyrdom” and paradise with al-Dura.
Not everything is known about the chaotic events at Netzarim and the circumstances of the al-Dura case, but certain things are.
First, the footage contains no evidence at all that Israeli soldiers shot al-Dura. Neither in the 55 seconds broadcast around the globe nor in the 27 remaining minutes filmed by Abu-Rahma are there any soldiers in view. It is not logistically possible that the Israeli soldiers present that day, barricaded inside a building across the intersection, could have shot the boy and his father, huddled behind a concrete barrel blocking the line of fire. As James Fallows wrote in an investigation of the case for The Atlantic Monthly (June 2003): “Whatever happened to him, he was not shot by the Israeli soldiers…”
A recent column in the French newspaper Le Figaro (January 25, 2005) reiterated this, and emphasized what others have said – that a review of the terrain where the incident occurred incriminates Palestinian, not Israeli, bullets.
Second, the footage does not contain visual evidence that al-Dura died. Though he collapses, the tape ends abruptly with the boy inert; a further frame, omitted by Enderlin from the broadcast, shows al-Dura raising his head and arm. But this is the last image.
To explain the odd, truncated footage, Enderlin repeatedly claimed he omitted the “agony of the child” – his dying – because it was unbearable to witness.
However, when several French journalists prevailed on France 2 to let them view the unreleased 27 minutes, they found no “agony of the child” – no excruciating scenes of a suffering al-Dura.
Enderlin lied, and his lie heightened the sense of a brutal act committed by Israel.
Third, numerous analysts have noted that in footage taken of the crowds at Netzarim there are clearly instances of Palestinians staging events. The French journalists who viewed the France 2 footage saw this as well, including repeated instances of Palestinians faking injuries followed by the immediate arrival of ambulances to carry away the pseudo-wounded. While no video evidence proved the al-Dura incident was staged, the prevalence of such activity at the time is relevant to any inquiry.
Enderlin has replied to criticism by retorting the case may never be resolved, but for him the “image [as he conveyed it] corresponded to the reality of the situation.”
Enderlin states that in his view Israel was using excessive force against Palestinians, and clearly in his mind a journalist can distort and embellish the facts to fit his political opinions.
Four and a half years later, France 2 has yet to issue any statement correcting its reprehensible and unethical al-Dura story, or to take action against Enderlin, Abu-Rahma or others with a hand in the matter.
This should concern everyone who appreciates the enormous damage caused by reckless and ideologically-driven journalism.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post on February 21, 2005.