Saturday 31 May 2008

When Bad Journalism Kills: The Mohammed Al-Dura Story, by Frida Ghitis

Article in World Politics Review

"The irony of great tragedies is that their smallest moments are the ones that truly touch us. Statistics and death-counts impress strategists and historians. But the image of a terrified boy crouching behind his father in the crossfire of armed fighters -- and then dying in his father's arms -- has the power to melt hearts, ignite fury, and move people to action.

Such was the case with Mohammed al-Dura, the Palestinian boy supposedly killed by Israeli soldiers in September 2000 during a gun battle with Palestinians. His story sparked outrage around the world and added fuel to a raging fire that exploded into an even greater inferno after news of the 12-year-old's death. But what if the tragedy did not happen? What if it was all a hoax? History cannot be undone. Perhaps we can at least avoid repeating it.

The impact of the al-Dura story is difficult to exaggerate. The look of terror in the boys' eyes as he and his father take cover behind a barrel amid a shootout at the Netzarim Junction in Gaza has become indelibly etched in the collective mind of the Middle East. The unforgettable video -- an amazing exclusive for a French reporter and his cameraman -- became a powerful symbol that mobilized public opinion and spurred many more killings.

In the first terrorist decapitation video of our gruesome era, the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, young al-Dura plays a key role. The boy's image is superimposed as the killers show Pearl declaring "I am a Jew," just moments before they brandish their sharp knives and perform their unspeakable act. Throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds, there are countless roads and parks and monuments named for al-Dura. Egypt, Tunisia and even Belgium released stamps with the poignant picture. Al-Dura was the rallying cry for the Intifada of 2000, which left thousands dead.

As it turns out, the al-Dura story may be less sad but even more infuriating than we thought. An appeals court judge in France has just ruled against the France 2 television station and its celebrity reporter Charles Enderlin, the journalist who told the story to the world although, he admits, he was not there when it happened. Enderlin filed a defamation lawsuit against Philippe Karsenty, a media watchdog who argued the reporting was so filled with inconsistencies, gaps and misinformation, that the evidence indicated the whole thing had been a propaganda hoax. The judge agreed that Karsenty has presented a "coherent mass" of information casting legitimate doubt on the reporting.

The famous video clip lasted only 57 seconds. Enderlin says his Palestinian cameraman shot 28 minutes. The clip amounts to a montage of a few images, with Enderlin's narration declaring the boy dead and accusing Israel of killing him. The entire world took Enderlin at his word, despite his well-known record as a fervent foe of Israel. When the judge demanded the full raw video, Enderlin mysteriously showed only 18 minutes. The boy is seen walking away after he's declared dead, and there is no blood on the father, whom Enderlin claims was seriously wounded. Nowhere is the killing shown. Independent observers who have seen the film say the whole thing appears staged. One French reporter says the first 20 minutes look like Palestinians are "playing at war," repeatedly falling and getting up.

Detailed ballistic reports say it would have been physically impossible for an Israeli bullet to reach al-Dura. Perhaps Palestinians killed him. But the whole performance could have been a grand display of street theater.

Not surprisingly, news of the French judge's ruling against the activist anti-Israel journalist received almost no attention in the Arab world, in France, or in any of the countries where the story cemented a version of history that says Israelis are to blame for all the suffering in the Middle East.

There is no shortage of suffering among Palestinians and Israelis, and there is plenty of blame to go around on both sides. In this case, however, bad journalism shares in the responsibility for much of the pain -- and the deaths -- that followed. Unfortunately, we cannot undo history.

The dead are gone, and a distorted version of the conflict will remain with many who saw the deceptive clip of the al-Dura story. Millions will reject doubts about the killing. Future students of journalism should study this event, however, even as they review the story of their slain colleague Daniel Pearl. It's a lesson for all of us: Bad journalism can kill."

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