Letter from France: An incendiary TV news report’s truthfulness is on trial

Something unusual happened in the small 11th Appeals courtroom of Paris on Nov. 14. The footage used for a September 2000 report by French TV on the death of
Mohammad al Dura in the Gaza Strip was screened and examined by a judge in a slander trial against an Internet site that had claimed the Al Dura report was forged.

Charles Enderlin, the veteran correspondent of French public television in the Middle East and author of the report, described to the judge every segment of the footage filmed by his cameraman at the Netzarim junction, while Enderlin was in Ramallah. The journalist maintained that his report was genuine and accused the Internet site, Media-Ratings, of slander, but, for the first time since the events of September 2000, the French news agency, AFP, concluded that something was wrong with Enderlin’s report.

“The [edited] TV report ends with an image of the boy laying still, leading the viewer to believe that the boy was killed in the shooting, but in the unreleased footage screened in court, we could see in the following seconds the boy moving his arm,” read the AFP story, adding that this did not exclude the possibility that the boy died later.

AFP added that Enderlin refused to answer its questions after the hearing.

The trial, attended by no major French media except for the AFP correspondent, might shed new light on the Al Dura affair and on media coverage in general.

During the first few years, French television succeeded in avoiding major criticism regarding the Al Dura report and Enderlin’s firm statement accusing Israeli soldiers of killing the young boy, but in 2004 the course of events changed when two renowned journalists began investigating the case.

Senior French editors Denis Jeambar and Daniel Leconte were alerted by former Le Monde journalist Luc Rosenzweig on possible misreporting by Enderlin, and they requested to view the footage. Jeambar and Leconte published a story criticizing Enderlin’s work in January 2005. It pointed out some troubling details, such as the staged battle scenes filmed by Talal Abu Rahma in the first part of the footage, the lack of evidence proving Enderlin’s claim that the bullets were shot from the Israeli position and other major details, such as the lack of blood on the victims, although Enderlin said the Al Duras had been hit by bullets.

Enderlin declared that he had edited the images to avoid showing the boy’s last minutes of agony. But in the footage, there was no trace of these images. However, Enderlin’s theory stood as unquestionable reality, and Abu Rahma’s images weren’t questioned or analyzed.

Jeambar and Leconte called on French TV to launch its own internal inquiry, citing a lack of journalistic standards, but did not share the theory of a possible staging of Al Dura’s death.

Five years after the incident, Arlette Chabot, French public TV’s new head news editor, told Jewish radio and the Paris Herald Tribune that “no one knew who shot at Muhammad al Dura,” but she maintained that accusing Enderlin of forgery was pure slander and confirmed the case against Media-Ratings’ owner Philippe Karsenty.

Was public French TV trying to shake off growing criticism from senior journalists by suing a small Internet site for defamation?

The hearing was probably not the result it was aiming for.

The trial against Karsenty, which French TV expected to win easily, turned unexpectedly into a first public re-examination of the TV report, when the judge demanded to view the footage before ruling whether the accused was guilty of slander.

This strategy might pull Enderlin even farther down. Jeambar and Leconte criticized a possible lack of journalist deontology, but Karsenty’s charges denouncing an alleged forged report pushes Enderlin to a rougher spot.

Furthermore, only 18 minutes were provided by Enderlin, when Abu Rahma claimed originally to have filmed 27.

For Karsenty and others, this has become a far-reaching battle.

“The Al Dura report has had terrible consequences, causing hatred against Israel, Jews and the West,” Karsenty told me. “It generated violence and terror when it became a symbol throughout the world and was invoked in the killing of Daniel Pearl, among other tragedies. This fabricated symbol, represented on stamps, graffiti and even monuments, could sink in and generate profound hatred for several generations. We have to repair the damage now, before it’s too late.”

The trial will resume on Feb. 27.

Soldiers in the Park

The mayor of Paris surprised me today.

Let’s face it, like every other resident of our capital, I’ve gotten used to complaining over just about every little detail that could annoy our beautiful and privileged life. A Parisian cannot visualize life without his five-week yearly vacation, without his regular three-day weekends, etc., and the more he gets used to his privileges, the more he gets annoyed by anything that could disturb his quiet life.

In the very same way, we all desire that our city hall would understand and endorse our political views, even when they don’t concern the city or even our country.

It seems that our mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, has become a true gymnast in the diplomatic sport of pleasing various lobbies based in our district.

Delanoe is a communications pro who knows how to address crowds and who would love to become the next resident of the Elysee presidential palace.

Although I have no intention of campaigning for the mayor, I cannot reasonably ignore the way he managed the campaign for the liberation of the three abducted Israeli soldiers these past few months.

The mayor launched in the summer of 2006 a solidarity campaign in favor of civilians in Lebanon and in Israel. When he received the families of the three abducted soldiers, Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, he promised to hang their pictures in the city and call for their quick liberation, just as he did for French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt and for various journalists detained in Iraq.

All of those who heard Delanoe smiled and thought that the pictures would never see the light of day, and that if they were hung, it would be in some dark corner of an abandoned neighborhood in the outskirts of Paris. However, Delanoe instructed that the poster be placed in the beautiful Bercy Park, more specifically in the Yitzhak Rabin Garden, which is a leisure area for thousands of Parisians.