You can’t always believe what you see
The video footage of the killing of Muhammad al-Dura is being scrutinised for manipulation
WE WILL HAVE to wait until February for the final verdict in the celebrated Paris libel case arising from the shooting of Muhammad al-Dura, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, at the Netzarim junction in Gaza on September 30, 2000. The incident, filmed by Palestinian Talal Abu Rahmeh and broadcast by the Jerusalem bureau chief of France 2, Charles Enderlin, was flashed around the world and seen as an iconic image of Israeli brutality.
When Enderlin’s version of events was challenged by Philippe Karsenty, head of watchdog Media Ratings, he was sued for libel by Enderlin and France 2 and lost. But the recent appeal hearing in a crowded Paris court room has been more encouraging.
Instead of producing the full 27 minutes of film, Enderlin produced only 18 minutes of tape, including a 68-second clip of the final moments of Dura’s life. According to Melanie Phillips’s blog on the Spectator website, Enderlin offered “only a vague, rambling, unconvincing explanation of why he had only produced 18 minutes” of his cameraman’s footage.
Phillips suggests that several aspects of the footage, which many believed triggered a violent backlash across the Palestinian territories, do not add up. Among the criticisms are that the film was not a continuous narrative and was spliced onto other footage; that claims that there were six minutes of Israeli fire were unconfirmed; and that after the youngster was reported dead, he moved his arm.
The detail in this case, outlined by Natan Sharansky in the JC, is fascinating in itself. Seven years after the event, it is not going to save the lives of those who perished in the second intifada. But the case does expose the vulnerability of Western media to distortion in a complex conflict setting.
Enderlin’s France 2 voice-over of the incident was added in his Jerusalem studio, not on site. So the journalist was largely dependent, like so many reporters operating in the West Bank and Gaza, on footage and images provided by Palestinian cameramen granted access to scenes of violence.
The fact that nine minutes of the France 2 tape had gone missing, for whatever reason, will raise suspicion of a Watergate moment for Enderlin and his colleagues. More significantly, the case could have a lasting effect on how television operates in the region.
Here in Britain, in much less fraught circumstances, the BBC’s broadcast of footage allegedly showing the Queen walking out of a photo session with Annie Leibovitz has already led to public apologies and high-level sackings at the BBC. What this incident showed is how easy it is for film-makers to distort images.
If this is unacceptable in peace time, it is even more so in the case of prolonged conflict, like when the Mohammed Dura footage was allowed by the Western media to frame events. It was also used on the Arab street to foment violence and hatred against Israel.
One hopes that the Paris court case does come to be seen as a cautionary tale for all Western media. Raw footage from a conflict zone, filmed without the presence of a seasoned reporter or producer, has to be treated with great care. Slicing and splicing film — so as to create a more dramatic narrative — is distorting. If in doubt about the film, at the very least, media outlets have a responsibility to provide a health warning or an explanation of how it was obtained.
Unfortunately, the al-Dura story has received scant attention in the UK press despite the presence of voluminous media pages. Celebratory coverage will always outgun media ethics. Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail