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

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