The Al-Durah Affair

The image of Muhammad al Durah, "gunned down in a hail of Israeli bullets at the very beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada", was one of the most potent icons of the recent Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Phillipe Karsenty, director of Media Ratings, was accused of "striking at the honor and respectability" of France 2's Jerusalem Bureau Chief Charles Enderlin and France 2 by questioning the validity of footage aired on September 30, 2000, in the first days of the Oslo War, depicting a cowering Muhamad Al Dura being shot while being sheltered by his father near the former Jewish community of Netzarim in Gaza.

The Belmont Club explains:
The Augean Stables tells the story of how French bloggers are now on trial for questioning France2's account of the murder of Muhammad al Durah, who the network portrayed as having been murdered by IDF soldiers. At the time the charges were filed there was widespread French public approval of the action. But new information which emerged since has shifted the ground. ... The Augean Stables notes that whatever the charge sheet says, the media is a defendant too. "In the final analysis, these are not arcane French legal matters at stake, but tests of the French ability to meet 21st century challenges." In fact, a constitutional challenge. Without anyone noticing, in the years between World War 2 and the present the Press has acquired the power to be the arbiter of a great many events: the success or failure of public enterprises, the guilt or innocence of the accused and even the power to declare defeat or victory in war.

A media watchdog group founded by Philippe Karsenty alleged that the images were staged, with the knowledge or participation of France's France2 network. More questions followed:
By 2002, two investigative documentaries, one German and one French, had raised questions about the veracity of the tightly-shot footage and the claims accompanying it. Raw footage from that day was released and separate instances of the staging of injuries were clearly seen. The documentaries alleged that there was no sign of blood on the ground where the father and son were supposed to have bled for 20 minutes and questioned why there was no footage of an ambulance evacuation or records of an arrival at the hospital or autopsy for the boy.

France 2 refused to air the German documentary, but the French one sparked a demonstration in Paris outside the company’s offices. At that point, Karsenty wrote an article calling for France 2’s Enderlin and France 2 chief Arlette Chabot to resign. In response, Enderlin and France 2 itself sued Karsenty and two others.

Many of those who followed the first trial expressed optimism that the case would be judged in Karsenty's favor. The Belmont Club:
Nidra Poller completes her coverage of the Mohammed al-Dura libel trial against France2 at Pajamas Media. France2 comes off very, very badly in the evidence. And the prosecutor has already recommended that France2's suit against the first defendant, Karsenty, be dropped. Personally I don't think the trial is so much about the relative justice of Israeli and Palestinian causes so much as the absolute depths to which the modern broadcast media may have plunged.

Here's an excerpt from Nidra Poller's coverage of the September trial:
Philippe Karsenty takes the stand. The judge’s questions are pertinent, Philippe’s answers are clear and compelling. Does he personally think the scene was staged or simply questionable? Philippe replies that he was initially convinced by the Schapira film, but realized after further investigation that the incident had to be staged. He gives an example: when it became clear from ballistics tests that the al-Duras could not have been hit by direct fire from the Israeli position, it was claimed they were hit by ricochets. But the father says he was hit 9 times, and the boy 3 times. Twelve ricochets? It’s impossible.

Then comes the ten-gun question: why don’t Israeli officials protest? Karsenty’s answer is plausible: they think it would do no good to bring the image back to the forefront. Even if the truth could be established, it would turn against them.

Q: Denis Jeambar and Daniel Leconte, who viewed the 27-minute outtakes, said (Radio Communauté Juive) all the scenes were staged except the al-Dura scene. Jeambar cited a video of the father displaying his scars, a new element of proof shown by France 2 at a press conference.

A: I did not see the film because I was not allowed to attend the press conference. Leconte told me he was interested in the affair, and intended to investigate it. But Arte [French-German-Spanish cultural TV channel] warned him they would not work with his production company, Doc en Stock, anymore if he didn’t drop the subject. Jeambar was under pressure from inside l’Express, notably Jacques Attali. Alexandre Adler told me that Charles (who is his brother-in-law) was tricked by his fixer. Many people have told me privately that they know the scene was staged, but they won’t say it in public.

The judge’s features tighten as if he is trying to hide his surprise…or distress. ...

But despite what observers saw as a strong performance by the defense and a weak one (or none at all) by France2, the court ruled in favor of French TV:
Four years later, the trials have begun and the first verdict was received Wednesday. At his trial, Karsenty presented four expert witnesses backing up his claim that not only were Al-Dura and his father not killed by the IDF, the entire scene was most apparently staged with the knowledge of the cameraman.

The procureur de la republique, a court-appointed officer in the French legal system charged with assessing the case in the interests of civil society, recommended that the case be ruled in Karsenty’s favor. He said that Karsenty had offered enough evidence to make such assertions a legitimate part of public discourse. The judge ruled that Karsenty had not checked other sources thoroughly and had used unwarranted strong language.

Nobody from France 2 even showed up for the trial. The TV station’s lawyer called no witnesses to the stand and declined to cross-examine any of Karsenty's witnesses or comment on the evidence displayed. The plaintiff’s summation asserted that the honor and reputation of France 2 is beyond reproach and submitted a letter of praise from President Jacques Chirac.

The court ordered Karsenty to pay Enderlin 3,000 Euro and awarded a symbolic 5 Euro to France 2 Television. He plans to appeal the decision and the next trial is due to begin on October 26th.

The Augean Stables reflects:
To say that the decision was disappointing is obviously putting it mildly. But it was not unexpected. Numerous people wrote me to say, watch out. As one American blogger who lives in France wrote:

I followed closely your reports on the first part of the trial. I’m still pessimistic. The reason I’m pessimistic is because they’re only asking for the symbolic euro. France2 wants the case just so they can say the courts ruled in their favor, not in order for sanction actually to be applied. I’m afraid the French courts are so politicized that they will give them what they want.

Others noted that the absence of any effort on the part of France2 — no witnesses, no questions for hostile witnesses, no presence of either Enderlin or Chabot — could indicate not a lack of preparation (alone), but a secure knowledge that they need do nothing since they knew they’d win. Several people who claimed to know, informed me and Karsenty independently, that the fix was on before the trial. When I suggested that to an Israeli lawyer I know after the first trial but before the decision, she responded indignantly, “No. The French judiciary is really independent.” I wanted to believe that.

The Augean Stables has a comprehensive introduction to the Al Durah affair at this link.

All of TAS's Al-Durah-related posts may be found at this category link.

Neo-Neocon will be covering the second part of the Al Durah / France2 defamation trial.