Tuesday, November 10, 2009

*mental groan*

So many points from the Hanson chapter we read this week resonated with me after conversations I have had with Israeli government officials and staff about the media’s influence over the public image of the country.

For example, I recently interviewed Danny Seaman, Director of the Government Press Office (GPO) in Israel, for a professional profiling assignment for another class. The GPO is the liaison between the government and foreign journalists based in Israel, providing press accreditation and coordinating interviews and access to restricted areas; and it is also the official conduit of information from the Israeli government to the general press, both domestic and international.

Danny’s account of the media firestorm surrounding the al-Dura case in 2000 was representative of the challenges facing governments in keeping up with the technological advances and resultant trends in reporting, government response and audience behavior that Hanson talks about:

“With instantaneous media coverage, the media wants a government opinion before government officials have had any time to formulate an official position, let alone a response.” -- David Gergen at a conference on “Virtual Diplomacy” (Hanson, 99).

On September 30, 2000, the TV news station France 2 ran a 55 second clip portraying the shooting and death of 12-year old Mohammed
al-Dura during a firefight between soldiers and Palestinian gumen near the Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip. France 2 promptly distributed the footage to media outlets around the world, free of charge. While most outlets made it clear that the footage was taken during the crossfire, others adopted the perspective of the France 2 broadcast: "Here Jamal and his son Mohammed are the targets of gunshots that have come from the Israeli position.... A new burst of gunfire, Mohammed is dead and his father seriously wounded." Three days later, France 2's cameraman gave a sworn statement to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights that the child was shot "intentionally and in cold blood" by the Israeli forces.

According to Danny, the information coming into his office about the incident immediately after it happened was not conclusive and he urged for patience before responding to the backlash from the clip. Meanwhile, after a hurried preliminary investigation, the army issued a statement taking responsibility for the shooting of Mohammed and his father-- despite the protests of the commander of the soldiers who participated in the firefight. The hope was, Danny says, that by taking responsibility and apologizing for a tragic mistake that may or may not have happened, the issue would lose steam in the press.

“Images and messages are refracted through a national and cultural lens. A message . . . may well make its way to a foreign audience and produce unintended consequences. A single word, whether a slip of the tongue or not, can enrage a foreign audience and complicate future policy with unintended effects”(100).

Stamps coined with the image of Mohammed and his father, streets and parks in Arab countries named after Al-Dura the Martyr-- this was just some of the backlash after the media's coverage of the shooting. There were synagogue burnings in France. Osama Bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda mentioned the "martyr's death" of the child as one more reason to fight the U.S. and Israel in their video tapes. Most reporters cite Ariel Sharon's visit to al-Aqsa mosque on September 28, 2000 as the flashpoint that started the second intifada-- but Danny Seaman says that it was the
al-Dura story two days later that really set the region on fire. Danny's observation about the violent response to the story is the same as that of many people familiar with Jewish history: the coverage of the al-Dura case fed into a long-standing myth of Jewish lust for the blood or flesh of non-Jewish children, the blood libel. This boogeyman legend has been responsible for attacks against Jews since at least 38 CE, and it is still used in anti-Jewish propaganda today.

“[T]he national and international agendas of nations are increasingly being set not by some grand government plan but by the media: policymakers have to spend a good share of their time and energy dealing with whatever crises or pseudocrises have been identified by the media that particular day”(101-102).

Charles Enderlin, France 2's Jerusalem-based Middle East bureau chief, admitted in interviews that the moment of the actual shooting of the al-Duras is not in the footage. He also explained his decision to air 55 seconds from 20 minutes of video was because it was illegal in France to show someone's "death throes" on television.

France 2's news director during the
al-Dura incident resigned in 2004 after being found guilty of a breach of journalistic ethics by the French broadcast authority in a separate case. His replacement agreed to screen the original raw footage from the shooting for independent journalists Luc Rosenzweig (editor of Le Monde), Denis Jeambar, and Daniel Leconte in 2005. After seeing the full footage, they said that nothing they saw justified assertions that it was Israeli fire that hit the al-Duras or that Mohammed was even dead at the end of the footage (the voiceover in the clip, if you recall, said he was). A full-fledged investigation by the IDF a few years prior had already concluded that is was physically improbable that it was Israeli fire and not Palestinian fire that had hit the al-Duras, based on the positions of the combatants vis-a-vis the place where Mohammed and his father were crouched in hiding. Nevertheless, it was only when outside support from members of the media began to surge forth that Israel had any chance of debunking what had happened... and still the government said nothing. They thought it was better to leave the issue alone rather than bring up a sore subject.

Not content to say that Israel was not responsible for Mohammed's death, some parties claim that the entire scene that was filmed was staged by Palestinians out to blacken Israel's image. No autopsy was performed on Mohammed,
the cameraman yelled in Arabic "the boy is dead" before the shots were fired, the funeral was reported as taking place at night but the footage supposedly shows a daytime scene, and so on. (To its credit, in my opinion, the Israeli military does not debate the authenticity of the footage. The people that say the whole thing is a fake do bring evidence, but I think it would be the easy way out for the IDF to jump on the bandwagon if they really don't agree that the event was staged.) In any case, in 2008 the Court of Appeals in Paris ruled that Philippe Karsenty, a media analyst and founder of the media watchdog group Media Ratings, "was within his rights to call the France 2 report a 'hoax,' overturning a 2006 decision that found him guilty of defaming the network and its Mideast correspondent, Charles Enderlin."

Who shot Mohammed
al-Dura? Did he really die? I don't know. This blog post is NOT a comprehensive overview of the proofs brought by each side, but suffice it to say you have have basically read three versions of "the truth." Atlantic writer James Fallows put it best in his article on what has become "the Pietà of the Arab world": "with the Internet and TV, each culture now has a more elaborate apparatus for 'proving,' dramatizing, and disseminating its particular truth."

Additional Sources:

Who Shot Mohammed Al-Durrah? by James Fallows (I think this article does a REALLY good job of being objective, so if you are interested in this this story please check it out before commenting on the blog.)

BACKGROUNDER: Mohammed Al Dura; Anatomy of a French Media Scandal (Provides a timeline and the different accounts or explanations of the event that are still being debated nine years later.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_libel_against_Jews (Interesting if you want a sliver of understanding about why Jewish humor is so paranoid. You'd be paranoid too after a thousand years of this crap.)

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