Being a French journalist means never having to say you're sorry.
Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By ANNE-ELISABETH MOUTET
So, in the case of Muhammad al-Dura-a 12-year-old Palestinian boy allegedly killed by Israeli fire during a skirmish in the Gaza strip on September 30, 2000-it was not really to be expected that the journalist who released the 59-second news report, Charles Enderlin, longtime Jerusalem correspondent for France 2 TV, would immediately admit having hastily slapped together sensational footage supplied by the channel's regular Palestinian stringer, and not checked whose bullets had, in fact, killed, or perhaps even not killed, the boy.
In the ensuing eight years, the small figure of Muhammad al-Dura cowering beside his crouching father became the defining image of the second Intifada. The "child martyr's" picture cropped up on posters, websites, postage stamps, and street names throughout the Muslim world from Mali to Indonesia, fueling lynchings and suicide bombings. The Israeli authorities at first took the French report more or less at face value and blandly deplored the child's death in a hasty release ("To the best of our knowledge, the boy was hit by our fire"). Others, however, were not so sure.
They parsed and scoured each of the 59 seconds of the film and every corner of the location for clues, ballistic angles, improbable moves, and hidden motivations. The film showed the two figures first seeking cover from gunfire, then later slumped over, though with no sign of blood or wounds. When increasingly convincing voices came to question, at the very least, the point of origin of the shots-the location of the small Israeli garrison made it pretty much impossible for Muhammad and his father, who was allegedly wounded, to have been hit by Israeli bullets-it took six weeks for the Israeli army spokesman to state in an interview that "both versions of the incident [are] possible," and two more months for an official investigation to be launched.
Meanwhile, Enderlin and his bosses at the state-run France 2, who had distributed their news item free worldwide, were refusing to answer questions. They flatly declined to provide the complete 27 minutes of footage taken that afternoon by the cameraman, or to concede any possible error, ping-ponging in the classical obfuscating pattern of bureaucracies everywhere. ("It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" hasn't yet made it to France.) It took two years for Enderlin to give his first interview, to a friendly colleague, Elisabeth Schemla, the respected editor of the Proche-Orient.info website and a former L'Express associate editor, in the course of which he confused "protecting one's sources" with not providing the tape. (Personal disclosure: I was at the time deputy editor of Proche-Orient.info.)
Even an hour-long documentary produced in 2002 by the award-winning German broadcaster Esther Schapira, who works for German state television's First Channel, failed to make a dent in the stance of France 2. While purposely keeping away from more controversial theories, Schapira's work comprehensively put paid to the "Israeli bullets killed Muhammad al-Dura" theory. Asked by Schemla why French television would not broadcast Schapira's film, Enderlin stonewalled: "I don't decide what the channel runs. I have bosses, there are people above me in charge . . . a professional hierarchy."