The 21st-century version of the Dreyfus Affair

Philippe Karsenty is a media critic in France who may someday take his place alongside Edward R. Murrow and Emile Zola as one of the great voices of conscience in journalism history. But even after his recent triumph in a French court, which exonerated his name and debunked a long-standing myth of the intifada, few know about him. It is time more people did.

Karsenty, head of the French media watchdog Media Ratings, contends that the television station France 2 deliberately misled the world when it blamed Israel for killing a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed al Dura, during a battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian terrorists at the Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip on Sept. 30, 2000, and that the entire incident was probably a hoax.

France 2 distributed a 55-second video clip showing al Dura and his father caught in crossfire, with an accompanying voiceover saying Israel killed the boy. It was quickly broadcast around the world. Newspapers took their cue from France 2 and portrayed Israel’s actions as a massacre. Typical was the Washington Post’s front page

Oct. 1, 2000 article stating, “The Palestinian youths were no match for the well-armed Israeli troops. Among the Palestinians killed was a 12-year-old boy, who died in his father’s arms … The boy crouched in tears behind his father, who tried in vain to shield him before the boy was fatally shot in the abdomen.”

The video made al Dura the iconic Palestinian “martyr.” It incited acts of terror including the barbaric Oct. 12, 2000 “bloody hands” lynching of two Israelis by a gleeful Palestinian mob. Osama bin Laden lauded al Dura, and innumerable Palestinian bombing and shooting attacks on Israelis were carried out in his name.

But the France 2 report was a lie.

In late 2000, physicist Nahum Shahaf and engineer Yosef Duriel determined that the Israelis couldn’t have shot the boy. The 2002 German documentary “Three Bullets and a Child” reached the same conclusion, as did investigative reporter James Fallows in a June 2003 article in the Atlantic Monthly.

Critics noted that the video — shot by Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahma — did not show the boy being shot, and Charles Enderlin, the France 2 bureau chief who narrated the voiceover blaming Israel, did not witness the incident. Abu Rahma shot 27 minutes of raw footage, but France 2 refuses to this day to publicly release the remaining 26 minutes of film.

On Oct. 22, 2004, three senior French journalists were allowed to view the unreleased footage. All cast doubt on France 2’s story. Former France 2 correspondent Daniel Leconte said, “The only ones who could hit the child were the Palestinians from their position.”

Denis Jeambar, editor-in-chief of L’Expresse, noted, “In the 24 minutes of film preceding the footage of al Dura, young Palestinians are performing for the television cameras” and “completely fake their injuries.” Former Le Monde reporter Luc Rosenzweig deemed the video a “concerted attempt … to manufacture images” and called the Netzarim Junction “a small street theatre.” All expressed surprise that the boy’s death scene, which Enderlin had called “unbearable,” did not exist.

To silence its critics, France 2 sued Karsenty and others for defamation and won. But Karsenty appealed, and France 2 was ordered to show the raw footage in court. France 2 defied the order by withholding nine minutes of film, but the footage that was aired Nov. 14, 2007 showed the boy lifting his arm and peering through his fingers after he had supposedly been killed.

In February, the court-appointed independent ballistics expert, Jean-Claude Schlinger, testified that the boy and his father could only have been shot by the Palestinians and not by the Israelis. Moreover, Schlinger found there was “no objective evidence that the child was killed and his father injured,” and that it was “very possible” the entire incident was staged.

On May 21, Karsenty was vindicated when the appellate court overturned the verdict.

But while the media seized on the initial France 2 report to vilify Israel, they have ignored Israel’s exoneration. The New York Times has acknowledged the controversy only once, in a Feb. 7, 2005 article by Doreen Carvajal that was mysteriously buried in the Times’ business section.

The Washington Post, which on July 7, 2001 reiterated that al Dura “was raked by Israeli machine-gun fire and killed,” has completely ignored Karsenty’s appeal despite having longtime Middle East reporters Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson stationed in Paris. No major American newspaper reported the ballistics expert’s findings clearing Israel or the court’s ultimate decision vindicating Karsenty.

This case is reminiscent of the Alfred Dreyfus affair, an 1894 court-martial that was later exposed as a conspiracy to smear a French-Jewish army captain, and by extension, all Jews. That affair is remembered for Zola’s impassioned defense of Dreyfus in his Jan. 13, 1898 open letter “J’Accuse … !” It also inspired Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State,” launching the Zionist movement.

Karsenty’s story, too, deserves to be remembered. To use a timely sports analogy, his journalistic jersey deserves to hang in the rafters with the other titans of media integrity

Steve Silver, a Bay Area attorney and former journalist, is a director for BlueStar PR.