Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Freedom of the Press, at War

Iman Al Hams was killed in Rafah on October 5th, 2004. She was 13 at the time. For her and for her family the rest of the story will never make things better.

For a lot of other people, however, the circumstances of her death were very important: Was she repeatedly shot in cold blood, or was her death the result of a tragic mistake in a complicated war? Was it the story of a callous Israeli officer, or perhaps of a general atmosphere of contempt towards Palestinian lives?

There was no lack of people willing to tell the facts as they were convinced of them. Here, for example, you can read the Guardian's Chris McGreal investigation: he not only knew that Iman had been repeatedly shot in cold blood, but that the IDF would probably not seriously investigate the case, because they almost never do. Six months later, Iman was the poster figure for Ronnie Kasril and Victoria Brittain's call for a boycott against Israel, also in the Guardian. Wikipedia has lots of links to the story, here.

So clear cut did the story seem to be, so obviously bad, that the mainstream Israeli media joined the Guardian and its ilk in describing it. True, the agenda of such a prime-time investigative television program Uvda (Fact!), anchored by Ilana Dayan, a Doctor of Law by training and one of Israel's most respected journalists, was not that Israel is a fascist colonial monster, but rather that the potential rot of war was seeping into the IDF. Still, hers was a powerful voice of condemnation.

Then the story began to unravel. Some of the most damning testimony had come from the officer's subordinates; they eventually admitted they hadn't been accurate. The officer was eventually indicted on some minor charges, then exonerated in court. He then sued Ilana Dayan, the main purveyor of the damning narrative.

Yesterday the court gave a resounding decision in his favor, awarding him NIS300,000 in damages. Amos Harel, reporting in Haaretz, openly admits he doesn't like the court's decision:
Sohlberg's 131-page ruling will become a landmark decision in the history of journalism in Israel, due to the case's extensive publicity and Dayan's prominence. It will also be remembered because Sohlberg, considered a specialist in libel suits and strict when it comes to the media, went too far in dealing not only with the facts of the program, but also going into great detail about the editing process. (For the purposes of proper disclosure, it should be noted that I have been interviewed by Dayan on the radio and on television, and two of my reports on the affair are quoted in the ruling.)
Harel's column alludes to fundamental questions about how journalists cast their tales, and the liberties they sometimes take in editing the materials they have so as to be compelling.

Some of the other shortcomings the judge found and the weight he attached to them, will certainly result in another round in court. Had R. been so clearly damaged, in the mind of the reasonable viewer, by the scene with the jeeps? Was Dayan's leaving 10 months off the age of the 13-year-old victim, as the judge ruled, a flaw or a technical matter? Is the combination of an image of Palestinians removing the girl's body from the scene of the shooting, and a segment of field radio communication recorded on another occasion unacceptable, as the judge found?

Yesterday, watching the report again, I saw it differently than the judge. I saw that it was edited and broadcast somewhat hastily, in quite a dramatic and exaggerated tone. I also noticed mistakes, for example footage of machine-gun fire that was not taken during the actual incident. (Dayan admitted to this mistake, a week after the program aired.) Is the bottom line that the report deviated from the truth, as Sohlberg ruled? With all due respect, I am not convinced.

"Is the combination of an image of Palestinians removing the girl's body from the scene of the shooting, and a segment of field radio communication recorded on another occasion unacceptable, as the judge found?" Shouldn't the answer be a clear, flat, unequivocal, extremely obvious YES? The journalist took footage from two separate occasions which were in no way related, and strung them together to create a lie, and Harel thinks it's legitimate?

The troubling part of the tale - beyond the death of the little girl, of course - is that democracy really needs investigative journalists; it really needs a press corps that is intelligently and professionally skeptical of the authorities. A society at war really does have to have voices that don't automatically accept the narration of the powers that be; it even needs the knee-jerk contrarians, whose starting point is that the reigning narrative is all wrong. Even the contrarians, however, have to be able to recognize the supremacy of fact over ideology, of truth over agenda.

Then, there's the matter that the authorities often have better tools than anyone else to fully investigate what really happened. In this case, the stampede to convict briefly threatened to send an officer of the IDF to jail for behaving as he didn't.

1 comment:

Bryan Z said...

A conservative talk show host (I believe it was Bill O'Reilly, but I'm not sure) spliced footage of a rather meager protest on Capitol Hill with a much, much larger protest from two months previous hosted by the odious Glenn Beck. He was called on it by comedy-news show The Daily Show host John Stewart, Bill O'Reilly barely apologized, and nobody made a big deal about this.

Shouldn't we be more concerned about the ethics demonstrated by our journalists? How are situations like these not abrogations of truth, to be universally condemned?