(Esther Schapira is a German journalist who works for German public TV. She has produced two documentaries on the al-Dura fraud. At the special request of Philippe Karsenty, she testified at his appellate trial against Charles Enderlin and France 2 on January 16th, 2013.)
Why I Won’t Sue You
Before this story brought us together, your name didn’t mean anything to me — like to the rest of the world outside France — and if I could have chosen, it would have stayed like that. After we first met in 2001 I just thought of you as a man with bad behavior, an old bully. Back then I had contacted you because we were filming a documentary on Mohammed Al-Dura, which aired in 2002. I thought I would get support from you as a colleague working for a company which is closely linked to ARD, our television network in Germany. Instead, you threatened to sue me should I dare to accuse you or your company of having lied or fabricated anything. This came as a real surprise to me, because I hadn’t said anything like this, and I had no suspicions up until that moment.
This was more than 10 years ago, and we both have grown older, as I could see when we met again in a courtroom in Paris. You as the plaintiff, I as a witness. It was our fourth encounter, and each time it got worse. The older you get, it seems, the more stubborn you are. It was always unpleasant, so I preferred to avoid any contact. Quite frankly, this is one of the reasons why I decided not to sue you after you published your lies about me in your book, Un Enfant est mort, and this is also why I didn’t even write to you before. I simply didn’t want to waste my time with you, and I didn’t want any contact. However, I could not avoid meeting you again because of that stupid trial of yours against Philippe Karsenty, meant to silence all the critics.
It may sound silly to you, but as a journalist I feel personally insulted by your behavior because it is a disgrace for our profession. As journalists we have the duty to find out the truth and tell it. We are not part of any campaign. We are eyewitnesses and we tell our audience what we have seen, what we heard, and what we found out. We ask critical questions and we insist on getting answers. We act according to our best belief — or at least we should. And when we get criticised, when people question our work, when they have doubts and even when they attack us in an unfair way, we have to deal with that by giving more and better and more convincing answers, by presenting more facts. And if we don’t take them seriously because their reaction seems to us to be completely unjustified, we just raise an eyebrow and let them do what they think they must do because this is the freedom of expression, freedom of speech, the essence of democracy.
This is what I did when I read what you wrote about me in your book: let him talk, let him write. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t work in the kitchen. But of course there is also criticism that can’t be ignored, that needs to be dealt with, because it presents new aspects and questions we might have overlooked. After all, we can’t be sure that we don’t make mistakes. It may happen that we tell lies because we believe them; this is not a problem as long as we are honest enough to admit mistakes and to correct them.
Unfortunately, this seems to be a major problem for many journalists. For you it is obviously impossible.
This could be ignored and seen as a private problem that your wife and friends have to cope with if you had chosen to report about the competition for the prettiest rabbit or the slowest cyclist at the Tour de France. But unfortunately, you are a correspondent in the Middle East, in a political hotspot, in Israel. Meanwhile, I learned that you are even a respected and famous figure in French journalism and people believe what you say. Based upon your reporting, they judge. When it comes to Israel many people have a prefabricated opinion anyhow, they know that Israel is guilty and the Palestinians are innocent victims, and they are looking for images to fill the stereotype in their head.
On the 30th of September 2000, you delivered the final proof: the filmed death of a child in his father’s lap, being shot dead by Israeli soldiers in front of a camera. Yet you knew of course that the child was still moving when you said the famous words: “l’enfant est mort.”
After more then ten years and after two documentaries I have completed during that time, after so much research, all I know for sure is that there is no proof that Mohammed Al-Dura is dead. We simply don’t know what happened to him after your cameraman Talal Abu Rahme filmed him. Let’s hope that he is still alive. That would be the best, of course, first and foremost for him. He might have survived, he might be 23 years old now, he might be a member of the Facebook generation and he might even have taken part in the Arab Spring in Egypt. Who knows? We do know, however, that the story is very different from the way you told it. We know that this false story killed people because it became a major tool of propaganda and was used as a justification for murder, as in the slaughter of Daniel Pearl.
And I know you are a liar. If you lie on purpose, or if you tell a lie because you are a bad journalist and don’t know the truth, it doesn’t matter. The result is the same. You tell lies and I want your audience to know this as well, and I am going to prove this.
This is why after all this time I have changed my mind, and why, after our new encounter, when once again you called me a “militant journalist,” I decided to write this open letter to you. No worry, I am not going to tell once more why your story on Mohammed Al-Dura is wrong. This was what I did in my documentaries, and for good reason, you and your company didn’t sue me as “Charles big mouth” had threatened he would after the second film had aired. No, quite simply, I’ll talk about the passage in your book where you write about me. I could take nearly every sentence and show how wrong you are, what a cheap mixture of insinuations, generalizations, and false statements it is, but it is not worth the effort. Instead I’ll take a few examples that speak for the rest.
You write twice that I never went to Gaza. This is wrong. I went three times to the Gaza Strip and to Gaza City. The first time was in 1998, when we did several films for ARTE because of the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel. I came without a TV crew for a report about a Palestinian worker living in Gaza and working in Israel. We also did a report about a Bedouin Village in Gaza. And I did a 30-minute interview with Suha Arafat, the wife of Yasser Arafat, in their private home in Gaza.
I also went with Joschka Fischer — back then the foreign minister of Germany — to the West Bank and to Gaza when he visited the area while I accompanied him with a film crew for a film portrait. Last but not least, I went to the settlement Netzarim, to the Netzarim military base and to the Israeli outpost at Netzarim for the film you know best: Three Bullets and a Dead Child — who killed Mohammed al Durah?
You write that neither this, nor our second film The Child, the Death and the Truth — The Mystery of the Palestinian Boy Mohammed al Durah, has been sold to any other country. This is false. The first film has been sold to nine countries: Belgium, France, the Dominican Republic, Luxembourg, Australia, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Andorra. The second film has been sold to five countries: Switzerland, Taiwan, Israel, Croatia, and Poland.
You quote Dr. Tawil, whom you have referred to now, more than nine years after the fact, as saying he couldn’t remember what he told which camera crew, but the important thing was what he read at the death certificate. Well, we did the interview with Dr. Tawil shortly after the event: back then his memory was fresh, and he could remember well and vividly what happened on the 3oth of September. He was certain that it was around 10 a.m. when two dead people arrived, a boy and a man. He was sure about that, and he would not forget or mix it up because he knew the dead man quite well. He was an ambulance driver. The boy he did not know, and he only heard his name much later. The timing of course is crucial because, as you yourself write, correctly for once, at this time the shooting at the junction had not even started.
Furthermore: what is your explanation for the arrival of the boy together with the ambulance driver, when according to Talal Abu Rahme, Mohammed and Jamal Al-Dura were taken to the hospital together in the ambulance?
You ask where I got the image of Mohammed Al-Dura on the stretcher being taken into the Shifa hospital. I answered this question already when your company asked, and I even said so in the film: we got it from a Palestinian journalist in Gaza back then, in 2001. It is part of a Palestinian documentary about Mohammed al-Dura which aired on Palestinian TV shortly afterwards.
I am astonished that you didn’t have it. It was as available as the filmed material inside the Netzarim military outpost and the aerial shots which we got from the Tsahal Archive. Every journalist could have it. It was just a question of asking and researching. It was a question of good journalistic work. We got it, you did not. That is the difference.
You complain that we showed Philippe Karsenty while he was jogging and Dr. Yehuda David in the operation theater to make them more likeable and credible, whereas Prof. Raphael Walden, Arlette Chabot, and you were just shown in an office. You forget to tell your readers: it was your decision where you were filmed, as it was Arlette Chabot’s and Prof. Walden’s, and we showed you working in the editing room as well. If this doesn’t count for your credibility, it is due to you.
I could continue, but it is not worth the effort. I have said now what I felt should be said. All I want to add is that I pity you. You shot yourself in the foot, and you continue doing so because of your vanity. Yes, you are getting old, but maybe with age comes wisdom, or the courage to try something new before it is too late.
Try to save your reputation. Try to admit a mistake. Try the truth. If you feel like doing so, let me know. Then we’ll meet for the fifth time. This, then, would be a meeting I look forward to.