An Al Jazeera reporter has been detained in Egypt for possessing staged scenes of torture by the Egyptian police. The response of al Jazeera’s Egyptian bureau chief shows just how little this organization understands the difference between journalism and theater. (Hat-tip LGF)
Sat Jan 13, 9:14 PM ET
CAIRO, Egypt – Egyptian authorities on Saturday detained an Al-Jazeera journalist for fabricating scenes of torture staged inside mock Egyptian police stations, but the pan-Arab network said the footage was created with actors for a documentary film.
Producer Howaida Taha Matwali, an Egyptian, was banned earlier this past week from traveling to Qatar, the headquarters of the Al-Jazeera network, after airport police seized 50 videotapes she was carrying in her luggage, an Interior Ministry statement said.
Prosecutors ordered her detention Saturday for further questioning, a police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
An arts committee affiliated with the Interior Ministry viewed the tapes and said they showed “unedited scenes of fabricated torture incidents, and assaults by individuals wearing police uniforms on others playing roles of male and female suspects inside studios decorated to look like police stations,” the statement said. The tapes have not been made public.
This is a good description of one kind of Pallywood. Call it level 5, with level 1 being the primitive, fall-down-get-carried-in-front-of-cameras-make-it-into-the-news. Sets, directors, actors, possibly scripts.
The Al-Jazeera bureau chief in Egypt, Hussein Abdel-Ghani, said the footage was “reconstruction” which Matwali intended to use in a documentary film about torture in Egypt.
Reconstructing scenes with actors “is a well-known method in the production of documentaries, and Al-Jazeera is not the only network to talk about torture,” Abdel-Ghani said.
This is a well-known method in the Arab world, perhaps, but not acceptable in the West where standards are supposed to distinguish between documentaries (real footage), and fiction. The problem came out in the case of a series of “documentaries” by the Palestinian filmmaker Hany abu-Assad, in particular Ford Transit, which won prizes as a documentary despite having been done by actors. Abu-Assad’s response was to say the film is “100% fiction and 100% documentary”.
The “slippery slope” between realistic reconstruction and grotesque distortion is nowhere more visible than the remarks of the PATV official who explained why his organization had inserted a picture of an Israeli soldier into the footage of Muhammad al Durah to illustrate the libel of intentional murder of an innocent child:
“These are forms of artistic expression, but all of this serves to convey the truth… We never forget our higher journalistic principles to which we are committed of relating the truth and nothing but the truth.”
The results can be seen in this billboard that appeared in Lebanon shortly after the footage was “fixed.”
The gap between Middle-Eastern standards of journalism and Western professional standards cannot be underestimated. Without understanding the difference, we cannot assess the accuracy of what comes to us from Middle Eastern sources, despite the extensive claims of “professional” media outfits like al Jazeera to the contrary.
He said the detained journalist had twice obtained permission from the Egyptian Interior Ministry to interview police officers about torture.
Al-Jazeera said on its Arabic Web site that Egyptian prosecutors accused Matwali of “filming footage that harms the national interest of the country; possessing and giving pictures contradicting the truth, and giving a wrong description of the situation in the country.”
Rights groups say torture, including sexual abuse, is routinely conducted in Egyptian police stations and in the interrogation of prisoners.
The government denies systematic torture, but has investigated several officers on allegations of torture. Some were convicted and sentenced to prison.
So we move from staged “documentary” footage to “fake but accurate,” as the NYT article headlined the discussion of Dan Rather’s “memo” on George Bush.
I do not doubt that Egyptian officials use torture, just as I do not doubt that al Jazeera and other Arab filmmakers don’t understand the difference between fiction and documentary. The real issue is, what do we, as outsiders looking in, make of these phenomena. In both cases — torture and staging — we do not know the extent of the problem. The purpose of journalism is to give us a realistic sense of both. So far, we live in an echo chamber created by our own unwillingness to apply the standards that made Western journalism one of the pillars of civil society, to cultures that have a long way to go before they can start playing by those rules.
We cannot afford such indulgence because it blinds us, even as it gives full license to our imaginations to believe whatever pleases us. Reality testing is a painful, often distasteful, if necessary activity. We cannot do it under conditions where “fake but accurate” is an easy response to this kind of behavior.