Al Jazeera and the Boundaries between Journalism and Fiction

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.”

lebanese al durah

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.

9 Responses to Al Jazeera and the Boundaries between Journalism and Fiction

  1. Abu Nudnik says:

    This is a good antidote to thoughtless cynics who claim all news is propaganda.

  2. Phil S. says:

    Speaking about thoughtless cynics, I know someone who thinks that that billboard (“From your blood, the sun arises”) is a fake. Do you have more information on that billboard? Perhaps a link to a Lebanese website, or something? I’d love to prove this person wrong. Even if you don’t have any information on it, I still won’t doubt its authenticity. Thanks.

  3. Weds. Morning

    Michelle is back home. So soon? I was hoping for a longer stay, with more good stuff from Iraq.Tancredo cannot win, but he has the force of ideas. I’d say the same about Newt.How to get rid of cosmolene. It’s like vasolene. MassBackwards is building…

  4. ellen says:

    the billboard is not a fake, it’s from the archives at Reuters (on second thought, perhaps reuters was playing with photoshop again.)

  5. Eliyahu says:

    The legend on the billboard in Arabic is: “B’ni. . . min damka shams — Filastin”
    This means: My son, from your blood sun — Filastin.

    I don’t why anybody informed & honest would doubt the authenticity of this billboard. The Arabs [especially palestinian authority TV & radio, plus school teachers & mosque preachers in PA zones] have long spoken in terms of the redemptive quality of blood. The Arabs even have a chant: b’rukh b’dam. . . [in spirit, in blood, we will redeem you O Filastin!]

  6. RL says:

    i’m really interested in why this person thinks it’s a fake. what are the elements that lead him or her to suspect it. and if it’s a fake, who made it? and why? i have trouble imagining who would go to the effort of faking this and why?


  7. Cynic says:

    i’m really interested in why this person thinks it’s a fake.

    An attempt psychologically at defense?
    To dismiss out of hand that which disturbs them but are unable to excuse?

  8. Justin says:

    Fiction? Wow, you need to get off from behind your computer and spend a year or so in the military over there.

    Seriously what you need to do is put a giant Swastika on your page, that is really what this page is about racial superiority.

    Your using the EXACT same techniques the Nazi’s did, when Jews in Germany tryed to cry out loud about their treatment, many treated them as liars trying to get into the peoples “emotions”

    And then to boot you use allegory to depict Arabs – your site picture is a man fighting this evil monster – what does that “evil” inhuman monster represent? Arabs.

    So yup, time to put up that Swastika man. You may think your clever, but this is nothing more then a racial superiority site.

  9. مجدي عبد الرحمن الشيخ says:

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