The decision by Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV not to air footage filmed by a Toulouse gunman as he carried out attacks in southern France last week came on a day of personal pleas from the Jewish and Muslim families of the victims and by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“I ask of those in charge of all the TV channels in possession of these images not to broadcast the images under any pretext out of respect for the victims and out of respect for the republic,” said Mr. Sarkozy, who is in the middle of presidential campaign, on Tuesday.
Al Jazeera TV, which is backed by the wealthy ruling family of the Gulf state of Qatar, has been criticized for being a destination of choice for al-Qaeda videos and statements by terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. There is also a perception that the network airs gruesome videos such as the beheadings of western hostages during the height of the Iraq war.
The network has denied such allegations in the past, arguing that it does not broadcast footage of killings that have been posted on the Internet by militants, although it has aired videos showing western hostages pleading at gunpoint – something western news organization have also done.
Since January 2011, the network has been at the centre of the Arab spring uprisings, as Tunisian protesters filming a brutal police crackdown on peaceful protests sent their footage to Al Jazeera TV to publicize their cause.
On Tuesday, Al Jazeera TV faced a major test over how it would handle potentially explosive footage of a killing spree that has shocked France.
The network announced that its Paris bureau had received a video from an anonymous source and that it had immediately passed the video on to “French police as we were duty bound to do and they are conducting their investigation,” according to a statement from the network.
“In accordance with Al Jazeera’s code of ethics, given the video does not add any information that is not already in the public domain, its news channels will not be broadcasting any of its contents.”
On hearing the news, President Sarkozy thanked Al Jazeera for its decision. France and Qatar enjoy strong relations, cemented by the military campaign in Libya, in which both countries took part. A decision to air the footage would have strained those relations.
Whether other copies of the video were mailed to news organizations remains unclear. However, Al Jazeera said Tuesday that it had declined requests from other news organizations for copies of the video.
The decision not to air the footage caps a dramatic day as details of the video were shared with French media. The Paris bureau of Al Jazeera TV said it had received a USB key with 25 minutes of footage that had been mixed with Koranic verses and religious songs.
“You can hear gunshots at the moment of the killings. You can hear the voice of this person who has committed these assassinations. You can hear also the cries of the victims, and the voices were distorted,” said Al Jazeera Paris bureau chief Zied Tarrouche on Tuesday, while speaking to French TV station BFM.
At the time, Mr. Tarrouche said the decision over whether or not to air the video would be made by senior management at the network’s Doha headquarters.
“We are not a sensational network, we do not want to distribute images without measuring the risks and the consequences,” Mr. Tarrouche was quoted as saying.
The post stamp on the video indicates that it was mailed last Wednesday around the time of a 32 hour siege that ended with French forces raiding 23-year-old Mohammed Merah’s apartment, as the gunman leapt from his apartment, still firing at French police. Mr. Merah was shot and killed by police.
According to AFP, French authorities now believe that Mr. Merah did not mail the video to Al Jazeera and that an accomplice was responsible.
Mr. Merah first targeted French paratroopers killing three soldiers in two separate shootings. Two of the paratroopers were Muslim. Last Monday, he attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse killing a teacher and three children, all under the age of ten.
The mother of Imed Ibn Ziaten, one of the paratroopers killed by Mr. Merah, pleaded with the Al Jazeera not to show the footage.
“I ask them not to show the footage. My son was killed, a 30-year-old child. And people want to show it as if it were a film. Please, I can’t see that,” she said, according to AFP.
“We were about to go to Imed’s grave to mourn. I don’t need this, they don’t have the right to do that, you can’t do that. We’ve suffered enough.”
A lawyer representing the family of Jewish teacher Jonathan Sandler warned that the family would take legal action to stop any broadcast of the film footage. The lawyer asked that the media “respect their pain and their mourning.”