16 June 2005

When the Stars and Stripes Scooped L'Humanité in Algeria

On May 8, 1945, the day the [World War II] armistice was signed, Muslim Algerians paraded in most of the cities of Algeria, with banners bearing the slogan "Down with fascism and colonialism." In Sétif, the police fired on Algerian demonstrators, who countered by attacking police officers and Europeans. It was the beginning of a spontaneous uprising, supported by the PPA [Algerian People's Party] militants of Constantinois. In the rural areas, peasants revolted in La Fayette, Chevreuil, Kherrata, and Oued Marsa. Among the Europeans, 103 were listed as killed and 110 wounded. On May 10, the authorities organized a true "war of reprisals"--to borrow the Algerian historian Mahfoud Kaddache's expression--which turned into a massacre. Shootings and summary executions among the civilian population continued for several days under the direction of General Duval. Villages were bombed by the air force, and the navy fired on the coast. The French general Tubert spoke of 15,000 killed among the Muslim population. Algerian nationalists put forward the figure of 45,000 dead.
SOURCE: Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History, by Benjamin Stora (Cornell U. Press, 2001), pp. 21-22
The French Communist newspaper L'Humanité, obsessed with purging Vichyites in North Africa, and yet to develop its anti-colonialist stance, readily accepted the possibility that the [Sétif] affair was the work of Hitlerian elements: "Energetic action was taken in North Africa against Fifth Column criminals." American and British correspondents also accepted the official account. "Rumours of food riots are confirmed in Paris by the Cabinet," said the New York Times. "At Sétif what was described by the Governor General as 'Hitlerian elements' attacked the population while it was celebrating VE day. Troops were used." Reynolds News even provided details: "Several people were killed when armed bands of Arabs, led by a violently anti-French party known as Manifesto marched down from the mountains on the Town of Setif and fired on the crowd." Only the Christian Science Monitor's correspondent Egon Karkeline questioned the official version. "Despite the veil of censorship with which the French government has surrounded the recent riots in Algiers," he wrote, "it is manifest that these disturbances had a serious character."

Then, more than a month after the French attack, the United States Army newspaper Stars and Stripes blew the whole story wide open. The Rome edition of the paper, quoting sources in Casablanca, gave a reasonably accurate account of what had occurred, hedging only with "the true picture of events and their cause was obscure." The Stars and Stripes version was picked up and reprinted in the New York Times, the Manchester Guardian, the London Daily Telegraph, and many other newspapers. This sent Ch.-Andre Julien of the Socialist official daily, Le Populaire, after the story, and on June 28 he wrote the first account in France to give anything like the true picture of what had happened: "Senegalese and Legionnaires were allowed to massacre at will around Sétif. Their path could be followed by trails of fire. In the Jijelti region, where there had been no disorders, other Senegalese murdered and burned at leisure. Planes scattered bombs on Arab tent camps. The military gave the number of victims as between six and eight thousand." This report brought revised figures from the Ministry of the Interior. The "more than 100" casualties now became 1,200, and it was officially admitted that 50,000 Arabs had taken part in the events of May 8.

All this time there had been an eye-witness account of the first trouble in Sétif. Pierre Dubard of Le Figaro had watched the demonstration and had seen the police violence, but he was unable to get his story past the censor until July 7, two months after the event. When it finally appeared, it confirmed not only Le Populaire's story, but also most of what had appeared in Stars and Stripes. French official sources were completely discredited, the danger of accepting government statements at face value was amply illustrated, and the manner in which each newspaper's political line had influenced its version of the Sétif attack had been clearly shown.
SOURCE: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, by Phillip Knightley, with an introduction by John Pilger (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000; first published in 1975), pp. 393-394

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