San Francisco Chronicle
Posted by San Francisco Chronicle on September 13, 2012 in News Clips
Clips of an anti-Muslim film that has been linked to the attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya that killed diplomat J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans are more powerful than any recent Hollywood release. Even though its alleged creator remains a mystery, the bargain-bin production values and ham-fisted acting in the film's 14-minute YouTube trailer make many people doubt its alleged $5 million price tag.
But all that is beside the point in an uncurated, unfiltered media environment where anybody able to upload footage to the YouTube.com video-sharing platform can be a Spielberg - complete with the power to trigger an international incident and affect a presidential campaign.
The world is full of provocateurs of all stripes who will take full advantage of the new media rules of engagement to promote their ideology.
"We are in a completely different era now where things get amplified before a story becomes a story," said Jamal Dajani, the Peabody Award-winning journalist who is an expert on Middle East media. The video clips "came without context, so it was left for others to add whatever context they wanted," Dajani said.
The Arab Spring revolutions that toppled dictatorships across the Middle East last year were organized and fomented largely through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But some of those social media sites - aided by text messages and face-to-face conversations - are also being linked to the latest incident.
Initial reports of the attacks on U.S. missions Tuesday in Cairo and Benghazi said that Muslim demonstrators were upset with depictions of the prophet Muhammad in a 14-minute clip of a film called "Innocence of Muslims."
Depicting Muhammad at all is considered offensive to many Muslims. The movie clips refer to the prophet being a "murderous thug," a child slave trader, gay, and a serial adulterer. The first line of dialogue in the clip comes from a soldier: "For your knowledge, our prophet had 61 wives, 11 at the same time. He even had a girlfriend."
A collection of several clips, without context and presumably from the film, were posted on YouTube in July by someone with the user name "Sam Bacile." Several media outlets couldn't confirm his identity Wednesday, and no one with that name has a filmmaking history on Imdb.com, the widely used database site of filmmakers and actors.
The film was screened at least once at a Hollywood cinema, the Los Angeles Times reported, but most of its influence comes from the clips that have been viewed on YouTube more than 200,000 times as of Wednesday.
A member of the film crew, who asked not to be identified for security purposes, said in a statement sent to CNN Wednesday: "The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer. We are 100 percent not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose. We are shocked by the drastic rewrites of the script and lies that were told to all involved."
The clip languished, largely unwatched on YouTube until it was translated into Arabic in early September. Then came reports that Muslim activists incensed by the film were massing outside the U.S. Embassy in Libya. A confrontation turned violent, and four Americans, including Stevens, were killed Tuesday.
But National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said, "There is a lot of press speculation for who did this and why, but at this stage it would be premature to ascribe any motive to this reprehensible act."
Google, which owns YouTube, blocked access to the clip in Egypt and Libya Wednesday. The company said that the decision to pull the clip "can be a challenge, because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere."
"This video - which is widely available on the Web - is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt, we have temporarily restricted access in both countries," the company said.
It can be unconstitutional, and technologically difficult, for a government to censor the speech of such filmmakers. But some analysts, like Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, wonder "Where is the line here?"
"If something calls for violence, that's one thing," said Greenberg, a professor of law. "But to what extent does the responsibility for what happens belong to the creator, and to what extent does it belong to the people who take these images and run with them?"
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington think tank, suggested that responsible parties from all countries use shame to chill the purveyors of such incendiary content.
"It will be difficult to silence them, as there will always be people who want to create wedge issues between people. But we can shame them into silence."
Added Rick Nelson, director off the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism program at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington: "There is a value to the culture - the movies, the TV shows - that the U.S. exports to the world. It shows the openness of America - and that's what attracts people to want to come here."
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